What is muck diving
You might have heard divers talking about “going on a muck dive” already. Muck diving basically means diving on a silty or “mucky” ground. You will also be searching for special critters that make this environment their home. As you descend on your first muck dive you might feel a bit startled by how dirty, murky the dive site looks like. Don’t let this fool you. You don’t go muck diving for the beauty of the dive site nor the overall impression of the coral reef. In fact, you might not even see any coral on your dive at all. When muck diving, it is all about trying to spot weird little creatures– just like a treasure hunt. So instead of many colors, lots of fish and crystal-clear waters you might find yourself in bad visibility, hovering over sand, and only a few but instead very special critters.
Why would you go muck diving?
So, if it is not beautiful or nice to look at, why would you ever want to go muck diving?
Once you have a few dives under your belt, you have seen the walls, the sloping reefs, schools of fish, turtles and all the big stuff, you might want to try something new. Muck diving offers its very own rewards. Instead of just diving for the feel of it or the atmosphere, it kind of feels like you are on a mission. You might have a specific creature you want to find on the dive, like a blue-ringed octopus or rhinopias. It can also develop into a competition with your dive buddy to see who can find the coolest creature on the dive.
Don’t give up too early! It usually takes a few times before divers start to really get into it. You need to have very good eyes (or a very good guide) to spot those critters, many of which are so tiny that they measure only a few millimeters and can be very well camouflaged.
Overall, muck diving is very different from reef diving. One is not better than the other- they both offer something unique. After all, it all depends on your preference.
What can I expect to see on a muck dive?
What you are going to find depends a lot on where you are diving. However, you will typically be looking for small creatures, also called macro. Some examples are different kind of nudibranchs, shrimps, crabs, sea slugs, octopus, cuttlefish or frogfishes. Different types of pipefish, like the ornate ghost pipefish, can also often be spotted on muck dives and make for excellent macro photography subjects.
Some dive sites might have a few “residents”- critters that you can almost certainly find on the site, because they live there. Other times you might be out of luck, because it is not the right season for the animal you are trying to find, or simply because it is still nature and the critters are not glued to the spot (thank god!).
If you know the habitat of the animal you are searching for, it is going to make it easier for you to find it. This is how many dive guides can actually find so many fish to show you- they look for their habitat before they look for the animal itself.
That being said, if you have a specific critter you would like to see, inform yourself beforehand about the area you are traveling to, the chances of seeing it there and possible seasonality.
Where to go muck diving
Muck dives are usually done on a silty bottom. Don’t be surprised to find lots of trash on the site. Although this might be a shocking view (yes, our oceans are drowning in plastic) and is far from pretty to look at, trash can be a perfect hiding spot for a lot of marine life. Some octopus types like the coconut octopus like to hide inside cans if they don’t find any coconuts around. Often you can find yellow pygmy gobies living in discarded bottles on the ocean floor.
Docks, piers, and harbors often make for good muck dive sites as well.
Geographically speaking, Indonesia has some fantastic muck dive areas, probably the most famous being the Lembeh Strait in North Sulawesi. Another good region for muck diving is Northern Bali, mostly around Tulamben and Amed.
The Philippines also offer some fantastic muck dive spots. Head over to Anilao or Dumaguete to discover some weird critters, that you have never seen before.
Nevertheless, you don’t necessarily have to travel to those famous places for muck diving. Often you can find good muck dive spots anywhere where you have an ocean and conditions like the ones mentioned above: sand, muck, dirty, harbor. Probably people just do not dive those places as much because they are scared off by the dirty or empty look of the area.
When to go muck diving
Other than reef diving when you are looking for certain big fish like mantas or sharks, muck diving is usually not limited to a certain season. This means that you can go muck diving whenever you want! However, it is possible that specific critters are not present year around.
Another advantage of muck diving is that you can still have a fantastic dive with lower visibility. Since you are not looking at the overall landscape, but searching for tiny animals, even 5m visibility is still fine.
How to muck dive
There are a few special considerations to take when you go muck diving.
Due to the silty bottom structure of a typical muck dive site, good buoyancy becomes very important. Yes, good buoyancy is important on any dive. I would advice anyone to practice their buoyancy before starting to take any photos underwater. But with a silty ground you will stir up all the sediment, which will directly influence the visibility. Make sure you are able to hover without having to touch the bottom. And remember that touching with your feet or the whole body also counts as touching!
If you are still struggling with your buoyancy you might want to consider taking a Peak Performance Buoyancy course or the Advanced Open Water course. You could also practice in a pool before going to the ocean to make sure you feel completely confident with your buoyancy.
Another aspect of muck dive sites, the sandy or silty bottom, asks for a proper finning technique. Instead of a flutter kick that you might have learned in your Open water course, the frog kick style is much more appropriate (and much more efficient anyway so might as well start adapting it on any dive). When frog kicking you don’t stir up the bottom even when you get close to the sea floor. This is important, not only because we want to keep good visibility for our dive buddies, but also because many creatures actually live in the sand even if we do not see them. Further, it is also the main reason why you should not sit down or lay down on the bottom of the ocean.
Slow is the key
Instead of rushing over the dive site you want to take your time while muck diving. It is only by going slow that you can spot those critters you are after. Try to relax and remember that it is not a race.
Underwater Photography considerations on muck dives
Since we are looking for small creatures, you will want to shoot macro on a muck dive. If you have a macro lens (either a prime lens or a wet lens) make sure to bring it and set it up before the dive. If you are shooting on a compact camera you can use the macro mode, which will allow you to get closer to your subject.
In addition to that, a focus light (or in fact any dive light) can help you find and also light the subject.
Approach and spatial awareness
Take your time to assess the scene before you approach (just like in the Rescue Diver course: Stop, Think and Act. Remember?), instead of rushing in to take a photo as soon as you have spotted your subject of desire.
Ask yourself questions like: Are there any obstacles that prevent me from getting close to the subject? Which angle do I want to shoot the subject from?
Try putting in your settings before you shoot the subject and make a test shot of anything close by, like a rock or hydroid. Adjust your settings if you realize something is off.
And of course, do not forget good underwater photographers’ etiquette: do I have any dive buddies that also want to get a shot of the subject? Limit your shots to a few if there are other divers around that haven’t seen the subject yet.
Keeping it interesting
Muck diving is a very rewarding kind of diving that makes a great complement to typical reef-diving. It is an excellent way to practice your underwater photography skills, especially when it comes to macro photography. Give it a try, but be aware that you might fall in love with it and never want to go back. If you’re looking for some inspiration you had have a look at my underwater macro photography portfolio, most of my pictures there were taken on muck dives.
Have you tried muck diving before? Do you prefer muck diving or reef diving, and why? Which set up do you use and what are your favorite subjects?