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Exploratory Diving Expedition of Lake Malawi with Danforth Yachting & WaterWorld
Posted on: Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Blog Category: 'Lake Malawi'

Danforth Yachting was host to a group of underwater photographers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland.  These highly experienced and well-travelled divers have filmed all over the world, yet they rate Lake Malawi as amongst the best diving in the world. 


The first week was spent in Cape Maclear, diving the local sites to film Cichlid species, highlighting behaviour patterns.   Week two took the group up the lake on an expedition to Likoma Island.

Most of the diving at Cape Maclear was in and around Thumbi West Island, located directly opposite Danforth Lodge and known for some of its endemic species of Cichlids.  We found a large sand patch, scattered with huge fish nest craters and were able to capture some interesting territorial behaviour.  We spent some time at the dive site called the Aquarium, also a popular snorkelling spot, known for its abundant, colourful fish.  At another site we found a Kampango catfish female guarding a nest with her young and a fry-caring Nimbochromis linni female with her young moving into her mouth for protection, with male Cichlids patrolling the area. The best footage and most natural behaviour seemed to come when we just stopped and waited, so we found some boulders, settled down and watched the show. 

In between dives we had our surface interval over at Thumbi Island's sandy, little beach. We watching monitor lizards on the rocks and chatted with local fisherman  who would pulled their dug-outs up onto the beach to rest from the increasing morning winds.  Another great dive site is at Three Anchor Bay, a small, sheltered bay that's tucked in right up to the northeast side of the island. We regularly use this spot for snorkel trips and as soon as we entered the water the inquisitive Cichlids came to investigate.  We saw yet another Kampango; a large, territorial and predatory bagrid catfish endemic to Lake Malawi. As we worked our way over the vast boulders we caught sight of a Vundu too, a species of airbreathing catfish.

Some fantastic diving took place at Zimbabwe Rock, north beyond Thumbi West Island, a one and a half hour boat trip, heading out past Domwe Island and away from the shelter of Cape Maclear Bay.  A picnic lunch on board, we loaded up 'Shenzi', our larger, wooden boat for a day of diving.  The true beauty of Zimbabwe Rock is found beyond a depth of twenty meters.  It was wonderful diving down between massive boulders into small caverns with scattered boulders overhead, leaving just enough space for beams of sun light to burst through. The boulders create a maze of gullies and caves that we could swim through. Catfish and cichlids, magnificent rock formations and spectacular photographic opportunities were found.

Otter Point to our west was another great dive site. The topography at this location is stunning and such a contrast to other sites. The boulders are enormous and the underwater landscape turned out to be as fascinating and diverse as the hundreds of fish.  With the light winds Werner Thiele, MD of Waterworld and group leader, had the opportunity to take out his drone and get some aerial footage of Danforth and the surrounding islands.


With our last, local dive done we loaded up 'Shenzi', who would be used as the support boat to the yacht 'Mufasa' as we continued our exploration of the lake.  Shenzi carried all the dive equipment including dive compressor for cylinder refills.  Crew on board was Chelle and Warren as the dive team, along with Lingson the Captain of our beloved Shenzi, plus a mechanic and a navigator.   The luxury catamaran yacht Mufasa was home to the five guests and was ably crewed by Captain Howard, Deckhand Victor and Chef Dickson.

We had a good run up to Chiofu bay, a lovely secluded bay Eastern shores of Lake Malawi.  This is a beautiful little bay beside a small fishing village, with a steep, sloping hill and a small thatched building just up from a sandy beach.   We experienced dramatic weather changes from flat calm conditions to howling winds and lashing rain.  Fortunately boats are made to get wet and we had arrived safely and were snugly anchored in the shelter of the bay.

The underwater landscape was incredible, very steep slopes, made up of small rock and boulders. With strange diagonal patterns formed on the rocks, this was very different to the diving we had seen in Cape Maclear .  The Kampango catfish were breeding and we found a few nests with the parents guarding their young. Considering a Kampango can grow to two meters it was amazing to see little catfish of about five to ten centimetres with their long, white, moustache like whiskers.  It was Halloween and aptly we found a creepy, old dug-out sunken between our two boats!  The day came to a close with an incredible sunset followed by a beach bonfire and braai.

We dived on both sides of the bay and found massive schools of Usipa.  The local fishermen saw them too!  It seemed as though the entire village came down to the water's edge to help the fisherman get their nets out and pull them back to shore.  Werner was able to get some great footage with the drone.  Although, I think the locals where a bit confused by this strange flying object to start with, after a while the children were calling for it to fly past again. 

Our next stop was the beautiful Mbenji Islands on the west side of the lake.  The unusual vertical columns erupt from the lake and nestled in amongst the jagged rocks is a temporary fishing village. The landscape is mirrored underwater and everyone was enchanted by this beautiful place.  We had two dives at Mbenji and marvelled at the strange topography, massive rocks stacked up diagonally, almost like a drying rack of plates, some as tall as fifteen meters. The fish seemed larger and more curious, possibly due to the fact that the site is normally only dived by scientists as the islands are uninhabited, barring the temporary fishermen's camp.

Next we set off on our epic, twenty hour crossing up north to Chizumulu Island.  Chizumulu is the smaller of the two inhabited islands in Lake Malawi, the larger being the nearby Likoma Island, and together they make up the Likoma District.  Both these islands lie just a few kilometres from Mozambique and are entirely surrounded by Mozambican territorial waters, but they belong to Malawi. We arrived somewhat later than the yacht Mufasa, who was able to take advantage of the winds and almost double our speed with the spinnaker out! 

Our next dive destination was Taiwan Reef.  There are no rocks to indicate its location, we relied completely on GPS coordinates and it made we wonder how this site was ever found.  The boulders are enormous and we found a massive canyon carved out between the rocks. There were many caves, gullies and swim-throughs to be explored here and the site was teeming with fish. For our third dive of the day we headed back towards Chizumulu and to Chiwi Rock on the southern side of the island. There we found pinnacles and bubbly rock formations that resembled coral. There was a large variety of mouth breeder Cichlid species that for some reason had congregated at this isolated rock. We were able to watch as the young took refuge in their mother’s mouth at the slightest hint of danger. 

We had been affected by some strong currents during the morning and a northerly wind continued to develop. We decided to seek shelter in Chiteco Bay so we dropped anchor in front of Wakwenda Retreat on the north side of Chizumulu and we went ashore for sundowners.  Everyone had a wonderful evening sharing stories with Nick, the lodge owner and some of his guests.   

We found amazing fish life on both ends of the bay and where able to tick off some of the species we'd been wanting to catalogue. The WaterWorld team where particularly excited as one of the goals for the expedition was to film the breeding and hunting behaviour of the Nimbochromius Livingstonii . 

Howard took the opportunity to visit the local market and buy fresh produce.  He climbed to the top of Chizumulu hill, seemingly the only way to get signal on the island, to check the weather report.  After making contact with Michelle back at Danforth he continued down and to the other side of the island which was wild with the prevailing winds.  Waves were literally barrelling and crashing down hard on the shoreline. Seeing this he knew he had made the right decision in seeking shelter in Chiteco Bay.

As the day came to a close we went back ashore for our evening meal.  Dickson had prepared a tender, slow cooked beef Potjie for nearly 6 hours and there was plenty to go around and share with our new found friends at Wakwenda. 

We awoke in the morning to even stronger winds and so we continued with our dives in the safety of the bay. The WaterWorld team were pleased to find more Nimbochromius Livingstonii females with their fry, and even some young that weren't their own.  Some Cichlid species are known to purposefully abandon their own eggs with another mothering species, who will unknowingly raise them as her own.  A fascinating phenomenon and a real find to evidence. Further still the team was able to capture several Kampango nests with both parents guarding the young.

The next morning there was a break in the wind and we set off early to cross to Likoma.  Once we set sail and rounded the most northerly point of Chizumulu, we realised that the wind was not quite done with us yet, both Mufasa and Shenzi where knocked about by the side swells and heavy winds, but we all made it to the Island safely.  Once both boats dropped anchor the divers made their way to Shenzi. This was to be the last dives of the trip. With cameras in hand the divers descended one last time into the amazing waters of Lake Malawi, hoping to see the elusive Nimbochromius Livingstonii hunting.

As we descended we saw what can only be described as mountainous peaks that seem to be reaching for the surface, as we explored this amazing environment we found so many overhangs and caves. It seemed as though every gap between the boulders had a catfish hiding inside. The Usipa schooled overhead as we moved from one pinnacle to the next. The divers started to emerge, happy with the final, natural spectacle from the lake, but as yet no one had got the hunting behaviour that we all were looking for. Then Alex surfaced with a glint in his eye and abroad smile across his face. Not only had he observed a Nimbochromius Livingstonii hunting, he got sixty minutes of footage!

Once the divers de-kitted, they swam from Shenzi back to Mufasa, like they had done so many times before but for the last time on this trip. Everyone seemed to be taking their time and holding onto the memory. They settled down for a early lunch and we started the final pack of the dive gear, all suits and BCDs were taken up to the roof and tied down so we could give the gear a chance to dry.

After lunch we made our way south to Likoma Town and dropped anchor just off the main beach. We were greeted by a group of local children singing and dancing as we came ashore. We come to visit St Peter's Cathedral - the third largest cathedral in Central Africa!  Built in 1903, this remarkable building is about the same size of Winchester Cathedral in the UK and is of real architectural and cultural importance. A raised and paved road lead us all the way to the top of the hill where the cathedral is located. The road was built by the same people who built the cathedral and was originally a cobble stone road, you can still see the cobble stone in certain areas. Inside, we not only found a lovely working cathedral, but also a great deal of carved soapstone and stained-glass windows maintained in perfect condition.

Only once you are inside the cathedral do you truly appreciate the sheer size of the building. It really was breath-taking. While a few of us explored the inside of the cathedral, Werner was outside prepping the drone for flight. He was able to take some incredible aerial photos of all the building on the grounds, even with the local birdlife dive bombing the drone!

We collected some more supplies from the market and popped into a bar for a sundowner before heading back to the boats. We pulled anchor and took shelter at the southern end of Likoma Town Bay, just a few hundred meters from the airport. 

That evening we all sat around the dinner table recalling memories of the dives and the experiences we had shared, feeling very privileged to have been able to dive some of these remote locations that have barely been explored.  Even the most experience divers agreed that the lake had so much more to offer and they would be leaving, wanting more and in the hope of returning for another Lake Malawi expedition. 

For our last evening meal Howard prepared a braai on a custom-built grill off the back of Mufasa.  The only thing better than the steak was the amazing night sky. Howard has a brilliant GPS star gazing gadget, we lay on the trampolines at the front of the yacht and learnt about the specific starts we were seeing.  That night we must have seen over thirty shooting stars. None of us could have asked for a better evening to finish our adventure.

Early the next morning we sailed on a few hundred meters down the beach to anchor down just in front of Likoma’s little airport.  Luggage was off-loaded and then finally our lovely guests had to depart. We said our goodbyes and headed back to Shenzi and Mufasa.  Next stop would be Danforth Yachting, estimated to be another 26 hours away.  As we made our way home, Mufasa went on ahead and Shenzi chugged behind . It took  a long day and night on the water until we finally caught sight of beautiful Cape Maclear the following morning.  It looked so huge and mountainous from the water, like an enormous volcanic island set out on its own. Dramatically different from the landscape we had seen as we travelled up north. We finally pulled into the sheltered bay and were happily welcomed back by the wonderful staff at Danforth Yachting.

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