Warm water, superb visibility and a clutch of excellent diving schools make Lake Malawi the ideal choice for a scuba holiday, says Fiona McIntosh
Hovering in the warm, clear water of Lake Malawi, we train our cameras on the multi-hued cichlid and wait for the little fish to perform its party trick. Sensing danger at our approach, the female opens its mouth for its fry to swim in to safety. If we keep still long enough, the process should be reversed, and the rare sight of the tiny babies re-emerging will amply reward our patience.
We’re diving the appropriately named Aquarium, near Cape Maclear. The conditions are so calm it feels as if we’re diving in a massive glass bowl. We can see for miles, or so it seems, through a filter of tiny, colourful fish — splashes of blue, purple, orange and yellow that envelope the boulders and dart in and out of the fissures. Lake Malawi, the ninth largest lake in the world, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the world’s first freshwater marine reserve. About 1000 types of cichlid have been identified here, more than 500 of them unique to the area, so we’re in for a treat.
In the dive briefing we are alerted to some of the ‘specials’, learning to identify them by their unique patterns of dots and bars. I am intrigued by the unusual behaviour exhibited by some of the species; in particular, I want to photograph a mouthbrooder with its fry.
Chelle McLean, our eagle-eyed divemaster from Danforth Lodge, points in the direction of a shadowy crevice in a large boulder. Initially we see nothing, but then there’s a flash of movement. An innocuous-looking predatory cichlid — its blue-and-brown hue providing the perfect camouflage in this rocky habitat — has just ambushed its prey. We keep our eyes peeled, hoping to spot another ‘special’: the ‘play dead’ fish, which lures its next meal by lying motionless in the sand.
To fully appreciate the aquatic life of Lake Malawi you have to know what to look for, move slowly and exercise patience. Even so, diving here is easy and very different to venturing out into the ocean. It’s a superb location for beginners to get certified and intermediates to notch up new qualifications. There’s virtually no current, and the water’s warm, clear and fresh, so it won’t sting your eyes during mask-clearing exercises. In addition to the ‘wow’ factor of the ubiquitous fish, there’s plenty to while away surface intervals, with kayaking, water skiing and Hobie-cat sailing on offer. Equally, hours can be spent strolling along the lakeshore or chilling out on beaches.
We spend the next couple of days diving around Thumbi West Island, admiring the magnificent underwater topography and the staggering variety of colourful cichlids and whiskered catfish. Although the location lacks the magnificent corals and sponges that characterise most ocean sites in Africa, the granite boulders are riddled with caves and swim-throughs. For the more adventurous, there are some deep dives on pinnacles such as Zimbabwe Rocks, as well as a steel hull lying in 30m of water that was deliberately sunk as an artificial reef and penetration wreck dive.
After three days of diving the Cape Maclear region, the next adventure begins: a liveaboard jaunt. We board Mufasa, a luxury catamaran skippered by lodge owner, Captain Howard Massey-Hicks. The 38ft, ocean-going yacht sleeps eight guests in four double cabins.
Our route takes us to the eastern shores, where we drop anchor in Chiofu Bay. With its sandy beach and small fishing village backed by a vegetated hill, it’s typical of the picturesque coves that line the lake. The underwater landscape is astonishing, with some steep drop-offs patrolled by menacing-looking kampango catfish. Sitting out on the deck, G&Ts in hand and the braai lit, we toast another blood-red sunset.
Next we enjoy some exciting dives among the weird vertical columns surrounding Mbenji Island; and the following day we cross to Chizumulu and Likoma, two inhabited Malawian islands, which, due to a twist of historical fate, lie deep in Mozambican territorial waters. When this part of Africa was divided up by the colonial powers at the end of the Second World War, the presence of the British on Likoma ensured that the isles were assigned to Malawi rather than Mozambique.
If the diving in the south of the lake was impressive, here it is mind-blowing. We descend the vertiginous walls of Masimbwe Island, just off the Mozambique coast. There’s a slight current here, hence the varied marine life in this area. And there’s a surprise in store: a submerged etching, resembling the shape of a Hovis loaf, carved into a 27m-deep boulder. “Its presence indicates that the lake level was once much lower than today,” Chelle explains, back on the surface.
After an easy shore entry from the beach in front of Likoma Island’s Kaya Mawa on our penultimate day, we fin gently over the boulders surrounding Honeymoon Island, sighting another trophy: the gorgeous blue-and-black endemic Likoma barred.
A night dive off Ndomo Point, during which we glide through the inky-black water picking out a nest of baby catfish in our torch beams, rounds off a perfect day.
The week has flown by too quickly, but the wily Howard has saved the best until last. Just north of Chizumulu Island is Taiwanee Reef, a seamount rising some 250m from the lakebed. We follow Chelle into a dark tunnel that starts near the surface and emerges at 35m deep. The remoteness, crystal-clear water and the number of cichlid species that we see on this remarkable site leave us wanting more.
As Howard and his crew sail Mufasa back to base, we check in to Kaya Mawa for some pampering before flying home. It has been a thorough immersion in the Warm Heart of Africa, and a trip I’d recommend to novice and experienced divers alike.
What to spot
Lake Malawi contains a greater variety of indigenous cichlids (around 1000 types) than any other lake in the world. Researchers have identified more than 500 to date that are unique to the area — more than all of the freshwater species found in all the waters of Europe and North America combined.
• Mbuna This rock-dwelling fish is a type of cichlid that lives among large piles of rocks along the shoreline. It is usually seen in large groups but is not a schooling fish. In some areas of Lake Malawi, finding 20 fish per square metre is not uncommon.
• Haps This cichlid species is a piscivore (meaning it eats other fish). It has a slender, torpedo-like body, which allows it to burst suddenly into speed and cruise the open water. Most are silver or grey when small, but the males become brightly coloured as they mature. At least two types of haps lure their prey into range by feigning death and lying motionless in the sand, which can be amusing. This behaviour has given them the nickname of the ‘play-dead fish’.
• Kampango This large, territorial and predatory catfish endemic to Lake Malawi is found everywhere from the lower reaches of rivers to the deepest habitable parts of the lake. It feeds at night on small cichlids.
• Chambo There are three endemic species of chambo. In general, they reach a maximum length of around 39cm and feed on algae, detritus and zooplankton. They are maternal mouthbrooders, keeping their fry in mouth cavities until they are able to fend for themselves.
• Getting there Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and South African Airways all fly to Lilongwe and Blantyre.
• Dive logistics There are PADI-registered dive centres at Cape Maclear, Nkhata Bay and Likoma Island. Companies include Danforth Yachting, Cape Maclear Scuba, Kayak Africa and Aqua Africa. All offer dives, equipment hire, scuba courses and accommodation on site or with lodge partners.
• When to go Diving around Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay is best between March and November. Diving around Likoma is pleasant all year round, but the best visibility is between June and December.
• Where to stay There are plenty of options to suit all budgets. Kaya Mawa on Likoma Island is a high-end retreat (doubles from US$650). Kayak Africa offers romantic escapes on Domwe Island (self-catering safari tents from US$120) and Mumbo Island (en-suite chalets from US$460). Danforth Lodge is the luxury option at Cape Maclear (doubles from US$370, full board) and also offers liveaboards; a trip on Mufasa costs US$225 per person per night, full board.
• Health Visit your travel clinic to ensure you have had all the necessary vaccinations.
• Further reading Bradt Guide to Malawi (6th Edition) by Philip Briggs