3 Plants And 3 Animals That Live In The Ecosystem Scuba Diving in Lake Malawi, One of the Best Fresh Water Diving Locations in the World

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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 shimmering surface of Lake Malawi, three divers emerge near the rocky outcrop of Masimbwe Island, a dive site on Likoma Island in Lake Malawi. Excited they return to the boat, remove their bag and discuss the fish they spotted on the short trip back to shore. With pristine white beaches and clear blue water stretching as far as the eye can see, you constantly remind yourself that you are not diving in the Caribbean, but in the third largest lake in Africa. Along with over 1,000 different species of Cichlid fish, as well as catfish and even otters, it’s no wonder that Lake Malawi has been 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 landscape is dominated along its eastern side by the third largest lake in Africa and the ninth largest in the world. Lake Malawi is known as the Lake of the Stars, due to its impressive ability to reflect the star constellations at night in its crystal clear waters. The lake is of fundamental importance to the country not only as a means of transport, but also as a source of food and water. As a scuba diver, its importance lies in its incredible abundance of different species of fish – making it the most biologically diverse freshwater environment in the world.

Lake Malawi contains a greater variety of native species (about 1,000) of cichlid fish than any other lake. Researchers have so far identified over 500 species that are endemic to Lake Malawi, which is more than all the freshwater species found in all the waters of Europe and North America. Lake Malawi cichlids, perhaps even more than cichlids from the other two rift lakes, Victoria and Tanganyika, are brightly colored and patterned. Cichlids have evolved from a single common species to the hundreds found today, coexisting within the lake’s ecosystem. Variable species have developed differential feeding techniques to maximize productivity. Some species have developed teeth specialized for scraping algae off rocks or aquatic plants. Others use a sand filtration technique to sift aquatic animals or invertebrates from the sand. There are also species specialized in the consumption of snails, plants and fish.

One of the most fascinating phenomena seen in diving is the protective nature of mouthpieces, made famous in the BBC documentary series ‘Planet Earth’. Lake Malawi cichlids are among a relatively small number of fish that care for and protect their offspring. Mothers hold the eggs and fry them in their mouths until the juveniles are large enough to fend for themselves. Even at this stage, in many species, the young stay close to their mother in a tight herd when at the first sign of predation danger, she opens her mouth and the entire brood is taken away for safety. In the case of many of the mouth breeders, the males do not show parental care; after spawning, they move on to find another female. Divers can often see males digging large egg pits – large round craters – in the sand, in water depths of about 2-20 meters (6-65 feet), in order to attract other females.

Other species in Lake Malawi have developed some very unique hunting adaptations that make them fun to observe while diving. At least two species lure small fish within range by feigning death and lying motionless on the sand! These have been given the nickname “Dead Fish in the Game”. One of the largest fish that can be seen while diving is the Kampango. Growing up to 2m in length, the Kampango is a large, territorial and predatory catfish endemic to Lake Malawi, occurring from the lower reaches of the rivers to the deepest habitable parts of the lake. A nocturnal predator, it feeds mainly on smaller cichlids. Juveniles feed mainly on eggs laid by the female, and when they are a little older, the male helps the young search for invertebrates in and around the nest site, which both parents will defend. If you are lucky enough to find a pair of catfish with babies, you will see perfectly formed miniature catfish – up to 80 of them in a nest! The kampango is curious and will approach divers that enter its territory, especially when breeding.

Lake Malawi is a fresh water environment; as a result there is no coral growth on the reef. However, this does not mean that there is no plant life. Lake Malawi boasts an endemic genus and species of freshwater sponge, Malawispongia echinoides. This small colonial animal is found nowhere else on earth.

About a third of the lakes shore is rocky, which is home to vegetarian cichlids, Mbuna, as well as the occasional freshwater eel. These underwater rock formations make for amazing dive sites, including countless swim lanes and slide walls. The rest of the coastline is characterized by beaches and sandy bottoms. This is home to most of the open water piscivores (they eat other fish), called Haps. Some cichlid species inhabit the muddy and weedy bottom where larger rivers empty into the lake.

Lake Malawi is unusual in that it has no tides or noticeably strong currents, making it a perfect environment for open water training. Diving is possible all year round. However, between August and November, the lake is at its calmest, with very little wind. Water temperatures can rise to 30 degrees Celsius during this time, with visibility up to 20 meters. With these conditions, 3-5mm wet rigs with small or weightless systems are perfectly adequate in this freshwater paradise. As Lake Malawi is located at about 500m above sea level, special procedures are required when diving at altitude.

Night diving is certainly considered a unique experience in the lake. Dolphin fish, not unlike their namesake, can be seen using divers’ torchlight to facilitate a light meal. Many different catfish can also be seen rising from the depths of their burrows during the day in search of food. In shallower waters, an abundance of blue crabs can be found on the sandy bottom, while a keen eye can spot tiny freshwater shrimp nestled in and around the rocky boulders.

For those days when divers prefer to stay aloft, there is always something to do in Lake Malawi. Kaya Mawa, an award-winning lodge on Likoma Island, offers activities for its guests, such as sailing, kayaking, biking, water skiing and wakeboarding, round-island boat trips and quad bike tours. For the 2012 season, the first Kite-surfing school in Malawi has also opened. For bird watchers, Lake Malawi is a haven for hundreds of species. If you’re lucky, you might spot the Red-rumped Waxbill, found only on Likoma Island, or the Magnificent Fish Eagle swooping down to catch its prey.

There are several international airlines that fly to Malawi, including South African Airways, Kenyan Airways, Air Malawi and Ethiopian Airways. Domestic transportation is possible by bus, taxi, rental car, domestic flight company (Ulendo Airlink) and the Ilala ferry, which travels a continuous route around the lake.

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