Lake Malawi - a holiday in a giant aquarium

Anyone who has ever kept colourful Malawi cichlids in their aquarium must want to see these great fish in their natural environment. Lake Malawi is not exactly a package tour destination, even though it is slowly beginning to appear on the itineraries of tour operators. A little flexibility is necessary for a trip to the "world' s largest aquarium", because in Africa the clocks do not tick with Swiss precision. 

Getting there

The journey to Lake Malawi is usually via the capital Lilongwe, which has an international airport. Most flights to Lilongwe are via Johannesburg, South Africa. As flights with connections do not always go according to plan, it’s a good idea to book your long-haul and connecting flights with the same airline as far as possible. If a connection does not work out, the airline is responsible for further assistance. Otherwise not!

From Lilongwe it takes about 3 hours by car or bus to get to the lake. Stuart Grant's ornamental fishing station east of Salima, located directly on the lake, has a small lodge and - very important for all divers - a boat with compressor and scuba tanks! The lodge is the ideal starting point for boat trips to surrounding regions for fish watching.

Beware of parasites

It’s well known that many African waters are notorious for parasites such as schistosomiasis. As I was planning a JBL expedition with 16 people, and because 280,000 people die from it every year, I contacted a tropical doctor who is a specialist in the subject. During our discussions I received the following recommendation: Never go into the water from the beach and certainly not where rivers flow into the lake or where there are a lot of people living. Following this we only used the jetty and the boat to go diving or snorkelling. Interesting too was a conversation with the legendary Stuart Grant at dinner when I asked him about schistosomiasis. He casually told me that he and all his staff have had schistosomiasis! Recognising my horror by the look on my face, he followed up with, "But not from Lake Malawi - from catching killifish and the many small pools where they are found!” What a relief. 

The first dive

Your first dive there or snorkelling in the lake is a memory that will stay with you as long as you live! You jump out from the shore into the lake, and it seems as infinite as an ocean, yet the water tastes - sweet! We (me, at least) always expect visually infinite waters to be oceans and to therefore taste salty. That first moment was really unique. After that, you quickly get used to it. The water is relatively clear, but not crystal clear like the rivers of Florida or rivers in the Pantanal. Visibility is between 10 and 20 metres, depending on the dive site. This is certainly also dependent on the weather, as rain and wind have a strong influence on visibility. 

The freshwater jewels

And here they are: the freshwater jewels, as the cichlids of Lake Malawi are often called. They are everywhere and in incredible numbers. Animal rights activists would have aquarium owners put in jail if they maintained a similar individual density in the aquarium. But in the lake, the animals can always escape upwards into the open water whenever there's a fight over territory. Snorkelling is a great way to experience the beauty of the lake and its inhabitants. Pressurised air divers have just one advantage over snorkelling: they can dive through the snorkelling zone and that of the mbunas (growth-eating cichlids) to a depth of 10 metres and also seek out Haplochromis, Nimbochromis and other haplochromine cichlids in deeper regions. The predators are hardly to be found in the upper water layers. The growth eaters, on the other hand, can only be seen where their food, i.e. the growth, is. This, by the way, consists of very little green algae, it’s more diatoms and Cyanophyta (blue-green algae).  

If you take your boat to more remote regions like Cape Mac Lear, you can enter the lake from the rocky shore. I personally find it particularly fascinating to dive into a habitat from the shore and, when snorkelling, not to be limited to the one-hour supply of air in the compressed air cylinder. You can stay in the water either until your back is red as a lobster or it gets too cold. Lake Malawi is not really warm, by the way. We had 25 °C on the surface in mid-September and only 21 °C at a depth of 42 m. Anyone with experience of 25°C in the Mediterranean knows that it is only a matter of time before it gets cold. A long diving suit with 3 or 5 mm thickness is therefore highly recommended for the sun and the cold. You will also then need a weight belt to dive down, otherwise you will bob around like a buoy on the surface. Free diving is something really special in Lake Malawia. You don't produce any loud air bubbles, so the fish are not at all shy and you can even get very close to peacock cichlids (Trematocranus). You feel like a fish among fish. It really is indescribable. And don't forget a water test! Most people think that Lake Malawi contains hard water. If your general hardness test then shows 5 °dGH on site and the KH test shows 7 °dKH, it’s not because your tests are faulty! It’s well worth visiting Malawi instead of Mallorca!

Travel tips

Ethiopian and South African Airways fly to Lilongwe with stopovers from Frankfurt with a total travel time of approx. 14 h. Prices vary between €900 and €1400, depending on the time of travel. The best time to travel is the dry season from May to September. But October is often still perfect as well. If you type "Lodge Malawi" into Google, you will find accommodation offers on the southern part of Lake Malawi, which is easy to reach from Lilongwe Airport. There are also provisions for divers nowadays, just enter the English search term "Diving Lake Malawi" in Google. If you have a limited luggage allowance, it is very helpful to rent diving equipment on the spot. The electricity is 230V and 50 Hz, just like in Germany. However, you’ll need a UK plug adapter. Tropical institutes recommend the following vaccinations: Cholera, typhoid, poliomyelitis, meningitis (5 serotypes), hepatitis B for longer stays or close contact with the local population and rabies when handling animals.

© 17.04.2022
Heiko Blessin
Heiko Blessin
Dipl.-Biologe

Tauchen, Fotografie, Aquaristik, Haie, Motorrad

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