Have you heard divers and underwater photographers talking about “muck diving”? Dive in with Sarah Womald as she explains all you need to know about muck diving
WHAT IS MUCK?
The term “muck” originates from diving in muddy and murky conditions in an environment where the seafloor consists predominantly of sediment, sand (often black volcanic sand), fine silt, rocks and dead corals or coral rubble.
At some muck diving sites you’ll also find small, sporadic clusters of coral or patches of anemones but nothing that could be described as a reef. Many muck diving sites also “feature” manmade debris ranging from tyres and paint cans to air conditioning units and beer bottles – ask any experienced muck diver – they will have probably seen them all.
WHY DIVE MUCK?
Muck diving offers a completely different experience to reef diving. Muck diving takes a much more focused approach which can best be described as “critter hunting”. Once your eyes have adjusted to water visibility the fun really begins. You’ll cover a relatively small area in a lot of detail. Usually you’ll start at one end of a site – or the deepest section and work your way along or up the muck in a zigzag pattern – leaving no patch of sand un-examined. The thrill of finding critters is one of the major draws to this type of diving. With little coral growth to camouflage themselves again you’ll find critters which are doing an astonishingly excellent job of hiding in plain sight and often displaying unusual behavioural traits including mating, laying eggs, hunting, feeding and even hatching. On these desolate looking sites you’ll find some of the world’s rarest and most bizarre marine life. With iconic critters such as hairy frogfish, flamboyant cuttlefish, blue ring octopus, mandarinfish, harlequin shrimps, wunderpus and mimic octopus, decorator crabs and a countless array of shrimps it’s no wonder that the world’s most elite underwater photographers spend so much time muck diving.
ESSENTIAL TIPS AND TECHNIQUES
FOR MUCK DIVING
Go Slow: This is not a race and it takes time to find critters that are camouflaged. Give your eyes time to catch up and study objects closely – not just by giving a cursory glance. Look out for features such as distinguishable fins or eyes and try to peer underneath debris, numerous cleaner shrimp and commensal shrimp species hide in the shady areas around the base of rocks, tree branches and even plastic trash. You will be covering a relatively small area so you can afford to go slow.
Buoyancy: Remember to maintain excellent control of your buoyancy at all times. Many critters at muck diving sites lay just beneath the sand and can deliver a nasty sting if you accidentally brush up against them. Perfecting your buoyancy will improve your underwater photography in leaps and bounds too as you’ll be able to hover motionless without disturbing the bottom composition (or the critter) while perfecting your shots.
Keep your Fins Up: The fine silt on the bottom is very easily disturbed and a careless fin kick can result in a silt cloud which limits visibility and takes a longer time than sand particles to settle. When finning, kick slowly and use a froggie-style technique keeping your knees bent at 90 degrees and your fins up and raised behind you – much like the technique used by cave divers. Every now and then take a look back to make sure that you are not leaving a silt cloud behind you.
Look for Hot Spots: 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 possible “hotspot” (such as items of debris), approach slowly and observe and closely inspect it. 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 miss the ornate ghost pipefish that is hovering alongside it.
Learn about Marine Life: Find out more about the marine species you are hoping to see in order to increase your chances of a sighting. Experienced dive guides don’t just have good eyes; they are armed with a wealth of knowledge. Through learning some basic information about a critter, such as what it feeds on, its preferred habitat and depth range, you’ll be able to focus on areas where you are most likely to have an encounter. If you are hoping to learn more about marine life during your trip, look for muck diving resorts which have a marine biologist on staff.
Monitor your Dive Time: It’s extremely easy to lose track of your dive time when you become engrossed in critter hunting and underwater photography. Keep an eye on your no-decompression time and make sure you agree to a maximum bottom time with your buddy before the dive. Plan your dive and dive your plan.
Plan your Shots: Many critters’ eyes have adapted to the murky conditions in which they live and they do not handle constant flash photography well. Remember that muck dwelling critters rely on camouflage rather than swimming (flight) to remain undetected and so they will remain still when flashed. For this reason, limit your number of shots. It’s easy to find a stone, shell or coral and use it to take practice shots first so you can adjust your settings and gauge your distance from the subject. Once you have everything in place then take a limited number of shots of your subject. Some critters will turn away from the camera after one or two flashes (for example pygmy seahorses); take the hint and move on to another subject.
Share Your Critters: Let other divers in your group know when you spot a critter of interest – it will encourage them to do likewise.
Never Manipulate Marine Life: Many of the critters are extremely sensitive and manipulating critters to get a closer look or to take a better photograph is not acceptable. In recent years, underwater photography competitions have disqualified entry photographs where the critter appears to have been manipulated. Disqualification can occur when a critter appears to have been moved to an environment not common to that species or when the subject is displaying behaviour indicative of it feeling threatened. If you observe another diver manipulating marine life, report it to your dive guide. It is only through respectful diving practices that these intriguing marine species will continue to thrive.
WHERE TO GO MUCK DIVING
Many of the best muck diving sites in the world are located in South East Asia and most notably in the Coral Triangle, such as the Lembeh Strait in Indonesia (also known as the Critter Capital of the World), Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea, Mabul in Malaysia and Anilao in the Philippines. Other destinations worldwide include California, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Gulen in Norway and Nelson Bay in Australia.
So are you ready to dive into the weird and wonderful world of muck diving? Our final piece of advice is beware – muck diving is highly addictive!