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Malawi Cichlids - Feeding Behavior
A 56 minutes top quality video showing the fascinating feeding adaptations of Malawi cichlids
(This article was originally published in Cichlid News Magazine, Apr-98 pp. 23-28 and July-98 pp. 15-20 (Second part), It is reproduced here with the permission of author Mary Bailey and Aquatic promotions).
Dawn over the lake as seen from Nkhata Bay. The lake is about 80 km wide here, and the far shore is not visible. Photo by Mary Bailey.
". . . there is nothing - absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."
The Wind in the Willows, like many other childhood favorites, may have been superseded by television and computers, but the line is still often quoted, and is a view to which I have always subscribed. However in the autumn of 1997 I found something even more worth doing: messing about in boats on Lake Malawi . . . Stuart Grant's boats to be precise, and under the expert tutelage of no less a personage than Ad Konings, whose knowledge of the lake and its fishes must surely be unparalleled..
It must, I think, be every cichlid enthusiast's dream to one day visit a major biotope and see the fishes in their natural habitat. I decided last year that 25 years of dreaming was more than enough, and that it was time to actually do it. We are none of us here forever, and I passed the probable half-way stage some time ago! The timing was just right, as Stuart and Ad were planning a new venture for September-October 1997, a 4-week lake safari for people like me who wanted to stop dreaming and start doing; a dream-come true of a safari that would take in many of the best localities for cichlids in the lake, evocative names such as Cape Maclear, Lion's Cove, Nkhata Bay, Eccles' Reef, and many more. Everything would be organized (or as much so as is possible in the Third World); participants would be collected from (and returned to!) the airport, an important consideration when you are new to globe-trotting and planning to do it solo as well as fed, housed, and transported from site to site.
Even so I had slight reservations, as the trip was, not surprisingly, planned around a lot of SCUBA diving, or at least snorkeling, at the sites to be visited. Despite that love of messing around in boats, I have never mastered the art of swimming, tend to nosedive when I try, and am (was!) actually quite terrified of being in water, let alone sticking my face in it deliberately to look at fishes. But, I decided, if you don't have a go you won't ever achieve anything, and in any case it would be wonderful just to at last see the lake for myself. Unfortunately other commitments and domestic infrastructure (livestock and business) meant that I could go for "only" three weeks out of the four; after much soul-searching I decided to miss the first week, a scheduled trip to the Mozambique coast.
By departure time in late September, the British contingent had expanded to four, three British Cichlid Association members, Gisela, Sonia, and Dave, having heard of my plans and rapidly decided to come too. It was a long (10-hour) flight, mostly by night, but despite lack of proper sleep we were all, not surprisingly, eager to begin our adventure when we landed at Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. Stuart's wife, Esther, after whom the red zebra, Pseudotropheus estherae, is named, met us at the airport with a minibus, for the two hour drive to our home base at Kambiri Point near Salima.
None of us will ever forget the moment when the lake first came into view. We all knew on paper how large it was, and that it was really an inland sea. But it is still a huge shock, when you come from a country whose largest lake is about 20 miles long, to be confronted with one that is more than twice that in width alone, and almost 20 times as long. It really is more like a sea - we never stopped expecting the spray to taste salty - not only in size but in its character. Like the sea it can be calm as a millpond with wavelets breaking on golden sandy beaches; more often there is a moderate swell, enough for those with delicate stomachs to require seasickness pills; and when the southerly gale, the mwvera, blows, the waves may be six feet or more high. In fact the safari was timed to take place after the stormy season, but even so we had some experience of the mwera in our final week, and after traversing 30 or so miles of lake across the path of waves just three feet high, I for one am quite happy to skip the bigger ones.
When we arrived the rest of the party were somewhere in the middle of the lake, making their way back from the Mozambique trip on board the Lade Louise, Stuart's recently (1996) built replacement for the famous Lade Diana, now retired on the beach at Kambiri Point. Lady Louise is equipped with a two-way radio so she can report back to HQ; an important precaution in a country where there is no air-sea (airlake?!) rescue or other official source of help if you run out of fuel, go aground, or otherwise get into trouble. And, of course, useful for keeping track of parties of tourists ...
Later that afternoon we at last met our companions for the next couple of weeks: Ad we already knew, as he is a regular guest at BCA functions; then there were Gunther and Dieter, from Germany; Lars, a Swedish businessman taking a break from the stress of his normally-hectic life; and last, but not least, Professor Irv Kornfield of the University of Maine. Irv's main purpose in visiting Malawi was to collect samples of PseudotropheuS zebra from as many localities as possible, in order to study their DNA and try to establish whether separate populations represent distinct species, Pseudotropheus zebra being chosen because it is so widespread. Although not an official safari participant, he nevertheless accompanied us on several triPseudotropheus
Next day we made our first trip, aboard Lady Louise, a one day outing to the Maleri Islands to break the newcomers in before really getting down to business. The Maleris form part of the Lake Malawi National Park, so fish are no longer collected there for the hobby, and the islands themselves are uninhabited and still cloaked in virtually unspoiled tropical forest - elsewhere most of the trees have been cut down for firewood -. They are noteworthy for the fact that some aspects of the fish fauna differ between Maleri and Nankoma islands, which are situated close together with shallow water in between, and Nakantenga Island, only a short distance away but separated from Maleri by a deeper trough. For example, Pseudotropheus tropheops "Maleri Blue" and Pseudotropheus zebra "Red Top" are found - as far as the Maleris are concerned - only at Nakantenga, while Pseudotropheus elegans and Pseudotropheus zebra "Patricki" in turn occur only at Maleri/Nankoma.
We first anchored close to Maleri. It was now time to bite the bullet and see if I could pluck up the courage to go in the water. Wearing a buoyancy aid ("snorkeling vest"), and Ad's old wetsuit, donated to the cause of keeping me afloat, I gingerly lowered myself into 30 feet of water, clinging desperately to the diving ladder, and even more gingerly stuck my face under. There were countless fishes below me, some of which came to take a look at this invader of their privacy, and without thinking I exclaimed "Ooh!", learning a basic lesson of underwater activity, keep your mouth shut - difficult as that may be for a woman -.
Next stop was Nakantenga. Being interested in birds as well as fishes, I wanted to get closer with my camera to a pair of pied kingfishers (Ceryle rudis) perched on the bushes overhanging the water. Lady Louise is accompanied on her travels by Willy, an 8' fiberglass dinghy, attached to her stern by a very long rope, and one good shove was enough to send Willy and me floating towards the shore. Looking over the side I immediately forgot about the kingfishers, as beneath me in the shallows I could see water-worn rocks and countless mbuna. It was another unforgettable moment in a trip that proved to be filled with them. The obvious course of action for a non-swimmer was to snorkel here, in the shallows, rather than in deeper water. You needed only to sit on a rock and stick your face under to find yourself in a fantastic natural aquarium. I may not have seen every species at Nakantenga and other sites where I went "rockpooling", as some are found only in deeper water, but I certainly saw a lot of fish.
Several mbuna from Lake Malawi; Top left: An adult male Labidochromis caeruleus from the south side of Lion's Cove. Top right: Pseudotropheus barlowi from Maleri Island, Center: Labidochromis caeruleus from Mbowe island. Bottom left: A male Pseudotropheus sp. "Zebra gold" from Nkhata bay and Bottom right: An OB male of Pseudotropheus sp. "Zebra gold" from the north side of Lion's Cove. Photos by Ad Konings.
The next day we took to the road in Stuart's minibus, chauffered by Ad, heading north to Nkhata Bay. The main roads are remarkably good in general, with real tarmac, albeit sometimes frayed at the edges, but you must always bear in mind, as you bat along at 60 mph, the possibility that any of the two-lane asphalted bridges may have been washed away by floodwater, and replaced by a wooden construction requiring very low speed and considerable circumspection.
We paused briefly at Chia Lagoon, type locality of Oreochromis saka (Nvasalapia) , to watch the native fishermen at work in the short channel that links the lagoon with the lake, before continuing to Nkhata Bay, a town as well as an inlet, where we began to experience something of the real Africa. Life at Stuart's is rather genteel and "colonial", home from home except that we don't have geckos and praying mantisses in the bathroom here in the U.K. Malawian "rest houses" do their very best with extremely limited resources, but you can almost guarantee that everything will be either second-hand or homemade. Nevertheless the hospitality and friendliness makeup for any other deficiencies. The rest house where we stayed consisted of bamboo huts linked by precipitous boardwalks which probably started life as packing cases, but it was clean, comfortable, and right on the edge of the lake. We sought out and introduced ourselves to Stuart's local fishing team, who were to take us north to Lion's Cove the next day, before dining on ncheni (Rhamphochromis!) and chips at the Safari Restaurant.
As well as the Lady Louise, Stuart has smaller, open, boats at various locations on the lake, and it was one of these that carried us north on the 3 hour voyage to Lion's Cove. The inlet is only a couple of hundred yards across, but 300 feet deep (!). Labidochromis caeruleus occurs here in two different morphs, one to the north and one to the south of the cove, a striking example of the effects of a topographical barrier on "rock-bound" species.
It had been intended that we should cross to Chisumulu and Likoma islands, part of Malawi but actually lying in Mozambique territorial waters only a few miles from the eastern shore, on the Ilala, one of the two lake steamers, which has fully-furnished first class cabins, whereas the other ferry, the Mtendere, doesn't, though you can pay extra to travel on deck instead of in the bus-like accommodation below. But it was the Mtendere that steamed into Nkhata Bay that evening, the Bala being temporarily indisposed.
I am glad to have experienced the Mtendere, a real bit of Africa, and would even do it again, but sleeping on a slatted wooden life-raft made British Airways economy class accommodation seem like utter luxury. Next morning, tired, dishevelled, grubby, and, at least in some cases, unshaven, we listened with amusement to Malawi Radio's breakfast program, broadcast over the ferry's loudspeakers, telling us how to answer the telephone professionally, and how appearance was all-important ...
Nkhata Bay is unusual among lake steamer stops in having deep water, and hence a landing stage. Elsewhere the ship has to anchor offshore while passengers and cargo are off - and on - loaded using a motley selection of smaller crafts.
Chisumulu Island is pleasing to the eye-just as well, as we awoke there at dawn, and were there for several hours before proceeding to Likoma, where we were to spend several days visiting sites such as Maingano Island (home of Melanochromis cyaneorhabdos, M. "maingano"; M. joanjohnsonae; Labidochromis freibergi among others) and Ndumbi Rocks (home of Pseudotropheus "Elongatus Ornatus;" Pseudotropheus "Elongatus Ndumbi;" Pseudotropheus "Ndumbi Gold"), with day trips to Cobué and Mara Point on the Mozambique shore, then back to Chisumulu.
Hardly had the Mtendere anchored off Likoma, when Ad spotted one of Stuart's easily recognizable white and orange boats heading out to us. Barnabas Mkwamba, who has worked for Stuart for more than 20 years and runs the Likoma operation, had been waiting for our arrival, and ferried us ashore to the village of Chipyela. Not only that, but he had booked rooms for us in the best local rest house, and provided us with invaluable local advice such as "Don't go for a swim if you are too hot in the night, as the crocodiles come in to the beach"!
We loved Likoma. There is no electricity, so we ate our evening meals by candlelight and oil-lamp before retiring early, to sally forth next morning at an hour far earlier than some of us had seen for many a year. We were right in the center of the village and enjoyed wandering round the market, learning how to identify ripe bananas ("yellowness" is not everything, and you want to eat only one unripe banana in a lifetime). We felt as if we belonged there, as no one treated us as if we were different.
Here moored at Nkhata bay, the lake steamer Mtendere is not an inconsiderable ship, in keeping with the size of the lake. Photo by Mary Bailey.
Ncheni and chips. After some debate tentatively identified as Rhamphochromis woodi. Photo by Mary Bailey.
Unfortunately the lake was too rough for non - and weak- (Sonia) swimmers at several of the dive sites, and it was so rough the day the party went to Taiwan Reef (Ps. saulosi; Pseudotropheus "Elongatus Taiwan;" Pseudotropheus "Tropheops Taiwan;" Copadichromis "Quadrimaculatus Reef;" C. "Taiwan Yellow;" Protomelas "Steveni Taiwan;") that Ad decided to maroon Sonia and I on Chisumulu Island, so there would be more room for the divers to put on their gear, not easy in a small boat in calm inshore water, let alone in an offshore swell. Barnabas assured us that there was an excellent rest house with a bar (!), where we could put our feet up in comparative luxury, with the option of snorkeling off the nearby rocks if so inclined. By now we had learned to trust his judgement completely, so we went quietly without protest.
Chisumulu proved to be another highlight of our trip. The rest house was all Barnabas had promised, and then some, and when we wandered down to the shore we found a large, relatively calm, shallow inlet ideal for amateurs like us. We were astonished at the numbers of Melanochromis baliodigma (M. "Blotch") in the extreme shallows, adults and what appeared to be fry of the same species. As everywhere, they seemed quite unconcerned by the sudden appearance of aliens in their midst, though attempts to catch them in my hat proved a dismal failure. They weren't that tame . . .
Sonia and I also investigated the jetty on Mbamba beach, close to our rest-house back on Likoma. Although it is a very limited area of artificial rocky habitat, it has been colonized by mbuna - but only on one side. Why, we were unable to figure out, but it may have been to do with the depth of the water, as the "uninhabited" (except by a few fry) side was much shallower. It was actually a very interesting habitat, as the rocky area was quite small and adjoined immediately, at only a few feet of depth, by sand with beds of Vallisneria aethiopica. So there were rock-dwellers and sanddwellers all in close proximity, and in shallow water suitable for incompetents, right on our doorstep. What more could we have asked for. Though on resurfacing we found - as often happened - that we had become a tourist attraction in reverse!
At last it was time to leave and return to Kambiri Point. We had an extra day here because the Mtendere was running that far behind schedule, but none of us minded in the least. It would be an early start, as her arrival time was estimated as 6 a.m., and Barnabas arranged that we would be awakened as soon as she appeared. Uncharacteristically early, she turned up at 4 in the morning. Barnabas was, as ever, equal to the occasion and had us, and our copious luggage, on board in plenty of time to establish ourselves on deck before anyone else could get there. Of course, it took several hours more for everyone/thing else to be (dis)embarked, and then again at Chisumulu, but at least this time it was a daytime voyage.
Our excelent host, Barnabas Mkwamba, oversees Stuart Grant's operations in Likoma. Photo by Mary Bailey.
Back at Nkhata Bay we loaded up the minibus, including some boxes of locally caught cichlids destined for Stuart's fish-house, and headed back to Kambiri Point. It was only the end of our first week in Malawi, but we felt as if we had been there for years.
Back at Kambiri Point after our trip to Likoma, it was time for a rest day to allow the divers to overhaul their equipment, and everyone else to recharge their batteries. I spent much of the afternoon basking on a rock on the point, drinking in the immensity of the lake and gazing longingly across to the mist-shrouded hills of the Cape Maclear peninsula, our destination for the next day.
Most of the original exports of mbuna in the 1970s came from this area, and to me - aquaristically speaking a child of those times - the thought of visiting such legendary sites as Domwe, Thumbi West, and Mumbo Islands, not to mention Otter Point, was a real dream come true. We made the crossing on Lady Louise the next morning, and duly moored off Chembe village, situated on the long sandy beach between Otter Point and the southern end of Domwe Island.
Cape Maclear and its environs, like the Maleri Islands which we had visited on our first outing, are parts of the Lake Malawi National Park, but unlike the Maleris, which are uninhabited and virtually unspoiled, the area around the cape is now a tourist center. This does not imply that it is full of luxury hotels and 5-star restaurants, but it does mean that everyone is out to sell you something, a striking contrast to Likoma, where we were not noticeably singled out for "special treatment." I know which I preferred!
Thumbi West Island, offshore of Chembe, has an interesting indigenous cichlid community including popular species such as Pseudotropheus zebra, Pseudotropheus tropheops, Pseudotropheus crabro, Melanochromis auratus, and M. vermivorus, both Labeotropheus species, Copadichromis borleyi, Cyrtocara moorii, Nimbochromis polystigma, N. livingstonii, and N. linni, Aulonocara stuartgranti, and Placidochromis milomo. But one area, Mitande Rocks, directly opposite the village and known as "The Aquarium", has an additional community of "aliens" introduced here by an aquarium fish exporter during the seventies, including M. interruptus and M. joanjohnsonae, Pseudotropheus aurora, Cynotilapia afra, and Pseudotropheus callainos (cobalt zebra). And it was in the crystal clear waters of this semi-natural aquarium, where countless mbuna could be seen simply by looking down from the Lady Louise, that we took our first dip.
Then it was back to Chembe to pitch our tents at the western end of the beach and watch the sun go down over Otter Point, before hiking along the sandy beach to the village center (and the bar) and a beach barbecue which included a chicken which, I think, had seen even more summers than l have . . .
Because of our delayed return from Likoma we could spend only two days on this leg of our itinerary, so we were up early next day and away to another famous site, Zimbawe Rock, off the very tip of the cape. The cichlid community at this site, in terms of species, is less diverse than at Thumbi West, but includes a number of different indigenous species, notably the sulphur-headed form of Otopharynx lithobates. At this rather exposed site it was a little too rough for weak - and non- swimmers to snorkel, but pleasant to sit in the sun and watch the world go by. Traffic was minimal of course, just the occasional dugout, including one which came alongside to offer us first refusal on its catch of ncheni (Rhamphochrornis spp.).
We upped anchor and continued to our second port of call of the day, Mumbo Island, which again has species in common with Thumbi West and other Cape Maclear sites, but also others that are completely different, notably Aulonocara "stuartgranti ma"" rather a long way from "home" - but naturally so, not artificially transplanted. Unfortunately the "seas" were even rougher here than at Zimbawe, and although Sonia and I contemplated paddling ashore in Willy to find a calm spot, there was no soft sand landing to aim for, only formidable rocks, and we weren't sure we were strong (or expert) enough to paddle back against the waves. Mumbo is uninhabited, so we failed to attract our usual small audience of interested Malawians . . . but instead the resident fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) came and watched us from the top of a huge weathered rock the size of a small house, a bonus for which I, as a longtime birdwatcher, was grateful.
The voyage back to Kambiri was quite rough, but by now everyone had long since run out of sea-sickness pills and learnt, of necessity, to cope with the swell the natural way (grit teeth and stare at the horizon!). There was no water coming from the taps at Stuart's (a periodic technical problem), but by now we were well-adapted to African ways and simply trotted off down to the lake with our toiletries.
|Elephants cavorting at the edge of the Shire river. Photo by Mary Bailey.|
So far all our activities had been fish-oriented, but obviously Africa has far more to offer in the way of wildlife, so the next morning saw us packing into the minibus again, and heading south to visit the Liwonde National Park on the Shire River. Here we embarked on a rather different craft, a motorized catamaran with a lower and an upper deck, the latter being standing room only and intended for observation and photography.
We had already encoutered hippos - there is a small herd in the offshore shallows at Kambiri - but here there were vast numbers of them. Unfortunately the boatman was not prepared to go near them and in fact gave them as wide a berth as possible, and we learned that on several past occasions a hippo had surfaced between the twin hulls and come up through the deck. The Shire is also full of crocodiles - fairly scarce around the lake nowadays - so we were in no hurry to go swimming, intentionally or courtesy of the hippos. We did however get to see some fish, when - as is often the case some local fishermen came alongside in their dugout, to see if we were interested in buying some of their catch, which included a local tilapiine, the nominate subspecies of Oreochromis shiranus, endemic to Lake Malawi and the upper Shire (after which it is named).
But what we had really come to see were the elephants. We had been warned that we might not be lucky, but as luck would have it we soon passed a small herd, the dominant bull standing defiantly on the bank warning us to come no closer, while the rest hurried their precious youngsters away from the threat we apparently represented.
That night we stayed at Mvuu Camp, where we enjoyed a game drive and "cocktails" in the wilderness, followed by an epicurean meal and a night in tents with real beds. Our quarters contained dire warnings about always taking a flashlight or oil lamp if visiting the toilet block in the dark, because of the likelihood of elephants wandering around the Unfenced site. But in the event it was a quiet night, with no worse hazards than the small shrubs planted here and there to trip the unwary heading for the bathroom . . .
On the return trip downriver we were treated to more elephants - a large herd with many youngsters, a small party crossing the river in the distance, and a group of young adults in the shallows, washing and playing. The clicking of camera shutters was deafening.
The next day was a rest day, and farewell to Gisela, Sonia, and Dave, who were due to return to damp autumnal England. Not, however, without an unscheduled trip to Johannesburg due to mechanical problems with their jumbo-jet. No one is quite sure where Gisela's rucksack went on its private additional safari, but it was a further two weeks before it arrived back in the UK!
|Top left; Iodotropheus stuartgranti from Gome. Top right; Copadichromis "Yellow Jumbo" from Gome, Bottom left; Labeotropheus fuelleborni from Masinje, Bottom right; Gephyrochromis sp. "zebroides" from Chiofu. Photos by Ad Konings.|
There had been much debate about the next outing, a trip to Mbenji. Originally it was to have been a two day excursion, but there are no beaches to camp on, just rocks, plus the islands are populated by snakes and scorpions (sometimes found nestling under sleeping mats!), so it was decided to make the return trip in a single day. Even though Irv came with us on this trip, the Lady Louise seemed strangely empty without the other Brits, as we headed north along the west coast, accompanied on this occasion by one of Stuart's open boats and a fishing team, who were also to dive at Mbenji. The islands are some 7 miles from the mainland, and while many of the numerous species found there are seen elsewhere, a number are endemic to this group of islets, e.g., Protomelas "mbenji thicklip", Pseudotropheus sp. "tropheops mbenji blue", and an unusual local form of Pseudotropheus zebra, which may or may not prove to be a separate species.
Mbenji was a strange place with numerous rocks protruding from the coastal waters like teeth, creating a landscape somewhat reminiscent of some of the more bizarre sets in the original "Star Trek" - only better. The water was calm, and I duly went ashore in Willy and spent an ecstatic hour or so snorkelling around in a placid lagoon sheltered from the residual swell of the lake by a natural breakwater of rocks, emerging only when a messenger from the main party came to take me back because it was time to leave.
We watched the sun go down spectacularly as we voyaged south to Kambiri, but our idyll was rudely shattered as the first part of our contingent was ferried ashore in Willy in the dark. Suddenly the boatman stopped, shouting "Hippo!", and paddled us back out into the lake as fast as he could. He was obviously scared, a sentiment with which we were inclined to concur; we didn't however realize how scared until after we finally reached shore, and he refused to go back for Ad and Irv! Bear in mind that he knew one hippo had passed us by, but as we were only too aware, there is a small herd in Senga Bay . . .
Our last excursion was to the east coast of the lake to the Malawian shore just south of the border with Mozambique. We were to camp at Chiofu, where Stuart is establishing a small base, and make excursions to sites such as Gome Rock, Eccles Reef, and Chinyankwazi Island.
Unfortunately - or perhaps not, as it turned out - the weather turned against us. We were in radio contact with Stuart, who warned us that the mwera was blowing up - rather to our surprise as it was calm at Chiofu. However, when we sallied forth to head south to Eccles Reef, conditions were decidedly unpleasant, so we headed north instead to nearby Gome Rock (home to a very large number of species, including Copadichrornis sp. "yellow jumbo", C. sp. "virginalis blotch", and lodotropheus stuartgranti), hoping that the wind would drop by next day. It was far too rough for snorkeling, but I didn't particularly mind, as I had already discovered that the sheltered waters of Chiofu were a wonderful place for "amateurs" like myself, where you could actually watch mbuna going about their business (including Melanochromis johani spawning!) from the shoreline rocks - and, as it happened, fall in!
On our return from Gome we anchored Lady Louise in "my" inlet just around the corner from our campsite on the beach, and the rest of the party discovered that for once I had been babbling enthusiastically with some justification. The sandy bay where we were camped was itself not without interest, including a female Fossorochromis rostratus with her brood, and quite a number of hippo bones, one of which now adorns my sideboard.
Next morning the mwera was still blowing, according to our "outside sources" at Kambiri Point, but we decided to brave the wind and waves anyway and head for Chinyankwazi. This bare rocky island, together with (relatively) nearby Chinyamwezi, is part of the Lake Malawi National Park and hence fishing is forbidden; nevertheless it was occupied by more fishermen than we had seen anywhere else in Malawi, with boats full of fish, which they hastily covered with tarpaulins when we produced our cameras. On our return voyage we diverted to Eccles Reef, but the waves had stirred up so much sediment that diving was pointless, so we headed back to Chiofu.
I fell totally in love with Chiofu, the nearest thing to paradise I have found. It was an idyllic spot, pretty, unpopulated and hence offering rare privacy, sheltered from the mweru, and with interesting birdlife as well as the cichlids. Although it became a standard joke, the fish eagle always waited until I had just put my camera away before making a low pass over our heads. We were there for three nights, and I would happily have stayed forever, even though by the last morning there was nothing left for breakfast but ginger cookies and marmalade (actually a very nice combination!). We upped anchor from our sandy bay and motored the few hundred yards to the rocky lagoon for one last dive. The water was crystal clear and calm despite the rough weather offshore, and I spent a happy time paddling around among the BB, OB, and red zebras, Labeotropheus fuelleborni (blue and OB), Gephyrochromis sp. "zebroides", M. johanni, and Chilotilapia euchilus, who by now were getting quite used to my incursions, intentional and otherwise, into their shallow rocky domain.
Chiofu, where you could see Fossorochromis rostratus in the sandy bay and mbuna and other rock-dwellers the other side of the little headland. Photo by Mary Bailey.
On this last dive Ad, armed as usual with his underwater camera, went down to 200 ft (!) and came back full of the sort of joyous enthusiasm I'd been oozing for the entire three weeks, having found a firecrest mloto (Copadichromis virginalis), its gorgeous dorsal resplendent even in the dim light at that depth. This is a species not generally seen in the aquarium hobby, as it is not only rare but difficult to catch and bring up from such depths, and does not retain its glorious color in captivity. Hence only to be enjoyed by those willing and able to visit it on its own turf!
I think we were all a little sad at leaving Chiofu and thus savored all the more this, our final dip in the lake - or so we thought. At about 5 miles out from the shore on our voyage back to Kambiri, and with a heavy swell tossing the Lady Louise as she took the wind-whipped waves broadside on, we realized we weren't going to make it fuel-wise. We had to beat a hasty retreat back to the east coast, hoping we had enough diesel to make land, as to be caught in rough seas with out power would have been unpleasant and potentially dangerous. We radioed home base for assistance, and Irv, manning the radio in Stuart's absence, promised to send a boat with cans of diesel, a few beers, and some bananas, as we were by now a trifle peckish after our meager breakfast. We anchored off a sheltered sandy beach close to a fishing village, where we were able to obtain a couple of packets of biscuits to stave off our hunger. And, with three hours to wait for rescue, what better than to get back in the water, this time in a sandy rather than the usual rocky habitat.
When we eventually made it back to Senga Bay, after a rough passage, it was pitch dark, and the waves so choppy that we abandoned Lady Louise extremely unceremoniously and rather a long way offshore, to be ferried ashore in the "rescue boat", laden to the gunwales with us, our rescuers, and our baggage. Waves broke over us repeatedly. It was an unnerving experience I would rather forget, though I felt a bit better after a large gin in the safety of Stuart's lounge.
We had been very lucky. The mwera really blew up that night, whistling through the trees and dislodging numerous weaverbird nests from the colony in the tall thorn tree behind the boat-building shed. It was suddenly rather cooler than we had been used to, and next morning the lake looked grey and turbulent, and not at all inviting. We puttered around at Stuart's, went shopping for (more!) souvenirs in Salima, visited Tony Ribbink's research station at Senga Bay (surf breaking on the beach!), and tried to come to terms with the tact that our adventures were over. One last night, and a splendid farewell dinner thanks to Esther, and then back to Lilongwe Airport and our separate realities . . .
However, of one thing I am absolutely certain. Like Arnold the "Terminator," I'll be back!
© Copyright 1998 Mary Bailey, all rights reserved
Bailey, Mary. (June 08, 2000). "Messing About In Boats". The Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on May 20, 2013, from: http://www.cichlidae.com/article.php?id=135.