A World Of Color: Lake Malawi’s Incredible Fish

by Margaret Sessa-Hawkins  |  Published May 7, 2016

Although Malawi is an amazing country to visit, it’s small, poor, and tends to be overlooked in favor of neighbors Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia and Mozambique. This is a shame because, besides skipping a lovely cultural experience (Malawi is known, for good reason, as the ‘warm heart of Africa’), tourists are missing out on a truly incredible site – Lake Malawi.

Swimming with Lake Malawi's cichlids (photo: Danforth Lodge)

Swimming with Lake Malawi’s cichlids (photo: Danforth Lodge)

I am in the middle of my second day of scuba lessons when I see them – hundreds of them, swimming around a stack of rocks. Small, brilliantly colored, they form a cloud of blues and purples and blacks and yellows shining iridescent in the refracted light. Cichlids. I am in Lake Malawi, the ninth largest lake in the world, and I am surrounded by fish whose evolutionary importance is, according to UNESCO, “comparable to that of the finches of the Galapagos Islands.”

The extraordinary marine kaleidoscope aside, Lake Malawi is the ideal vacation spot. Running almost the entire length of the country, it has warm, fresh water, and its pristine beaches are set against a backdrop of rugged, verdant hills. The resorts that line its shores are almost never crowded, and the exchange rate makes traveling in style on a tight budget easy.

Relaxing at Ngala (photo: Margaret Sessa-Hawkins)

Relaxing at Ngala (photo: Margaret Sessa-Hawkins)

It’s also a great place to scuba dive and snorkel. The water is crystal clear, and the fish beneath its surface are varied and ubiquitous. Cichlids, the most common fish in the lake, are so beautifully colored they are prized in freshwater aquariums. I’m always spotting different variations. There are yellow cichlids with black fins, black cichlids with blue stripes, and pink cichlids with swirling yellow polka dots.

That’s not what I find the most captivating about them though. An avid amateur marine biologist, I’ve spent hours reading up on the cichlids. I’m fascinated by their rapid ability to adapt. Almost any time a school separates geographically they evolve into a genetically distinct group. It is this trait that causes them to be compared with the Galapagos finches, and for this reason the U.N. made Lake Malawi National Park a world heritage site. Lake Malawi offers a unique opportunity for viewing the fish; 90% of the cichlids there are found nowhere else in the world.

This was one of the main reasons I decided to get scuba certified. I wanted to see more of these fish, to know more about them. So I booked a $20-a-night chalet at Mayoka lodge – a cozy backpacker resort along the northern lakeshore – and signed up to get scuba diving certified at Aqua Africa.

Underwater World

I discover the ways in which scuba diving in a lake is vastly different from swimming in the ocean. There are no brilliant coral reefs to catch the eye, no large mammals to shy away from or creep up on, and the variation in wildlife tends to be more muted. This does not mean though, that scuba diving in Lake Malawi is inferior to those experiences. Swimming in the lake I rapidly discover that there’s a tranquil beauty to the world under the water’s surface that is nothing short of astounding.

I truly realize this as I swim out over my first valley. As part of the rift valley system, Lake Malawi has incredible underwater topography: sheer cliffs, mountain-like large rock formations, and plenty of underwater caverns. So it is that swimming along over shallow rock shoal I suddenly watch it drop into a valley – so deep that to me it is just an abyss of bottomless blue.

Evening at Danforth Lodge (photo: Danforth Lodge)

Evening at Danforth Lodge (photo: Danforth Lodge)

There were also more cichlids than I had ever dreamed of. Near shore, small clusters of the fish are always visible, but out here, there are hundreds. There are mostly zebra cichlids, blue, purple, and tan fish with horizontal or vertical stripes gathered around me in clouds. They aren’t shy of humans, and my eye darted around the array of colors. I was reminded of an experience I had snorkeling in a large aquarium tank at Disney World, where myriads of fish circled around me. There, of course, the experience was contrived, created for tourists like me. Here, it was real, and all the more stunning because of it.

Afterwards, I spend some time relaxing at the lodge, lying in the hammock, reading. I paddle out to a float and get to know some of the backpackers who frequent the lodge on their journeys through East Africa. When I want to be alone, I head to the emptier corners of the cafe, where I sip a smoothie and enjoy the view and pleasant breeze blowing off the water.

That night I sit on my chalet’s porch, watching the fisherman go out in their boats. Traditional boats in Malawi are small thin dugout canoes made from a single log. Fisherman tie a lantern to the front of their boats before heading out onto the lake to cast their nets in the deeper water, bringing in small usipa fish that they sell at the next day’s market. From my vantage point, I can see the clusters of light slowly disappearing over the horizon, not to reappear until morning.

Early morning fisherman on Lake Malawi (photo: Danforth Lodge)

Early morning fisherman on Lake Malawi (photo: Danforth Lodge)

So Long, and Thanks For All The Fish

The next day, my parents join me at the lake – but there’s a problem. The northern lakeshore, where I live, is mostly made up of backpacker lodges, and, as my dad explains to me in no uncertain terms, my parents really feel that their days of staying in backpacker hostels are over. So we head south.

The southern stretch of lakeshore, specifically the area from Cape Maclear to Mangochi, is the most popular part of the lake, and for good reason. Not only is it close to Malawi’s main cities (Blantyre and Lilongwe) as well as Malawi’s largest safari park (Liwonde) it also boasts a wider variety of accommodation, from backpacker lodges to luxury resorts. While my backpacker friends tend to frequent the cheaper and more laid-back Mufasa or Nanchengwa Lodge, parents generally opt for more upscale locations like Gecko Lodge, Danforth Lodge, Pumulani, or, arguably the most exclusive resort on the lake, The Makokola.

Ngala Beach Lodge on the lakeside (Photo: Ngala Beach Lodge)

Ngala Beach Lodge on the lakeside (Photo: Ngala Beach Lodge)

The southern strip of the lake is arguably even better than the north for seeing cichlids. While the north has deeper waters, the islands that dot the southern shore attract the fish, which feed on the moss that dots the rocks surrounding them. It is here, around Cape Maclear, that Lake Malawi National Park, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located.

My parents and I end up staying at Danforth Lodge. Like almost every one of the upscale lodges, it offers sailing, waterskiing, kayaking, scuba diving, a pool (in case you prefer your water with no wildlife in it), and excursions to the smaller islands that dot the southern lakeshore. Later, my parents and I take a sailing trip out into the lake, around the smaller islands. Of course, we snorkel.

“Those fish,” my mom says after one of our snorkeling expeditions, “I mean those fish. You could just watch them all day, couldn’t you?”


Mayoka Village – ( A backpackers resort in Nkhata Bay, just an hour southeast of the main northern city, Mzuzu, Mayoka offers a wooded, quiet spot to relax on the shores of the lake. Accommodation is in comfortable stone chalets, cottages, and dorms that overlook the lake, or campsites for the more ruggedly inclined.

Ngala Beach Lodge – ( Halfway between Mzuzu and Lilongwe, Ngala provides a pleasant stop for those traveling along the lakeshore, or those looking to explore the central region’s national parks. Spacious rooms, delicious food, and a secluded section of beach make Ngala an ideal spot to relax and recharge.