Wednesday, May 10, 2017

First Dive


“The wave action, the sound, the clear, warm and deep water, the colourful fish species, the sandy beach and the endless horizon soon convinces your mind that you are taking it easy on an island paradise next to a tropical ocean.”

Today we are leaving for Kande Beach to the south. It’s another fifty kilometre drive along the edge of the lake, yet another spectacular journey past indigenous forest, quaint villages and rubber tree plantations.
We aim to visit The Maru research centre and the Aquanuts PADI dive centre, both owned and operated by Justin on the same premises. The Maru Research centre revolves around the study and survey of the cichlid fish species prevalent in the lake. Of all the lakes in the world, Lake Malawi is blessed with the biggest biodiversity of aquatic life.

(Cichlid fish refers to the type of fish you will find in your average home aquarium. Many of these colourful fish come from places like Lake Malawi).

Kande Beach is the original site that gave birth to the Maru Research Centre, and as we drive I enquire from Justin why he decided to open a satellite station at Nkhata Bay. He explains to me that many cichlid species of fish are site specific, meaning that there are a variety of micro-biomes where only certain species occur, it is therefore vital to survey the lake as comprehensively as possible. Nkhata Bay has the added advantage of a relatively rocky shoreline and these freshwater rocks acts like ocean reefs where a vast variety of fish species congregate. This location is therefore a great asset to The Maru. Each location offers a unique insight into the diversity of fish in Lake Malawi, which in turn is an indicator of the health status of this diverse aquatic world.

We arrive at Kande Village after a short drive where we stop for supplies. This tiny settlement lies a few kilometres inland of Kande Beach. After our little shopping spree we leave the village and the main road behind and head to the lake shore on a narrow dirt road. We reach the Kande Beach Resort a few minutes later. The Maru Research Centre is situated right next to the resort. I immediately take my flip-flops off to explore the beach. It is large with fine sand and this space is markedly more open and sparsely populated than Nkhata Bay. It is as beautiful, but with a totally different atmosphere, it being more off the beaten track, so to speak. I decide that I love both spaces, but if I had to choose my favourite would be the bay with its vibrant hustle and bustle. (What can I say, I like observing people more than fish. That’s probably one of the reasons why I’m not a scientist.)

I meet two young students from England who are currently doing their course at The Maru. Like me, both are also newbies to the diving scene. Twenty-two year old Charlotte hails from Essex and she’s been here for five weeks. She is Keen to get into conservation. She came across The Maru Research Centre after some ‘deep’ googling, and what the course offered as far as diving and fieldwork seemed like an exciting choice, so why not? And here she is, wearing her tan lathered on by the copious Malawian sun like a seasoned veteran to the African bush. She says her first dive was challenging, but now she loves it. She plans to do a bit of everything on her way to becoming a fulltime conservationist, and this is exactly what The Maru provides, hands-on experience and knowledge gained through direct interaction with the environment.

Fergus is a twenty-one year old young man from London. He’s been here for just over a week. He’s goal is to gain some field research experience and he hopes that this will help him to get more involved in conservation and ecological research. He sees this as a good opportunity to gain experience at data collection in the field. Of course it’s not all about research. Research can be done basically anywhere, but the pristine and remote location of The Maru next to Lake Malawi has a unique allure, especially for the young and adventurous, as he explains in his own words: “It’s also just a cool experience to come to Malawi and live on a beach for three months.” And I must agree. What an adventure for a young man indeed!

I sit and work in yet another exquisite temporary office from where I can hear the gentle rolling freshwater waves until lunch, which consists of a multi-bean stew. (The beans where bought at the market in Kande Town). I have never been particularly fond of beans (especially the canned ones), but I find myself going for seconds. Finally I have been converted to the nutritional power of the bean. Heehaa!

After lunch I am prepped for my first dive by being shown a PADI video containing all the information a first time diver need to know. Scuba diving is something I have always wanted to do, but I’ve never had the time and money to take ‘the plunge’. I’m nervous and excited. I’m not sure what to expect and how I will react. There seems to be quite a few things I need to remember and I’m not getting any younger either. I’m in my forties now and to the conventional way of thinking, learning new adventure sports is a younger person’s game. I prepare myself, packing a small bag with extra clothing for warmth and my wallet so I can grab a celebratory beer on the way back… and then we start putting on the gear after which we walk about fifty metres to the lake edge and start diving, right from the ‘front door’ into the water in twenty seconds flat. Yikes! Why did I not think of that? In my mind I was preparing for this major dive expedition somewhere in some distant location.

My fears about the dive itself are soon dispelled on all counts. Justin happens to be an excellent instructor: patient with a calm demeanour. After an initial bit of unease and panic initiated by a sense of claustrophobia, I soon get the hang of hanging under water and sucking oxygen from a hose. The lake water is much clearer than I thought. This is the interesting thing about this lake: after a while you forget that you are next to a fresh body of water at all. The wave action, the sound, the clear, warm and deep water, the colourful fish species, the sandy beach and the endless horizon soon convinces your mind that you are taking it easy on an island paradise next to a tropical ocean. (The main differences being that the water is not salty and the wave action is somewhat more regular).

My first dive goes well and I manage to follow and complete all the actions I need to take with relative ease. Afterwards Justin gives more advance training to Fergus while I get to be a spectator. Soon breathing underwater begins to feel completely natural and I feel comfortable enough to take my GoPro from my pocket and start filming.  Afterwards I am stoked as well as hooked. This is most definitely my type of thing and I resolve to do it as often as possible.

The evening is spent cooking and generally relaxing (I get to make the flatbread). The Maru is a down to earth place. Accommodation and meals are simple affairs and everybody gets their turn to do the dishes, but this simplicity is part of its appeal. This is not a place to visit if you want pampered luxury, this is a real experience for real people with the focus on research. The magic lies in your interactions with the local culture in the most beautiful surroundings you can hope for, and to be guided by someone knowledgeable who brings a unique and unpretentious insight to the area of scientific fieldwork.

Personally I see myself as a navigator of the free waters on the opposite side of traditional science. I’m into poetry, art, music and the human ‘soul’ (whatever that might be); but after a mere two days in my new environment I’m starting to get a new respect for the work that is being done by at least some of these people. I think I shall give them a name, I shall call them the SS, the Sensitive Scientists.

a guest post by Chris Wait from www.freewildworld.com


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