The Coral Triangle is a haven for exotic little critters, and underwater photographers flock to its macro hotspots to seek out the rare and the beautiful. Here are 11 of the top critters from the region that should be on every diver’s bucket list:

Pygmy Seahorse

© Gill McDonald

© Gill McDonald

The first pygmy seahorse known to science was Hippocampus bargibanti. It was found only when a host gorgonian was being examined in a laboratory. At least six more species were named after 2000. The popular bargibanti, high on all underwater photographers’ bucket lists, lives its entire adult life on a single, specific type of gorgonian fan coral, Muricella.

Weedy Scorpionfish (Rhinopias)

Rhinopias, like most scorpionfish, is a nocturnal camouflage hunter, adapting its many colours to its habitat. It rarely swims, rather it propels itself along the seabed with its fins. A relatively rare critter, divers get very excited when they hear one is around, as experienced guides are usually able to locate it repeatedly once they know its general location.

Harlequin Shrimp

These pretty, constantly moving shrimps live in pairs, feeding exclusively on starfish. They often have, respectively, pink and blue markings so appear to be traditionally dressed for their boy/ girl pairing. They maintain a “live larder” – feeding on living, usually slow-moving starfish by flipping them over and then devouring the tube feet and soft tissue.

© Mike Bartick

© Mike Bartick

Wonderpus Octopus

Another “must see” on any tropical muck dive is the lovely little wonderpus. It is often confused with the mimic octopus (see No. 8), which has similar colouring. Normally fairly shallow, the wonderpus emerges very slowly from its discreet hiding hole in the sand and hunts at dawn or dusk, whereas the mimic is out and about in the daytime.

“Shaun the Sheep” Sap-Sucking Slug

A recent entry on the underwater photographer’s wish list, this tiny, leaf-dwelling slug resembles a certain cartoon sheep. With its beady black eyes, floppy “ears” and bizarre looking body, it is undeniably cute, although very difficult to photograph, as it reaches a maximum of 5mm and is often around just 2mm.

Blue-Ring Octopus

This is among the deadliest animals in the sea. Its venom is similar to the extremely deadly toxin found in the pufferfish. The effect of a bite can be fatal, but if a victim is kept breathing with artificial respiration even up to 24 hours after the event, they can recover. It is barely the length of a pencil and covered with bright, iridescent blue rings.

© Mike Bartick

© Mike Bartick

Mimic Octopus

Discovered as recently as 1998 in Sulawesi, Indonesia, this is one of the all time “wishlist” critters on any exotic muck dive. It is surprisingly small, growing to a length of 60cm including arms. Its “party trick” is being able to change its skin, colour and texture to blend in with the environment and/or mimic other species to avoid or intimidate predators.

Bumblebee Shrimp

This beautiful little shrimp resembles a bumblebee with its yellow and black stripes and strangely truncated, flat face. It seldom swims, preferring to rummage around undercover among rubble and debris. It does not venture far from its habitat so can usually be found by knowledgeable dive guides globally in tropical lagoons and reefs.

Hairy Shrimp

The hairy shrimp is so tiny it is difficult to discern with the naked eye, resembling nothing more than a dot of algae. An adept dive guide can gently sweep the algae growth on a coral reef to find one. It can be in a variety of colours to blend in with its home. The one pictured is carrying eggs in its tail area.

© Gill McDonald

© Gill McDonald

Candy Crab (Soft Coral Crab)

This adorable little crustacean lives amongst the colourful spikes of Dendronephthya soft coral. It attaches polyps from the coral to its carapace to improve its camouflage, which is already impressive as it mimics the colours of the coral in which it lives. These are normally pink, white, yellow or red.

This article originally featured in SD OCEAN PLANET (Issue 2/2016)