May 9, 2005
Lake Malawi is the ninth largest lake in the world. It is the third largest in Africa. It has a maximum depth of 2310 feet, making it the world’s fourth deepest Lake. Lake Malawi is the most southern of the African Great Rift Lakes. It is shared by the countries of Malawi on the western and southeastern shores, Mozambique on the central eastern shore, and Tanzania at the extreme northwest. The lake contains a greater variety of indigenous species of fish than any other lake in the world. World Wildlife Fund Researchers and other scientists have identified over 500 species that are not found anywhere else in the world. Lake Malawi has more endemic species of fish than North America and Europe combined.
Because of its uniqueness, the Lake Malawi National Park has been declared a World Heritage Site. People have taken note of this special body of water for centuries. The Kafula people, a Stone Age group of pygmies, are thought to have settled in the region over 3000 years ago. In 1546 Lake Malawi appeared on a Portuguese map. David Livingstone, the famous Scottish missionary, explored the area several times. When he first saw the lake, he reportedly asked his translator, “What is the name of this lake?” The translator replied, “Nyasa,” which means lake. So Livingstone called it Lake Nyasa, which literally means Lake Lake. However, the name stuck and during the Colonial period Malawi itself was called Nyasaland. On Livingstone’s second exploratory trip in the 1860s, he brought the naturalist, Dr. John Kirk, with him. Dr. Kirk sent dried fish skins to the British Museum and noted that the fish were “particular” to Lake Malawi (not found anywhere else).
The Lake even has a significant place in world history. Believe it or not, the first British naval victory of World War I was won on Lake Malawi (still called Lake Nyasa at that time). On August 13, 1914, commander E.L. Rhoades, of H.M.S. Gwendolen, shelled and captured the German ship Hermann von Wissmann, which was beached for repairs at Sphinxhaven, which is now Liuli, Tanzania. The German commander, Berndt, was a close friend of Rhoades and did not know that war had been declared.
Even today, scientists are learning new things about the lake and its ecosystem. Studies of the chemical content of the water, its variable temperatures and water levels have been conducted. However it is studies of the fish which fascinate many scientists. Most of the endemic fish are cichlids ("sick-lids"). These are freshwater, perch-like fish that are sometimes described as having only a single nostril on each side, and no protruding rim under their eyes. However, they are hard to classify because the hundreds of cichlids are so different in size, color, behavior, eating patterns and habitat.
We have seen large bright blue cichlids navigating the waters near the shore of Lake Malawi as well as tiny silver minnow-sized cichlids with black spots or stripes. The most common cichlid in Lake Malawi was not “discovered” and categorized scientifically until 1994 when George Turner named the fish. It is estimated that 1.5 billion of this species swims in Lake Malawi. Eight hundred and fifty million of them are caught each year. Lake Malawi fish or “chambo” are delicately flavored and are often roasted whole. Chambo and chips (French fries) is a popular meal throughout Malawi.
Other interesting examples of the cichlids that M.K. Oliver talks about on his website, “The Cichlids Fishes of Lake Malawi, Africa” are one species that feeds only on algae that grows on dead wood. These fish can be seen near dead logs and tree branches that float near the shoreline. Three species utilize empty snail shells for breeding or hiding from predators. The “bumblebee cichlid” is a cleaner fish. It feeds on small parasitic crustaceans, known as fish lice, that are found on the skin of large Bagrus catfish. Researchers think that its bright yellow color with chocolate-brown vertical bars may advertise its cleaning services. (Even Lake Malawi’s catfish are unique in that they descend to incredibly deep depths of 250 yards during the daytime, and come to the surface at night to feed on zooplankton.)
My favorite cichlid is a fish named for David Livingstone himself. It is colored like a rotting fish and plays dead in the water. It eats small fish that are attracted to its “carcass.” One species of tilapia guards its larvae and eggs instead of carrying them around in the mother’s mouth as others do. A few Lake Malawi cichlids have jaws and teeth that are specially adapted to feed on the algae that grow on aquatic plants.
Oliver mentions other interesting animals that can be found in Lake Malawi such as eels that are born in the Indian Ocean. Each one swims up the Zambezi River, navigates through the falls and rapids and continues up the Shire River, through Lake Malombe before it finally reaches Lake Malawi. (Look at a map to see how incredible this journey is!) The Malawispongia echinoids, a freshwater sponge, is found nowhere else on earth. We have also seen water monitor lizards sunning themselves on the rocks beside the water.
One of the most fascinating things to watch on Lake Malawi is the African Fish Eagle, the national bird of Malawi, soaring in the sky over the clear water. It swoops down, grabs an unsuspecting fish and flies back to its nest high in a tree top along the shore to devour its prey. We have also seen a pied kingfisher do the same thing. There are as many as 300 species of birds that inhabit the lakeshore areas. Colonies of thousands of white-breasted cormorants nest on Lake Malawi’s islands. Blue cheeked beeaters and malachite kingfishers are two of the more colorful species of birds that you can glimpse in the reeds.
The thing that I like the most about Lake Malawi is that it appears to be pristine and untouched. There are several resorts nestled on snow white beaches, and cottages are occasionally tucked into secluded coves, but there are no high rise condos, boardwalks or lakeshore mansions. The main road along the lake is not even paved. You can still watch villagers hauling in nets laden with fish along the shore, and see men in dugout canoes navigating the lake.
However, appearances can be deceiving. Much of the woodlands surrounding the Lake have been cut down for firewood and charcoal. This deforestation leads to erosion. None of the villages has proper sanitation and pollution is a growing problem. There are also fishing trawlers on the lake, and locals will tell you that the numbers of fish in the lake have decreased at an alarming rate over the past decade. It is my hope and prayer that Malawi realizes what a sparkling gem it has, and continues to work at conserving and preserving this magnificent and unique natural resource with which it has been blessed.