The name Lake Tanganyika alone inspires visions of intrepid explorers and ancient trade routes through the heart of Africa. At 640 kilometers in length and over 1,400 metres at its deepest point; almost 1/6th of all the surface fresh water on earth is contained in this astounding lake. Lake Tanganyika is bounded by 4 countries: Burundi in the north, Tanzania and DR Congo in the east and west and Zambia in the far south, centuries of trade and travel along the lake have resulted in a mix of cultures derived from as far away as Arabia and people on the lake have more in common with each other than their respective and relatively new “home countries”.
But it is the water itself and the amazing array and diversity of life that lives in it that is what stands this lake apart from anywhere else on planet earth. Its great age (6 – 12 million years) has allowed a family of fish known as Cichlids to develop and diversify to an extent of some 400 species, 90% of which are endemic. Much sought after in aquaria throughout the world for their fascinating behavior and beautiful colours, observing these fish in their natural habitat in schools numbering thousands brings to mind the life of coral reefs of the Pacific or Indian oceans rather than a freshwater lake in the middle of Africa. In addition to the cichlids there are several hundred species of fish, mollusks, shrimps and even a fully aquatic snake, the Storms Water Cobra. Including large mammals and reptiles such as hippopotamus and crocodiles the total count of animal species numbers into the thousands.
For decades the underwater habitat of Lake Tanganyika has only been known to a handful of fish collectors and researchers, often braving difficult travel arrangements and unsafe diving equipment to get under the surface. The growth of SCUBA diving the world over and the fledgling tourism industry on Lake Tanganyika has meant that there has been a slow growth of divers travelling to Lake Tanganyika for recreational diving and a handful of tourism operators are now offering dive packages and in some cases dive training.
At 700m asl, 27oC fresh water and visibility reaching up to 20 metres, recreational diving in Tanganyika can be hugely rewarding and comfortable. Much of the lakeshore consists of steep rocky shorelines of granite boulders and outcrops meaning the majority of dives are along a steeply sloping bottom, the depth of most dive sites limited by recreational limits.
Cape Chaitika in the South of the lake offers a typical clear water dive site with a vertical dropoff down to 35mtres. Interspersed along the bottom are huge granite outcrops, some the size of a bus, the nooks and crannies of these providing refuge for the largest of Tanganyika’s fish, the famed nile perch (Lates angustifron) growing up to 50kg and over 1.5 m in length. Chaitika’s steep slope and depth also is the ideal habitat for the most popular of aquarium cichlids, Frontosa. These highly inquisitive fish are also known as Tanganyika Zebra fish and are extremely comfortable with divers, happy to accept fish pieces offered out of the hand. Massive shoals of brightly colored ciprochromis fill the water column providing an ample source of food for larger predatory fish.
In the South west corner of the lake lies Nsumbu National Park and several relatively shallow dive sites. Wonderland, a chance discovery by Craig Zytkow of Ndole Bay Lodge is perhaps one of the most diverse sites on the whole lake. A group of boulders leaning against each other on a sandy bottom provides a measure of all typical habitats found in the lake. Small caves and holes in the ground are habituated by Masta eels poking their heads out and gaping, the similarity to moray eels is undeniable. Much of the bottom is littered with empty shells providing homes for a variety of shell dwelling cichlids including the smallest cichlid in the world. The level and sandy bottom here also provides a perfect breeding area for Emperor Cichlids. Viewing a pair of adult (4kg) emperors in full breeding display guarding their young and even moving the entire nest in the female’s mouth is an experience like no other. This type of behavior is what separates the fishes of Tanganyika from any other on earth. Being within a National Park also means that wonderland is protected from commercial fishing and has a huge population of large predatory fish circling the perimeter of the site.
Most of the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika lies within Tanzania and although inaccessible and remote is one of the most beautiful coastlines of the entire lake. Dozens of large islands and massive granite outcrops provide hundreds of dive sites, most of which have never been dived before. The complexity of underwater structure provides habitats for almost all the groups of Cichlids in the Lake and perhaps no where else is there consistently such a profusion of fish life. Bulu rocks is an anomaly in Tanganyika being several Kilometers offshore but still protruding above the water line. An ancient chain anchor line lost to the underwater depths is testament to the time that Tanganyika has been used by humans for trading and fishing.
But lake Tanganyika’s impressive attractions do not end under the water; in the South it is possible to dive in the morning amongst hundreds of brightly coloured fish and gaze on herds of elephants and buffalo in the afternoon in Nsumbu National Park. Further north on the eastern shore is the famous Mahale and Gombe streams national parks, the most accessible and visible populations of wild Chimpamzees live here, Gombe stream being extra special as the place where Jane Goodall’s groundbreaking work on Chimp behavior was carried out. As our closest living relatives it is difficult not to feel an ancient connection with these amazing animals that have chosen and equally amazing lakeshore to call home.
To fully appreciate what makes Lake Tanganyika so special is to appreciate the amazing biodiversity present in every dive site and every cove. The variation within species that can be visibly noticed between geographical locations is considered to be the most prominent example of speciation in action. The tiny differences between fish populations are undoubtedly a precursor to the emergence of new species and is still being studied to help us better understand the processes of evolution.
With fewer and fewer new destinations available in the world Tanganyika stands apart as an undiscovered gem. The intrepid traveler has the choice of a lifetime, be it diving for the thrill of deep clear water, observing fantastic behavior of specific fish, emersing in an ancient culture or sun baking on a deserted beach between snorkeling and kayaking; Tanganyika is truly like no other.