By Sarah Wormald
Photo by Sascha Janson at Lembeh Resort
Less than 30% of our planet is made up of land so as divers, we are privileged to be able to explore some of the other 70%. Not all of our oceans are bordered by coral reefs, but some excellent diving and stunning marine life can be found in areas where you would least expect it.
The term “muck” in muck diving takes its name from the sediment that lies on the bottom of many dive sites which can be a mixture of sand, silt, natural debris such as dead corals and coral rubble, or manmade debris ranging from tires and paint cans to air conditioning units and beer bottles – anything is possible. One thing is for sure, be careful how you move your fins or you could kick up a (silt) storm!
Muck divers have discovered that sand and silt and yes, muck – can be just as bountiful as beautiful coral reefs. Muck diving is something every seasoned diver should try and every macro-photographer must to try, but be aware, it can be highly addictive.
Compared to reef diving where you can admire an entire reef scene, muck diving takes a much more focused approach. With a lack of what we traditionally believe to be an aesthetically pleasing reef view you have to focus very closely on the bottom, searching for anything that looks like it doesn’t quite belong. Don’t just swim over that “leaf” - at a muck diving site it could easily be a cockatoo waspfish! Look at everything you find but not just by giving it a cursory glance, study things carefully and look out for distinguishable features such as fins or eyes.
Photo by Morten Lund Hansen at Lembeh Resort
Although the critters at muck diving sites are perfectly at home on the exposed bare sands, they often still seek shelter from currents and places to hide from predators. With limited options this means that any foreign matter on the sand is a potential beehive of activity. Once you have spotted a potential “hotspot”, approach slowly, observe and closely inspect. Remember that you see what you expect to see so if you are looking at some tangled rope without really studying it, you will see only tangled rope and it’s easy to miss the ornate ghost pipefish that is hovering alongside it! Take your time and look underneath things – numerous cleaner shrimp and commensal shrimp species hide in the shady areas around the base of rocks, tree branches and even plastic trash.
Be cautious throughout your dive, some critters are so well camouflaged it can be very easy to accidently brush up against them. Many of the critters that you find on muck dives have venomous spines that pack a powerful punch if they penetrate your skin.
Photo by Peter Lange at Lembeh Resort
As your eyes start to adapt you’ll be amazed at what rare species you see. Some of the most unique and interesting critters found in areas such as the Lembeh Strait in Indonesia, are blue ring octopus, numerous species of pipefish and ghost pipefish, frogfishes, stingrays, a huge range of some of the weirdest and most interesting nudibranchs, scorpionfishes, lionfishes, moray eels, devilfish, stonefishes, mandarin fish and this is just to name but a few! When muck diving, it is not unusual for the number of crustacean species you see on each dive to actually outweigh the number of fish – commensal shrimps and cleaner shrimps are hardy species and can be found almost anywhere that there is marine life. Other sought after crustaceans that are often found at muck diving sites include mantis shrimps – both smashers and spearers - harlequin shrimp, marble shrimp, squat lobsters, upside down jelly fish crabs (yes, they do exist), as well as numerous species of hermit crabs.
Indonesia is on the top of most muck divers’ bucket lists and in particular the Lembeh Strait, in North Sulawesi, which is known as the “Critter Capital of the World” and the “Twilight Zone” due to its unusually high density of weird and wonderful marine life. Lembeh Resort is the area’s leading operator with both a full time, onsite Photo Pro and Marine Biologist combined with one of the most experienced teams of Dive Guides in the Strait. Upon arrival divers are even asked to complete a “wish list” of the critters they would most like to see – now that’s service!
Photo by Peter Lange at Lembeh Resort