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Scuba Diving in Lake Malawi, One of the Best Fresh Water Diving Locations in the World
As the sun sets over the glistening surface of Lake Malawi, three divers emerge near the rocky outcrop of Masimbwe Island, off Likoma Island in Lake Malawi. Excitedly they return to the boat, take out their kit and discuss the fish they saw on the short trip back to shore. With clean white beaches and pure blue water stretching as far as the eye can see, you are constantly reminding yourself that you are not diving in the Caribbean but in the third largest lake in Africa. With over 1000 different species of cichlid fish, as well as cat fish and even otters, it’s no wonder Lake Malawi is cited as one of the best freshwater diving locations in the world.
Malawi is a landlocked country in the southern region of Africa and is bordered by Tanzania to the north, Zambia to the west, and Mozambique to the east and south. The third largest lake in Africa and the ninth largest in the world, it dominates the landscape to the east. Lake Malawi is known as the Lake of the Stars, due to its impressive ability to reflect star constellations at night in its crystal clear fresh water. The lake is important to the country not only as a means of transport but also as a source of both food and water. As a scuba diver, its importance lies in its remarkable abundance of different fish species—making it one of the most biologically diverse freshwater environments in the world.
Lake Malawi has more endemic species of cichlid fish than any other lake (about 1000). Researchers have identified more than 500 species endemic to Lake Malawi to date, which is more than all the freshwater species found in both Europe and North America. Cichlids from Lake Malawi, perhaps even more so than those from the other two rift lakes, Victoria and Tanganyika, are brightly colored and patterned. Cichlids have evolved from the hundreds of species found today, coexisting in lagoon ecosystems. Variable species have evolved differential feeding techniques to increase productivity. Some species have developed special teeth to extract algae from rocks or aquatic plants. Others use sand filtration techniques to sift aquatic animals or invertebrates from the sand. Special species are also found in using snails, plants and fish.
One of the most fascinating sightings on dives is the protective appearance of mouth breeders, highlighted in the BBC documentary series ‘Planet Earth’. Lake Malawi cichlids are among the relatively small number of fish that care for and protect their offspring. Mothers keep their eggs and fry in their mouths until the juveniles are old enough to fend for themselves. Even at this stage, in many species, the baby fry stay close to their mother in a tight shawl, when at the first sign of danger from predators, she opens her mouth and the whole baby is taken in for safety. As with many mouth breeders, the males do not have parental care; After spawning, they move on to find another female. Males are often seen excavating giant spawning pits – large round pits – in the sand, at water depths of about 2–20 m (6–65 ft) – to attract the next female to divers.
Other species in Lake Malawi have developed some very unique hunting adaptations, which make them interesting to watch while diving. At least two species attract small fish by feigning death and lying motionless in the sand! They are nicknamed the “play-dead fish”. The largest fish seen while diving is the Campango. Growing up to 2 meters in length, the campango is a large, territorial and predatory catfish of Lake Malawi, found from the lower reaches of rivers to the deepest habitable parts of the lake. A nocturnal predator, it feeds largely on small cichlids. Juveniles feed mainly on eggs laid by the female, and when a bit older the male helps the young find invertebrates in and around the nest site, which both parents will guard. If you are lucky enough to find a pair of catfish with young, you will see perfectly formed miniature catfish – up to 80 of them in one nest! The Campango is curious and will approach various people that enter its territory, especially when breeding.
Lake Malawi is a freshwater environment; As a result, corals do not grow on the reefs. However, this does not mean that there is no plant life. Lake Malawi has endemic species and species of freshwater sponges, Malawispongia echinoides. This small colonial animal is found nowhere else on earth.
About a third of the lake’s shores are rocky, with herbivorous cichlids, mbuna, as well as the occasional freshwater eel. These underwater rock formations make amazing dive sites with countless swim and drop-off walls. The rest of the coastline is characterized by sandy beaches and bottoms. This is where most open-water piscivores (eating other fish), called haps, live. A few cichlid species live on muddy and weedy bottoms where large rivers flow into the lake.
Lake Malawi is unusual in that it does not have tides or strong currents, making it the perfect environment for open water training. Diving is possible all year round. However, between August and November, the lake is calmest when there is very little wind. At this time the water temperature can rise up to 30 degrees Celsius, the visibility is about 20 meters. With these conditions, light or lightweight 3-5mm wetsuits are perfectly fine in this freshwater paradise. Given that Lake Malawi sits about 500 meters above sea level, diving at altitude requires special procedures.
Night diving is considered a unique experience in the lake. Dolphin fish, nothing like their namesake, can be seen using the light of divers’ torches to find an easy meal. Numerous different catfish are also seen rising from their day chambers in search of food. Blue crabs can be found on sandy bottoms in shallow water, while a sharp eye can spot tiny freshwater shrimp in and around rocky boulders.
For those divers who prefer to stay on top for those days there is always something to do at Lake Malawi. Kaya Mawa on Likoma Island, an award-winning lodge, offers its guests activities such as sailing, kayaks, bicycles, waterskiing and wakeboarding, round island boat trips and quad bike tours. For the 2012 season, Malawi’s first kite-surfing school has also opened. For keen birdwatchers, Lake Malawi is home to hundreds of species. If you’re lucky, you might spot the Crimson Waxbill or the Majestic Fish Eagle on Likoma Island, swooping down to catch its prey.
There are several international airlines that fly into Malawi, including South African Airways, Kenyan Airways, Air Malawi and Ethiopian Airways. Possible by bus, taxi, rental car, internal transport companies (Ulendo Airlink) and the Ilala ferry, which travels continuously around the lake.
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