The lake is situated within the Albertine Rift, the western branch of the geographic feature known as the East African Rift, and is confined by the mountainous walls of the valley. It is the largest rift lake in Africa and the second largest lake by volume in the world. It is the deepest lake in Africa and holds the greatest volume of fresh water. It extends for 676 km (420 mi) in a general north-south direction and averages 50 km (31 mi) in width. The lake covers 32,900 km2 (12,700 sq mi), with a shoreline of 1,828 km (1,136 mi) and a mean depth of 570 m (1,870 ft) and a maximum depth of 1,470 m (4,820 ft) (in the northern basin) it holds an estimated 18,900 cubic kilometers (4,500 cu mi). It has an average surface temperature of 25°C and a pH averaging 8.4.
The enormous depth and tropical location of the lake can prevent 'turnover' of water masses, which means that much of the lower depths of the lake is so-called 'fossil water' and is anoxic (lacking oxygen).
The lake holds at least 250 species of cichlid fish and 150 non-cichlid species, most of which live along the shoreline down to a depth of approximately 180 metres (590 ft). Many species of cichlids from Lake Tanganyika are popular fish among aquarium owners due to their bright colors.