Life abounds under a big blue canopy

2010-11-26 12:15

Freshwater diving... no thanks, not for me. Just the thought of it used to bring back haunting memories of freezing my toes off on an overcast morning in some dank quarry. Visibility zero, water temperature 6ºC and the air temperature not much better. I had no inclination to drop back into any type of desalinated underwater environment.

That all changed when I stumbled upon Lake Malawi.

Malawi is known for, well, to be honest, beyond Madonna it is known for very little. A small landlocked nation sandwiched between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer, it’s overshadowed by its neighbours Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique.

What Malawi does have, though, is a reputation as the warm heart of Africa which, despite being a monicker incessantly pushed by its tourism industry, is for once quite apt. When crossing into Malawi, there is a tangible sense of being able to drop your guard and not worry about being hassled by the multitude of hawkers. Malawi has more of a chilled-out Caribbean feel, which is only enhanced when any visitor inevitably reaches the shores of its eponymous lake.

Lake Malawi is a continuation of the Great Rift Valley that originates in Syria before diving into the Red Sea on its way south and eventually settling on Malawi’s eastern border. A freshwater body the size of Wales, it acts as a breadbasket to the country.

Like its geological cousin a few thousand kilometres north, the scuba diving is excellent. Though, at an altitude of 470m, special precautions have to be taken. But the water temperature varies from a balmy 24ºC in June to a scorching 30ºC in December, and in the bays of the northern lake shore, visibility is consistently good and can peak at 20m in May. This is certainly not quarry diving.

What makes diving in Malawi beautiful isn’t just the stunning rock formations that are an underwater continuation of the escarpment as it plunges into the lake, but also the endemic cichlids.

Popular as freshwater aquarium fish throughout the world, cichlids have an incredible diversity. As a fish that develops remarkably quickly, combined with being fiercely territorial, different species have evolved to produce a lake more diverse in fish life than any other. More than a thousand different types have been accounted for, with more constantly discovered.

In Africa, cichlids can also be found in Lake Tanganyika, and were once prevalent in Lake Victoria until hungry Nile Perch with a taste for cichlid flesh were introduced as an ill-fated fishing enterprise. If you want to see the African cichlid in its habitat, then Lake Malawi is your best bet.

With several diving schools stretched from Nkhata Bay in the north to Cape Maclear in the south, via both islands of Chizimulu and Likoma, accessibility and equipment hire certainly aren’t problems. Neither is accommodation, with all diving spots situated in the vicinity of rooms to suit all tastes and budgets.

Cichlid species vary remarkably between different locations, and in many diving spots you can be safe in the knowledge that some of the fish you are swimming with cannot be found anywhere else in the world. This has led to aquarium enthusiasts paying hundreds of dollars for one rare specimen.

To cichlid laymen, however, they all simply look small and pretty. A multitude of different tropical colours on show, as various cichlids graze on rock algae. Fish of deep blue and purple shimmering through the translucent waters, complemented by others of bright yellows and whites.

The only time prior to diving Lake Malawi that I had witnessed mouthbreeders was on the big screen while watching Finding Nemo. In the lake, I couldn’t go on a dive without seeing them several times. I don’t think anyone could get bored of viewing this instinctual phenomenon: females lay their eggs and then scoop them in their mouths for protection, where they are fertilised and born.

Once on safe ground, they will release their brood of up to 100 and keep a watchful eye for predators while they feed and the young develop their first tentative fins. If they feel threatened, they swim up to the brood, open their mouths, and in two or three sweeps all the young form a tight clump and swim into their mothers’ beckoning mouth.

And the unique diving experiences don’t stop when the sun goes down. Aqua Africa in Nkhata Bay, a long-standing diving school with a good reputation for competent teaching and safety standards, has built up an exceptional relationship with the nocturnal predators of the lake. The dolphin fish there have learnt to use the regular night divers by using their torchlight to make their hunts more effective. I was fortunate enough to join them.

Leaving the Aqua Africa jetty at sundown, we leisurely motored the five minutes to Playground Point, situated off the end of the peninsula that splits the bay in two. The shrill of cicadas on land strangely complemented by the cacophony of dubious African pop filtering from various drinking dens in town. Replacing the sounds of dusk with the sounds of bubbles, we followed the anchor line to a large sandy patch surrounded by red rocks.

As if on cue, 10 to 12 dolphin fish with no sense of personal space were ducking and diving between us, seemingly revving themselves up at the promise of a good feed. Reaching up to a metre in length with small eyes and a snarly snout, the dolphin fish rely on electric sensors to track their prey, unless of course there is a ­­
torch-wielding diver at hand.

The elusive Kampango catfish, with its shark-like dorsal fin, often makes an appearance, as do a multitude of fresh water crabs scavenging the ocean floor for any morsel they can find. Wiser cichlids shelter in the deep cracks of imposing boulders and tiny freshwater shrimp in shallower fissures.

Back at the sandy patch for our safety stop, we turn our torches off. Silence but for our breath, as we stare at the clean night sky from 5m down.

With no saltwater to irritate your eyes or dry your mouth, minimal current, little surge and decent visibility; Lake Malawi is an entry-level diver’s dream. A perfect environment to hone diving skills before heading to spectacular higher-octane diving sites in the less predictable and unforgiving waters of the nearby Indian Ocean.

With a floor of rock and sand, students with buoyancy issues can lay their fins or bums on the lake floor without fear of destroying a swathe of coral or being stung.

Most visitors are backpackers, attracted to the cheap open-water courses and the ­laidback lifestyle of dusty Nkhata Bay.

Diving in the north of the lake isn’t as seasonal as in the south. As it is sheltered by a natural harbour, there is usually protection from the easterly August winds. Tropical rains usually start by mid-November and continue until April, though never enough to stop a dive.

Lake Malawi has made me re-evaluate my perceptions of freshwater diving. Enough to get me back in that quarry? I don’t think so. But I’ve heard the Cenotes in Mexico are nice this time of year.

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