The Spectacular Fish of Lake Malawi

Sometimes I choose my destinations and sometimes they choose me.

Malawi was a little bit of both: first and foremost, there were some wonderful children that I needed to meet. However, as a lifelong reader of National Geographic, I have always harbored a wish to see the great Lake Malawi for myself and if possible, catch a glimpse of the brilliant array of fish that live here.

If you’ve ever been to a pet store, chances are you’ve seen a Malawi cichlid swimming by so beautifully in some fish tank. Malawi cichlids are popular around the world because they add so much life and color to tropical freshwater aquariums everywhere. Nothing compares to the wild patterns and intense colors of these rare tropical fish.

More than a thousand species of African cichlid live in Lake Malawi, and of these, several hundred are endemic. At 300 miles long and almost 300 miles wide, Lake Malawi is one of the largest in Africa, boasting a unique aquatic ecosystem that contributes to such a diverse palette of fish life. Today, catching and collecting aquarium fish remains a small but regular industry for those who live near Lake Malawi.

I spent a good day splashing among the marvelous fish of Lake Malawi as they swam contentedly in their native habitat. I loved the dream-like sensation of plunging myself into the world’s original freshwater aquarium and meeting one fish after another, and all of them so different.

After a long and indulgent snorkeling excursion, I visited the Red Zebra Lodge near the town of Salima on the lake’s western shore, where I witnessed the methodical collection of some 150 species of Malawi cichlids. The colors of these fish absolutely blew me away — pale pink, zebra-striped, iridescent purple, flaming orange and shimmering blue — and they were kept in some 200 fish tanks in a brick warehouse where they were readied for export to the United Kingdom, Germany, China, and beyond.

When traveling, there exists that certain moment when you reach the other side of the world and stumble upon the great reveal — for instance, how the Mona Lisa is actually quite small, or how (if they wanted to) wild elephants could destroy your car in a single stomp.  Travel grants us the truth of places and things, and at Lake Malawi, I encountered the truth of harmless hobby fish tanks: that so many of their leading stars come from this beautiful lake in Malawi.

I was glad to see these fish for myself in their native home. I have said it again and again–how nothing compares to seeing any animal inside its own natural habitat and the fish of Malawi are no exception. To all those enthusiasts out there who love these fish and love keeping them in their home, I say, “Yes, these are probably the most beautiful freshwater fish in the world.”

But I also add one more humble word of travel advice, to come and see the fish of Malawi . . . in Malawi!  The fish are far happier here and no matter how terrific your fish tank may be, it will never compare to the real thing.

A diver dries in the sun on his boat on Lake Malawi. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)


  1. Michael
    April 13, 2012, 9:12 am

    Nice article. I agree that seeing the cichlid fishes in their native lake is the experience of a lifetime. A couple of corrections are needed, though. Best estimates of the number of cichlid species in Lake Malawi are around 700-800, not more than a thousand (Turner et al., Molecular Ecology 2001, 10:793-806; Snoeks, J. Aquaricult. Aquatic Sci. 2001, 9:150-166). And, the quoted dimensions of the lake itself are way off; it is not “300 miles long and almost 300 miles wide.” If you measure it with the ruler tool on Google Earth, you can verify that it is about 348 by 45 miles wide, maximum. It’s often said to be 365 x 52 miles (like days and weeks in a year, hence the “calendar lake”); a nice mnemonic for the rough dimensions but not really correct.

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  5. Sardjono Angudi
    Bandung, Java
    October 17, 2015, 9:28 am

    Cichlids are also found in Java, Sumatra, Borneo/ Kalimantan. The color are not so bright as cichlids of Africa. I wonder how those cichlids reach my country.

  6. Fishing tails
    December 3, 2017, 3:31 pm

    Hey, awesome article! Really inspiring. I really love going fishing (and|&) outdoor activities. Thanks for sharing.