Lake Malawi: The Lake of Stars

Lake Malawi is one of the African Great Lakes. It is the 9th largest lake in the world and the third largest lake in Africa by surface area. It is also the second deepest lake in Africa, after Lake Tanganyika, which is located 350 kilometers (220 miles) to the northwest. Lake Malawi is home to the greatest number of fish species among all the lakes on Earth, including 1,000 species of cichlids.

Lake Malawi Stats

Lake NameLake Malawi
Surface area29544.000
Maximum depth706.0
Average depth261.3
Lake typeRift lake
Catchment area128727.20
InflowsRuhuhu River
OutflowsShire River
Shore length1718.97
Age2 - 20 million years
Mixing typeMeromictic
SettlementsMzuzu, Lilongwe
Residence time79801.5
FrozenNever freezes
Average discharge1119.676

Geography and Hydrology

Lake Malawi is shared by 3 countries: Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania. Is also called Lake Nyasa in Tanzania and Lago Niassa in Mozambique, and is the southernmost lake from the East African Rift.

The Government of Mozambique declared its section of the lake a reserve on June 10th, 2011. On the Malawi shores, a section of the lake is also included in the Lake Malawi National Park.

Lake Malawi has a maximum length of 580 kilometers (360 miles), and a maximum width of 75 kilometers (47 miles). It has a surface area of 29,600 square kilometers, or 11,400 square miles. Its maximum depth of 706 meters (2,316 feet) makes it the second deepest lake in Africa. The lake holds an impressive 8,400 cubic kilometers (2,015 cubic miles) of water.

The lake’s main inflow is Ruhuhu River, which is 160 kilometers (100 miles) long. Ruhuhu River has considerable fluctuations in its level, and it can cause up to 7-meter oscillations in the water level of Lake Malawi. The Shire River (402 kilometers or 250 miles) is its only outflow, flowing out of the lake in the southern section. The Shire River flows into the Zambezi River in Mozambique.

The lake is located 474 meters (1,555 feet) above sea level, so its deepest point reaches a depth of 232 meters below sea level. It has a catchment area of 94,100 km2, or 36,332 mi2.

Lake Malawi is meromictic, which means that its layers of water do not mix. There is permanent stratification in the lake, which is maintained by chemical and thermal gradients.

One of its islands, Boadzulu Island, is remarkable due to the great number of cichlids that populate its surrounding waters. Boadzulu Island is located about 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) off the western shore of the lake.

Cape Maclear, in the southern section of the lake, is the site of the first freshwater national park in the world, established in 1984. The park, comprising several islands and a peninsula, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Formed by the Splitting of the African Tectonic Plate

The lake was formed by the opening of the East African Rift, where the African tectonic plate is splitting into two pieces. Age estimates for Lake Malawi vary greatly, from 40,000 years old to 1-2 million years old.  However, the lake did exist in various forms since the Cretaceous, with early lacustrine sediments containing dinosaur fossils.


The first European to visit the lake was Candido José da Costa Cardoso, a Portuguese traded who arrived here in 1846. David Livingstone also reached the lake in 1859, and he named it "Lake Nyasa".

Lake Malawi was also the scene of a naval battle on August 16th, 1914. The British gunboat SS Gwendolen disabled the German Empire’s only gunboat on the lake, the Hermann von Wissmann, with a single cannon shot from about 1.8 kilometers. It was hailed as the British Empire’s first naval victory in World War I.

Lake Malawi or Lake Nyasa

The lake is known under two important names: Malawi and Nyasa. While Malawi claims that the lake is named "Malawi", the other two countries at the shores of the lake, Tanzania and Mozambique, call it "Lake Nyasa".

Before 1964, when Malawi achieved its independence, the territory had been called "Nyasaland". Political complications emerged in the 1960s, when Malawi’s president Hastings Banda established diplomatic relationships with South Africa. Currently, the dispute is dormant, and the relations between Tanzania and Malawi have become cordial.

Territorial Dispute

The section of the lake that is in Malawi and Tanzania is currently under dispute. Malawi claims the entire section of the lake that is not in Mozambique, while Tanzania claims that the border runs through the middle of the lake.

The Heligoland Treaty of 1890, between Germany and Great Britain, is cited by both countries. The British colonial government, after the capture of Tanganyika from Germany, assigned the entire lake under a single jurisdiction, which was the territory of Nyasaland. However, two jurisdiction were established later.

The British and the Portuguese reached an agreement in 1954, and decided that the middle of the lake marked the boundary. In 1967, Tanzania protested to Malawi, but nothing was settled. More recently in 2012, oil exploration initiatives by Malawi caused the issue to resurface. Tanzania demands that exploration should be stopped until the issue is settled.

Lake of Stars

The name "Lake of Stars" was given to the lake by David Livingstone, and generated from the lanterns of the fisherman on the boats of Lake Malawi. From a distance, the lights resemble the stars in the sky. A more ominous nickname for the lake is "Lake of Storms", because of the violent storms that pass through the area.


Steamboats, motorships, and air transport are the most common means of transportation between the villages on the shores of Lake Malawi.

The oldest ship on the African lakes, MV Chauncy Maples started its service in 1901, as a floating clinic. The ship later served as a ferry, and is currently being renovated into a clinic-ship.

MV Mpasa started navigating the lake in 1935, and MV Ilala was launched in 1951. The latter has been out of service often in recent years. When operational, the ship runs between Monkey Bay in the South of the lake to Karonga in the North of the lake.

MV Mtendere started its service in 1980, and two years later she was already carrying 100,000 passengers every year. The ship services the southern section of the lake, but when Ilala is out of service it also serves the route to Karonga.

MV Songea is a Tanzanian ferry built in 1988. She operates weekly between Liuli and Nkhata Bay, via Itungi and Mbamba Bay. Ships go twice a week to the Likoma and Chizumulu islets, from the lake’s shore at Nkhata Bay. Because the islets don’t have usable ports, large boats anchor offshore and the passengers are transferred to the islets in smaller boats.

Flora and Fauna

Some of the most important wildlife found in and around Lake Malawi include hippopotamus, Nile crocodiles, monkeys, and fish eagles. Important bird species include herons, kingfishers, and cormorants. Other animals from around the lake include baboons, antelopes, and hyrax.

Also, a pack of 17 painted dogs was found in the Kasungu National Park, even though the painted dog was considered extinct in Malawi.

A Heaven for Cichlids

An astonishing number of 1,000 cichlid species live in the waters of Lake Malawi, making it the richest lake in fish species in the world. The great majority of the cichlids in the lake are endemic. They are divided into two major groups, the haplochromines and the tilapiines.

The haplochromines have two main subgroups: one that consists of open water and sand dwelling species, and one that is known locally under the name of "mbuna", or "rockdwellers". The fish from the Mbuna species are smaller, with both sexes brightly colored.

The tilapiines subgroup consists of Coptodon rendalli, the only substrate-spawning species of fish in the lake, and five mouthbrooding species.

Many cichlid species from Lake Malawi are very popular among aquarium owners, because of their bright colors. One of the most notable cichlid species is the marmalade cat, which is found around the West Thumbi Island.

Some of the most important non-cichlid fish species in the lake include the lake sardine, the airbreathing catfish, the mochokid catfish, the Mastacembelus spiny eel, mormyrids, the African tetra Brycinus imberi, the spotted killifish, the poeciliid Aplocheilichthys johnstoni, and the mottled eel.


28 species of freshwater snails live in Lake Malawi, among which 16 are endemic. There are also 9 bivalves, among which the unionid Nyassunio nyassaensis is endemic. There is only one species of freshwater crab in Lake Malawi,  the Malawi blue crab.


There are 2 main seasons here: the rainy season and the dry season. The rainy season lasts from November to March, and the storms are very unpredictable. There is no haze over the lake during this season, and the air is very clean. Starting with April and May, rains diminish in frequency and strength, with gentle winds and calm waters taking over.

During the dry season, July is cool, with winds coming from the southeast. The winds drop in August and September, and the water is calmer. October is one of the best months, with calm and very clear waters, and hot air.


Lake Malawi is very beautiful, and is appealing to tourists because of its islands and beaches. Some of the most important activities offered by the local resorts include snorkeling, boat riding, kayaking, scuba diving, sailing, camping, water skiing, trips to the islands, beach football, and many other water activities.

Where to Stay

The southern and central regions of the lake are the most accessible. There are many areas of striking beauty on the shores of Lake Malawi, and good lodges can be found quite easily. There are many amazing beaches between Mangochi and Monkey Bay, and you can easily find accommodation here.

The Mangochi area boasts the greatest concentration of hotels and lodges. Monkey Bay is a port town in its own rights. Many good lodges have also been built in the Cape Maclear area, and the same thing applies to Senga Bay. Speaking of which, Senga Bay is the closest point to Lilongwe.

Amazing beaches and good lodges can be found near Chintheche as well. Nkhata Bay is another port town, but also a center for independent travellers.

Likoma Island, in Mozambiquan waters, has beautiful beaches, provides accommodation, and has a missionary-built cathedral which is the size of Winchester’s. Also on the Mozambiquan shoreline the Manda Wilderness can be found, which is a reserve of white sand beaches and unspoilt wilderness, 1,200 square kilometers (463 square miles) in size.

Environmental Concerns

In January 2015, contaminated tailings from the Kayelekera uranium mine near Boma, were accidentally released into the lake. Official statements say that only 50 liters leaked, but other pieces of evidence suggest that the environment may have been affected as far as 35 kilometers away.

Intense agriculture and deforestations are two of the most important threats to Lake Malawi. Atmospheric deposition of nutrients to the lake has increased due to the fires that are set to clear the land.

Even though fishing is not intensive in pelagic waters, the region between the shore to 200 meters is overexploited. Extinctions of local species have already occurred. Cichlid fish are especially susceptible to overfishing, because they are not fast reproducers.


The lake is extremely important for the population living around it. There are countless fishing villages on the shores of the lake, which boasts rich harvests. The lake is also an important provider of drinking water, irrigation and hydroelectricity.

Lake Malawi Map