The M.V. Sandra Lane, seen here at Cobwé (Mozambique), represents the latest
generation of ornamental-fish-collecting boats on Lake Malawi. (Inset): Stuart
Grant at Kambiri Point in 1990.
Ad Konings photographs by the author
When I first visited Stuart Grant at Malawi n 1980, there were three exporters of Lake Malawi cichlids. Stuart’s fish house at Kambiri Point was right at the lake’s shoreline, but Eric Fleet, one of
the other exporters, was in Blantyre (Malawi’s capital at the time), far
away from the lake. Norman Edwards, operating on the license of
Hennie and Peter Davies, who had left the country, used Stuart’s fish
house to lodge the fish he collected in the Cape Maclear area. The
advantage of having a fish house near the lake is that you have access
to the perfect water—but then you are far away from the airport. For
this reason, Stuart operated a small airplane, as road conditions in the
early days were (and are in many places still today) very poor.
Stuart recognized early on that in order to provide a wide variety of
species, he needed to have multiple collecting teams around the lake,
and in 1980 he employed one in Nkhata Bay and another at Likoma
Island. In fact, I flew with him in his Cessna to Likoma, where I used
his team’s equipment to dive at various places around the island.
Before Stuart introduced the hookah diving gear in Malawi, cichlids
were collected while snorkeling. With a snorkel you can’t collect
many fish at a depth of 15 to 30 feet, which is the depth range where
a large section of the lake’s cichlid fauna can be found. For instance,
the only place where Aulonocara could be collected with a snorkel
in shallow water was near Cobwé in Mozambique. Cichlids have a
closed swim bladder and cannot quickly adapt to a lower pressure at
the surface, so those collected at depths of 15 to 30 feet need a day or
so of acclimation at a reduced pressure before they can be taken to the
surface. Collecting with just a snorkel also entails taking your catch
directly to the surface, and so cichlids just couldn’t be collected from
deeper water in this manner.
The hookah gear consists of a compressor operated by a small
gasoline engine and a cylinder in which the pressurized air is pumped.
Two long hoses (150 to 250 feet) run from the cylinder, each with a
breathing regulator at the end. The first time Stuart’s divers used this
system on the beach near Kambiri Point, it attracted a lot of spectators,
and when the divers surfaced after about 30 minutes, every onlooker
was utterly surprised and applauded the remarkable feat. The teams at
Likoma and Nkhata Bay each had their own hookah gear, which was
operated from the boat.