WE’VE ALL SEEN THE SHOT of a whale shark, mouth agape, sifting plankton through its massive gills.
And how many photos are there of manta rays hovering “mid-flight” above a kaleidoscopic reef Or cheeky seals baring their teeth at the camera
But with no megafauna, no schools of game fish, no exotic coral reef, and few mammals, how do you take wow shots in a place such as Lake Malawi
I ponder this as I arrive at Blantyre, the country’s bland commercial hub.
As a dive journalist, your article lives or dies on the strength of its pictures: produce poor shots and the piece won’t get taken (leaving a trail of grumpy sponsors in your wake). Despite friends insisting that I spend my life on holiday, the pressures aren’t negligible.
But before a collective playing of the world’s smallest violin, I’ll concede that the job does have its perks. These include diving the more unusual destinations such as Lake Malawi.
I’d always been intrigued by thoughts of diving here: no salt, no heavy suits, raging currents, soupy water, hectic launches or negative entries. Just warm, clear, predictable diving that offers new photographic challenges.
When the African tectonic plates split, perhaps as long as 2 million years ago, they formed a giant tear in the landscape.
Over time, this filled and became Lake Malawi. Known as the Calendar Lake, it is 365 miles north to south and 52 miles across at its widest point, making it the third largest lake in Africa. It has shorelines on western Mozambique, eastern Malawi and southern Tanzania.

GOOGLE LAKE MALAWI, and one of the first things you’ll read is that it contains more freshwater fish species than all of North America and Europe combined. However, what most material neglects to mention is that up to 2000 of these are varieties of cichlids.
I drive a couple of hours to Cape Maclear, one of Malawi’s most touristy regions, underwhelmed at the thought of spending much dive time with these colourful fish, which I assume will be pretty to look at, but lacking gravitas.
Louis, divemaster at Cape Maclear Scuba, takes me on my first dive to Aquarium, off Thumbi Island.
A pleasant 10-minute saunter to the site provides the opportunity to ogle my surroundings.
The lake is spectacular, a vivid blue dollop of loveliness that pulses with life. Malawian women, seemingly a hard-working bunch, scrub clothes on the lake shore, as children perform backflips off traditional dug-out canoes, watched by fathers preparing their fishing nets.
Thumbi, like many islands in these parts, comprises giant boulders and miombo woodland. A couple of fish eagles, Malawi’s national bird, eye up the water for signs of breakfast.
I lean over the side to inspect the site: the sandy bottom, some 20m beneath, stares back. The only thing impeding my view are lots and lots of colourful fish. It’s time to meet the cichlids.
After 30 minutes happily wafting my way through thousands of pretty little fish, something remarkable catches my eye. It’s a cichlid, no more than 20cm long, and it appears to be inhaling lots of its miniature clones.
With cheeks full, it departs for somewhere it won’t be stared at by wide-eyed divers. Now that’s a photographic opportunity.
It turns out that the majority of Lake Malawi’s cichlids are mouthbrooders, which offer oral protection to their young. Not so dull any more, these fish. I make it my mission to get a decent shot of them mid-slurp: a task that turns out to be far easier in theory than in practice.
A couple of days is more than enough in Cape Maclear. There are too many pushy beach-hawkers selling naff wooden carvings for this grizzled English traveller. Plus – and here’s the bit I’ve been waiting for – a stay at famous Mumbo Island awaits.
Lying a couple of miles off Cape Maclear, Mumbo Island is home to a single lodge, operated by Kayak Africa. With its dry-composting toilets, lack of electricity and bucket showers, it is one of the greenest lodges at which I’ve had the pleasure of staying.
Should it need to pick up and move tomorrow, it would leave almost no ecological impact on the island.
Manager Robin takes me on some 10 dives, on which we encounter a handful of mouthbrooders. As we approach them either mum takes off – leaving her babies open to the threat of predators – or she sucks them up before we get close enough to grab a shot.
Despite failing hands-down on this front, I spend a week on Mumbo in photographic bliss. I snap a monitor lizard’s backside as it swims to a nearby rock to catch some rays. I even attempt
a shot of a fish-eagle from below the surface, catching a meal. The final result – an arty blue mess – wasn’t quite the award-winning shot I had envisaged.

CREATIVE JUICES FLOWING, and joined by my girlfriend Gem, we head to the capital Lilongwe and catch a short flight to Likoma Island in the north.
Likoma could be straight from a fairy tale. At the heart of its charms are craggy, baobab-lined beaches inhabited by small fishing communities.
Its remote location – Mozambican waters in fact surround Likoma – ensures that it remains relatively free from the trappings of tourism.
We lap up a couple of decadent days at Kaya Mawa, a beach-house-chic lodge that drips with romance. The rest of our six-week stay is spent at Mango Drift, its smaller, more laid-back brother.
The lodge is run by old friend Kevin and his girlfriend Georgia. I explain my mission to grab a passable photograph of a mouthbrooder protecting its babies.
“Don’t sweat it, we’ll get your shot bro,” comes his response. Kev’s an optimistic soul.
Much like Mumbo, Likoma offers divers more than just mouthbrooders. The first site to which Kev takes us is called Chinunwe, and is famed for its giant craters, which cichlids lovingly form to attract mates.
On a night dive to Ndamo Point we watch dolphinfish hunt by torchlight. Giant rock formations at Christian’s Point dwarf divers. Even the snorkelling around Kaya Mawa turns out to be great for whittling away a few hours.
On our dives we see a few large kampango or giant catfish (delicious to eat, funny-looking to photograph) and on surfacing at Chinunwe we’re treated to four otters playing at the surface.
With no other divers to worry about, I try out some over/under shots of Kev and Gem. And while I get lots of images of colourful cichlids, that darned photograph of one hoovering up its babies continues to elude me.
It turns out that Masimbwe, a large stone’s throw from Kaya Mawa, is not only the best site we dive in Malawi, but also the best for mouthbrooders. A few days before we leave the country, a little silver cichlid grants me my wish.
Sneakily hidden beneath a rock, and with only a split-second to react and manoeuvre my strobe, the fish isn’t perfectly lit. But I like the composition and its resigned, poignant expression that says: “You’ve got your shot, now hurry on home and leave us in peace.”

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Fly from London to Blantyre/Lilongwe with Ethiopian Airways, www.flyethiopian.com, or to Likoma from Lilongwe with Ulendo, www.ulendo.net
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Diving & Accommodation: Mumbo Island, www.mumboisland.com, www.kayakafrica.co.za. Kaya Mawa, www.kayamawa.com. Mango Drift, www.mangodrift.com
WHEN TO GO The dry winter months are between June-August, when the water is coolest. Expect strong easterly winds, known as mwera. Temperatures rise markedly from September to October, while the rainy season can last from December to March. Algae blooms from January to February can cloud the water.
MONEY Malawian kwacha.
PRICES Cedarberg Travel offers tailor-made packages to African countries including Malawi. A five-night Kaya Mawa diving package, including flights from and to Lilongwe, all meals, airstrip transfers, four boat or shore dives (one a day), snorkelling, mountain biking, kayaks and sailing, costs from £1600. A five-night Mumbo Island Camp diving package, including road transfers from and to Lilongwe, all meals and drinks, boat transfer to the island, four dives, snorkelling and kayaking cost from £1157. www.cedarbergtravel.com.
FURTHER INFORMATION www.malawitourism.com