Brook Peterson discovered that diving isn’t always a rainbow of reefs and unicorn fish. There is also muck diving and just what it sounds like: scuba diving over a barren seafloor covered in rubble, dead coral, and even man-made trash. Read on as Brook chronicles her first encounter with muck diving and how she learned to appreciate its intrinsic beauty.
Text by: Brook Peterson
Image credit: Shutterstock
As I back rolled off the banca* into the comfortable waters of Anilao, my mind conjured up images of beautiful coral gardens, colourful fish, and turtles lazily basking in the sun-drenched sea. This was my first experience in the Philippines and my expectations were high. I wanted a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Little did I know, I was about to have a life-changing one.
Anilao is arguably one of the best destinations in the world to experience a diverse variety of small critters. It occupies a portion of the Calumpan Peninsula, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Manila. The Verde Island Passage is near Balayan Bay on the north of the Peninsula with Batangas Bay on the south. Because of this, tidal forces supply huge quantities of nutrient-rich water to the area, along with plankton and larval animals from as far away as Papua New Guinea. It seemed like the perfect choice for a dive vacation.
Before I entered the water, the guide explained our dive plan. We would descend into about 20 metres of water, then follow a zig-zag pattern uphill until we reach our time limit. Donning my mask, I looked down from the surface and found that I could see nothing. No bottom, no beautiful coral, just hazy blue-grey water. I continued to sink into the sea and soon found a shadowy grey bottom coming up to greet me. To my great disappointment, there was nothing but a few scattered coral bommies amidst the vast muck-grey bottom. I had heard of muck diving and had done enough research to know that the animals in this area would be small. But I was not really prepared for what I would see. Vast expanses of sand and silt and dead-looking rubble seemed devoid of life to my eyes and I began to feel that I had made a serious error in judgement by choosing this destination.
Clown Frogfish (Antennarius maculatus)
Nevertheless, I dutifully followed the guide to one of the bommies, where he began to pick through some debris that had accumulated around it. Within minutes he was motioning for me to come and look. He pointed to a rock. I looked at the rock, then at him, thinking maybe I was missing something. Again, he pointed to the rock, then held the back of his hand to his forehead with his index finger crooked. I shrugged and started to turn away. The guide signalled to me again to look, so I decided to humour him, even though I had no interest in the rock. But then the rock moved. Ever so slowly I began to understand that I was not looking at a rock, I was looking at a frogfish. Suddenly, the “rock” became very interesting, and I watched as it used its lure to attract a small fish.
I would soon learn how dependent I was upon the dive guide’s expertise. The guides in Anilao are not just divemasters who lead a group along a predetermined path. They are highly trained individuals who have experience locating interesting subjects for their clients. They know where to look for certain types of animals and will notice things that the average diver cannot even fathom. They have standard hand signals for common animals, and it is valuable to become familiar with them.
Red Hairy Shrimp (Phycocaris simulans)
My guide showed me a tiny speck of algae in the water, and I thought he was crazy before I took a few shots with my camera and later discovered he was showing me a hairy shrimp. I had assumed that it was nothing but sea dust until I spotted its tiny legs and eye through my camera’s lens. With new eyes, I began looking closer at the small clumps of coral and debris scattered in the fine sand. There were large flat anemones full of porcelain crabs and clownfish. Nudibranchs and shrimps were living among the debris, and a small eel watched me from his den. Within an hour, I had seen more living critters in one dive than I had ever seen before, all of the new and interesting to me. What had started as a disappointing dive turned out to be one of the most exciting, I have experienced to date.
Yellow Spotted Moray Eel
The next dive started out similarly, only this time I was prepared for a featureless seafloor. I was not disappointed. The seafloor was covered with broken dead coral and other rubble. At first, it was all I could see, but then my eyes began to adjust to the small animals living amongst the debris. There were nudibranchs of all sizes and colours. Seahorses and tiny pipefish clung to twigs and even the animals had animals on them. Bubble coral heads were host to all kinds of delicate shrimp, mushroom coral heads had mushroom coral pipefish darting around the tentacles, and fire urchins had coleman shrimps and tiger crabs riding on their back. I have since learnt how important it is to become acquainted with the symbiotic relationships that many small sea critters have with one another. Knowing that whip corals are home to whip coral shrimp and gobies has helped me spot these animals on my own. Likewise, learning that sea cucumbers are host to a variety of shrimp and crabs has led me to discover these critters.
Kuni’s Nudibranch (Goniobranchus Kuniei)
A brilliant sunset marked the end of an exciting day, but little did I know that the best was yet to come. As this was one of my first dive trips, I had very limited experience diving at night. Anilao is well known for its dive site at Anilao Pier. Here, the water is only five or six metres deep. The bottom is sandy and during the day, a diver might only see a few small fish. But once night falls, the sand transforms into a living and breathing entity. Octopuses begin to emerge from hidden dens. They are on the hunt but appear playful and will entertain divers for hours if given a shell or a discarded jar.
The sand yields other interesting treasures as well. The bobbit worm, a strange and creepy looking worm with powerful jaws that bobs up out of the sand to catch fish. Crabs, snails, shrimps and sand-dwelling flatworms creep out of their hiding places to feed. Frogfish and reef squids occupy the space just above the sand, while the stargazers bury themselves just under the sand. The shallow depth makes it such that a diver can easily spend two hours there and still not see everything the site has to offer.
Commensal shrimp (Periclemenes psamathe), Secret Bay dive site, Anilao, Philippines
After a day filled with so many new finds, I discovered I was hooked on muck diving. I have explored the many sites around Anilao hundreds of times, visited Lembeh and Bali, Indonesia; Romblon, Philippines; and many other muck sites around the world. Each time, I am awed by the animals I see and the behaviour they exhibit. Muck diving has shaped the way I travel and the destinations I choose. It has inspired a love of discovery in me as each site has something new to offer. Indeed, it has fostered a deep appreciation in my heart for the wee beasties that live in the muck.
Map of Anilao
For more stories and photographs from the issue, see AsianDiver Issue 3/2018 Vol. 151. To read more exclusive content like this, check out the new issue of the ASIAN DIVER Magazine!