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  Diving with Cichlids
 
 
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Swimming along boulders on a rocky beach, snorkelling around an island or scuba diving in Lake Malawi, you will soon be engulfed by its Cichlids. Over a thousand species are to be found in its waters- each with its own special niche. Corinna Martinelli-Raupp describes the magic. (Above: Blue/black- metriaclima zebra Yellow -tropheops sp. Photo:Kevin Stevens)

 

Swimming along boulders on a rocky beach, snorkelling around an island or scuba diving in Lake Malawi, you will soon be engulfed by its Cichlids (pronounced sick-lids). These highly colourful and perch-like freshwater fish are called mbuna by the Tonga tribe in the Nkhata Bay area. Besides being an important food source, Lake Malawi's cichlids are among the most admired and sought after aquarium fish around the world.


Divers and snorkelers from all over the world are fascinated and charmed by these mainly small but beautiful fish that occur in big numbers anywhere in the lake. The variety, colours, patterns and stripes will lead you to believe that you are exploring a giant aquarium.


Lake Malawi contains over 1000 species of cichlids with more species found every time it is explored. This is more than all freshwater fish species found in North America and Europe together. Cichlids are found in South America and parts of Asia, but the African Lakes - Victoria, Tanganyika & Malawi - each contain more kinds of fish than any other lake on the planet.

 

Photo:
Michael Molinari


Follow me into this still widely unexplored world of the Cichlids of Lake Malawi: Submerging in the warm, clear waters of Lake Malawi, 800m off Kande Beach, I am surrounded by hundreds of brightly coloured fish. Their colours sparkle in the sunlight breaking through the water. That their environment mainly consists of rocks and boulders is not a disadvantage. The seemingly bleak background accentuates their colours. For a while I contemplate hovering in the shallow waters but I know there is more to explore.


Swimming over the sandy bottom, I come across a crater-shaped sand circle and remember that males establish territories like this. Soon I spot the little fellow in his mating colors, vehemently defending his nest. I back off and place myself quietly an adequate distance to observe what I was hoping for. A female approaches his "sandcastle". The male instantly begins his seductive behavior displaying himself sideways to show off his colors, erecting his fins and quivering until he gets her attention. She is interested. The male nudges her gently, repeatedly while they circle each other. This goes on for a while. I am amazed. I observe how the female lays an egg, immediately turning around and taking it into her mouth. She takes over and nuzzles the male's anal fin until he releases sperm into the water, which she then inhales. The eggs are fertilized in her mouth and the ritual begins all over again.


This is termed mouth-brooding. The majority of Lake Malawi's Cichlids are mouth-brooders.
Continuing my journey, swimming along rocks and just after leaving a swim-through and its hundreds of fishes, I have another unforgettable encounter with these amazing creatures. A mother fish and her offspring are hovering over a big rock. The closer I get the more nervous the mother becomes. Even though I try to be as quiet as possible, she does not calm down. She is nervously circling her young, who quickly gather and frantically try to get closer to their mother. Suddenly she opens her jaws and the cloud of babies disappears into her mouth! I know that mbuna have developed this spectacular way of looking after their offspring, but seeing it with my own eyes never fails to amaze me. What appears like a fish swallowing a whole school of fish is merely a protective measure! The juveniles will be guarded in this way until they are old enough to defend themselves.


After spending some time observing these miracles, it is now time to slowly ascend but even here I am not spared the sight of another of the cichlids' unique characteristics.


Cichlids have the potential to speciate at an astonishing rate. A new species can emerge within a human lifespan. Cichlids' genes created and still create a new species for every thinkable niche. It mainly shows in their feeding behaviour. Their teeth, jaw, head and their feeding apparatus have developed in many ways. They are now capable of taking advantage of any possible food source available.I watch some feeding on algae, others on unattached algae. I know they also feed on the tiny animals which feed in the algae. They feed of different parts of the rocks and do not compete. I see some feeding on a large rock; others on small, loose rock formations. I observe horizontal and vertical feeding. A particular fish seems to be interested only in food from the underside of a rock.

 

Photo:' snorkelling around an island


Leaving this aquatic wonderland behind and planning my next trip into their world, I feel fortunate to be living and working here. The inhabitants of this beautiful lake and their outstanding characteristics will never fail to meet expectations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
   
 
 
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