Ad Konings, 2012
Cichlid Room Companion

A Visit to the Central Tanzanian Coast of Lake Tanganyika

By , 1998. image

Classification: Distribution and exploration, Lake Tanganyika.

Cyathopharynx foai A male Cyathopharynx foai at Sibwesa. Photo by Ad Konings.

The east coast of Lake Tanganyika has always attracted me, as very few people have ever been there to investigate its fish fauna. The only source of information on distribution and species of cichlids found here came from Horst Walter Dieckhoff who had travelled twice from Kigoma to Kipili. Unfortunately he didn't keep precise notes on where he took his pictures, many of which I was able to use later on (Konings, 1988). Now ten years later, I'm preparing an extended update of that publication which will be published later this year. Before I could do so, however, I needed to visit all parts of the lake myself; a year ago the central coast of the lake belonging to Tanzania represented a glaring "blank" spot on my map. As I have explained in earlier articles, to organize an expedition in Tanzania is really very difficult and one needs almost to be a personal friend of the President or one of the ministers to get the paperwork done. Fortunately for me, Toby Veall, an exporter of tropical fishes located in Zambia, has a license to collect fish in the Tanzanian part of the lake, and it was he who supplied me with the necessary crew and equipment to complete such a venture.

Toby wanted to collect a good number of Tropheus duboisi "Maswa" in order to set up a breeding colony at his station in Zambia which is only about 2.5 miles from the Tanzanian border. He figured that the cost of such an expedition could never be recovered by the sale of these cichlids (even if everything went according to plan), so all the specimens brought back would be used solely for breeding purposes. Two months before my arrival Toby had attempted to steam up north along the Tanzanian coast to collect Tropheus moorii "Kirschfleck" near Mahali National Park. He got caught in bad weather and had to return after several days waiting for the wind to calm down. This trip was very expensive as no fish were collected; the exact locality of the "Kirschfleck" was not found; and on top of his other expenses his $1000 camera got drowned (and it wasn't an underwater model!). Needless to say, he wasn't very enthusiastic about mounting such trips, so I was very relieved that he agreed to organize one for me to go even further north. Of course, as we had to bring back fish in large numbers, nine of his best divers were to accompany me.

The distance from the station in Zambia to the locality where T. duboisi "Maswa" could be found was estimated at 450 km (280 miles). Toby has several large wooden boats, and we calculated that the outboard on the one we would take would require about 910 liters (240 gallons) of gasoline! We had three drums and several smaller cans full of gas... and the divers were still nonchalantly smoking cigarettes, even at the helm! We also had more than a dozen 265 liters (70-gal) plastic drums for transporting fish in addition to several large cages for holding fish during the night, a compressor, dive tanks, and everything else needed for a two weeks' stay away from base. Unluckily there were no floor boards in the boat, so the only way to move around was to balance on the gunwales, which was OK in very calm weather but impossible in even the weakest of winds (yes, I fell several times). The space assigned to me for the next two weeks was a little deck on the bow where I would be out of most of the spray.

In case you're wondering: there is a reason why very few have ventured out along the central Tanzanian coast. If you do, you stand a good chance of encountering pirates... real ones. Heavily armed bandits from Congo (formerly Zaire) cross the lake and seek shelter in the bays of the Mahali National Park. Since no settlement is allowed in the park, there is an uninhabited stretch of about 65 km (~40 miles) of coastline. Once a day a park surveillance boat travels from north to south and then back along the entire shoreline of the park, but those bandits are good at hiding. I am certain that they are also poaching in the park, and there are several reports that fishermen and traders who wanted to buy fish have been attacked by the pirates. Most of the victims were shot to death, and all their belongings - plus their boats and outboards - were stolen. For the same reason, you never camp on a desolated beach in Tanzania.

The divers were not really comfortable with the idea of spending two weeks in Tanzania but they probably figured, like I did, that with ten people in the boat the chances of being attacked by two or three pirates is reduced. Moreover, over all the years I have been travelling to Africa, I have a sense that an African would never (or at least extremely rarely) hurt a white man. For one or another strange reasons Europeans are respected, and in many places that I have visited white men are rare and thus an object of general curiosity.

We departed early in the morning, having cleared Zambian immigration the day before, and proceeded to Kasanga where we had to "pay" a visit to Tanzanian immigration officials. Even though they know you, they know the divers, and they know that Toby has a license to fish, there is always some problem, which can only be solved by paying some monetary "reparation." All in all the negotiations didn't take much longer than three hours, and we were on our way to Hinde where we planned to camp for the night. I had travelled this part of Tanzania several years earlier with Laif DeMason and thought that I knew it reasonably well; still I found some spots that I would like to visit on a future trip. For now we had to steam northward as fast as we could.

On the second day out we arrived late in the afternoon at Keseke, which is north of Ikola. Laif and I were at Ikola several years before only to learn that the rocky shore was still about 24 km (15 miles) distant, and we had decided not to go for it (and Tropheus moorii "Kaiser") until another time... which is now! It took me only 15 minutes to get dressed and into the water. Tropheus moorii "Kaiser" looks magnificent in its natural environment. I was also surprised to find T. annectens (previously T. polli) here.

Keseke lies at the southern end of a rather steeply-sloping mountain range that forms the shoreline for about 40 km (25 miles). After the dive we set up camp, and the following morning I made a second dive at the same site. Then we proceeded north as I wanted to survey the coast to see if there were any large bays possibly separating different populations of cichlids, but there were none. The rocky shoreline ends abruptly at a sandy beach, which is situated at almost right angles to the mountain ridge. This beach stretches out into the lake to Sibwesa (Kibwesa on many maps) where a few large rocks form the tip of a sort of peninsula. After diving at several sites we made camp to prepare for the trip into the park.

Not far from Sibwesa starts the southern boundary of Mahali National Park, which is mainly known for its colonies of wild chimpanzees. In the park itself (whose boundaries extend 2 km - 1.2 miles - offshore) it is forbidden to collect fish - at least that is what the warden said. However, he added that for a small compensation he would look the other way. I'm not certain whether it is officially forbidden to fish in the park or not, but we decided not to (even though we paid the usual grease). I did dive, of course.

It was interesting to see that the most southern populations of T. moorii "Kirschfleck" have very dark red blotches while the color of those found further north is more yellow. Even further north near a deeply indented and narrow bay (Lugubwe Bay), the "Kirschflecks" were completely black. There are many little bays along the park's shoreline but none large enough to be declared a barrier to the distribution of cichlids.

Tropheus moorii 'Kirschfleck' Tropheus moorii "Kirschfleck" at Siyeswe Bay north of Sibwesa. Photo by Ad Konings.

I dived at four different locations and found at all sites more or less the same species and variants. The shore itself is incredibly beautiful as the mountains rise rather steeply to several thousand feet above the lake. One would expect a steep sloping rocky habitat underwater as well, but surprisingly the rocks were never deeper than about 7.5 m (~25 feet). From that depth on they were entirely covered with sand, which would then fall off rapidly to greater depths. I tried to find rocks at deeper levels but was unsuccessful. The sandy bottom in many places was so steep that I could easily create small avalanches just by resting on it! Luckily I "re-discovered" several cichlids that had been imported years ago but had since vanished from the scene, such as Petrochromis "Texas" and Petrochromis "red."

It was already dark when we arrived at Bulu Point where we set up camp. We had passed Karilani Island but it was too dark to dive or snorkel; we would return the next day. The island is not very big (about 100 meters - 100 yards - across), and the rocky habitat again is not much deeper than about 6 m (20 feet). It was a very interesting dive as here is found the most southern population of T. duboisi, although they are not very plentiful. Even rarer is Neolamprologus leleupi. This population has previously been described as N. leleupi longior but in shape, color, habitat, and behavior it corresponds well with populations along the Congolese coast of the lake. I found N. leleupi also at Bulu Point and later also at Halembe, but at Karilani Island they are the brightest yellow. Also at this island I found the smallest cichlid known so far, a miniature N. brevis! Known forms of this shell-dwelling cichlid are quite small, but the variant found here is tiny. Interestingly, N. brevis differs from other shell-dwellers in that both male and female hide in the same shell. By contrast, the male and female of this new "dwarf" N. brevis each occupy its own shell, even though one could easily fit ten adults in a single shell! Also interesting was the fact that the shells at this site appeared much smaller than elsewhere. It took me some time to realize that these little fish were not juveniles of larger adults, which I was unable to locate, instead of fully-grown adults. Together with the dwarf Neolamprologus brevis I also found a dwarf Telmatochromis. I didn't observe interacting pairs so I'm not certain that it was truly a dwarf species, but I found several individuals as well as (presumably) females with tiny fry. These two dwarf species occupy the millions of empty snail shells that cover the sandy bottom surrounding Karilani Island. I didn't see Lamprologus callipterus or other common shell-dwellers. Very interesting place!

Neolamprologus sp. 'brevis dwarf' Neolamprologus sp. "brevis dwarf" from Karilani island. Photo by Ad Konings.

Bulu Point was the first place and only place during the trip where I found rocks deeper than 7.6 meters (25 feet). Here I also saw Cyphotilapia frontosa for the first time as they are usually found deeper than 15 meters (50 feet). The rocky habitat at Bulu Point stretches to a depth of about 23 meters (75 feet). The most spectacular sight was a huge mixed school of breeding Cyprichromis leptosoma and C. microlepidotus; the latter species in particular was exceptionally beautiful. A pity that it is too far from the station in Zambia to transport them back alive.

After Bulu Point there is a large stretch of sandy and swampy shoreline, and it took us about four hours before we arrived at the nearest rocky shore. We were still quite far away from Maswa and Cape Kabogo but I wanted to check every possible rocky habitat. At new localities I usually snorkel first, and I wasn't in the water for more than five seconds when I saw the first few T. duboisi "Maswa." I screamed back to the boat that we would collect "Maswas" here instead of steaming up north for another day. I remembered from eleven years previous that at Maswa itself T. duboisi wasn't very plentiful; also here at Halembe there were not very many. They were nowhere seen in schools or even small groups; at a maximum, only three or four individuals could be found together.

The rocky habitat at Halembe wasn't very deep; at about 6 meters (20 feet) the rocks give way to sand and also in shallower water there is much sand among the heaps of rock. The divers went out in four groups of two, each team with a barrier net and two plastic bags. Captured fish were put in the bags; every 45 minutes the divers got out of the water to empty their bags. Isaac, the team leader, kept the boat at the same pace as the divers progressed along the shore. There was not much time left the first day we arrived, but in half an hour they collected 66 females (only females were counted). We wanted to set up camp at an attractive little bay, but a local man warned us that the place was too dangerous as it was more than 3.2 kilometers (two miles) from the nearest village. So we went to Halembe, which is a rather large village with very decorative palm trees and a large open area in front of it. This area was formed as the water receded due to a decline in water levels in the lake. The coastline was very flat, and we needed all hands to pull the boat ashore. Permission to stay was granted by the village chairman who also supplied us with firewood.

The next day our real business started. The same four teams would cover the entire rocky coast between Halembe and the little bay visited the day before. According to my estimation, this stretch measured about 2 kilometers (1.25 miles). I kept score of the females caught, which were counted by Isaac, who then distributed them over the various holding drums in the boat. The men stayed in the water for about 45 minutes and then came into the boat to warm up. The second day they made five such rounds, and a total of 352 females were collected. The first two rounds went smoothly, but when the divers got in for the third time they were out on shore in about five minutes, yelling and gesturing that we should come fetch them. As my understanding of the local dialects is rather poor, I had no idea what was going on. We picked them up and then I wondered why they were poking sticks into the water to retrieve their nets. "Why can't you just jump in and get them?" I asked. Lewis answered, "Oh bwana, very big crocodile here." I wouldn't have expected a crocodile, because of the rocks and the relative proximity of a settlement, but we were all very lucky (including myself as I had been in the water here for more than three hours) that none of us ended up as the croc's lunch. It was Kedrick who almost bumped into the croc. He seems to have some affinity with them as it was he whose fin was nabbed by a croc a few years earlier. Toby still keeps the fin in which the row of holes nicely demonstrates where the croc had bitten. Isaac was very cool about the incident and started to circle the boat a few times, outboard at full power, over the spot where the crocodile had been seen. Five minutes later he declared that it was now safe to dive again - he had surely chased the croc away! The divers thought differently and wanted to have lunch first, a request that was granted. Two hours later they continued collecting where they had left off ­ a little more apprehensive of surprises, I would guess.

Collecting at Halembe Upper Left: Oscar, Kedrick and Lewis prepare to dive at Helembe. Upper right, Isaac and Kedrick sorting and counting fish. Lower left: A plastic bag full of Tropheus duboisi "Maswa" is hauled on board. Lower right: Cages are lowered overboard for holding the catch at night. Photos by Ad Konings.

That day they covered the entire stretch, and we thought to move on the following day as it looked like that from here till Cape Kabogo the shoreline was rocky. However when we checked at several places up to about 16 km (ten miles) north of Halembe, we were unable to find "Maswas" even though the type of habitat seemed the same. Toby wanted 400 females; estimating that 10-15% would not survive the trip back to Zambia, we knew we needed more. Therefore we decided to recollect the same 2 km (1.25 mile) stretch of coastline the next day. An amazing total of 500 females were collected in all. I was afraid that we had completely depleted this part of the lake of T. duboisi "Maswa" but when I snorkeled after the collecting efforts were completed, I was still able to see "Maswas" in deeper water.

Tropheus duboisi 'Maswa' Tropheus duboisi "Maswa" from Halembe. Photos by Ad Konings.

When everything was counted, surplus males were released and everything was made ready for departure the next day. However, local fishermen warned us that there may be strong southerly winds coming so it was decided to leave Halembe for Bulu Point straight away.

Although there was more wind than on previous days, it wasn't too bad to travel. Upon arrival at Bulu Point the fish were submerged in cages which were secured by placing rocks on and against them. Our overnight stay was cut short. In order to make the trip the least stressful for the fish, we would steam home without stopping, except for a single cooking session at Utinta. However before we started, rumors in the village that pirates had been seen in Lugubwe Bay in the park delayed our departure for a few hours. Eventually Isaac and I convinced the men to continue and that we would inquire at the park's headquarters about the truth of these rumors. Here we were told that the boat that was seen in the park belonged to fishermen from Sibwesa who were caught in the weather and had to shelter in the bay. Although not really relieved, we headed south followed by the park surveillance boat, just in case. There was nobody in the park and the suspicious boat apparently had returned to Sibwesa. We made it home in 27 hours and boy, was it cold! Over a full day without sleep with the wind strong enough that every one of us was thoroughly soaked through. At night this was especially unpleasant. I was the only one with a sleeping bag - a wet sleeping bag that is - but most of the divers had nothing more than two thin shirts! Anyway, the tension of our muscles in our effort to stay on board helped in keeping us somewhat warm. Everyone was relieved when we finally crossed the border and saw the lodge at Toby's station.

I had planned the trip to last three weeks, so now for a whole week, I was able to relax in luxury at the Kalambo Falls Lodge, which is by far the best place to stay on Lake Tanganyika. I thank Toby Veall and his team of able divers and great companions for this opportunity to fill in a blank spot on my map of the lake.

Kalambo falls lodge The chalets of Kalambo falls lodge in Zambia. Photos by Ad Konings.

References (2):


Konings, Ad. (Sep 06, 1999). "A Visit to the Central Tanzanian Coast of Lake Tanganyika". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Sep 27, 2023, from:

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