Scuba Life

Why muck diving is not as boring (or disgusting) as it sounds

Muck diving. It doesn’t sound very appealing. Diving with sharks, exploring shipwrecks or admiring colorful coral gardens sounds much more exciting! I must admit, when I first heard about muck diving I wasn’t exactly jumping up and down with excitement either. Yet I knew many divers who seemed to be obsessed with it, and would even talk with disdain about divers who enjoy the ‘big stuff’. Forget about turtles and manta rays, that’s only for divers who don’t know any better – or so I was told. Muck divers, or macro lovers, knew how to appreciate the finer things in (marine) life: they possess superior buoyancy skills and have extensive knowledge of marine life. I had heard enough: I wanted to join this exclusive club of elite divers!

Nudibranch (Hypselodoris Kanga)
Nudibranch (Hypselodoris Kanga)
Photo by Christian Gloor

What is muck diving?

But first I needed to find out I was getting myself in to. Since I was too shy to ask, I turned to Google. According to Wikipedia “muck diving gets its name from the sediment that lies at the bottom of many dive sites – a frequently muddy or “mucky’ environment. Other than muddy sediment, the muck dive substrate may consist of dead coral skeletons, discarded fishing equipment, tires and other man-made garbage. In addition, the visibility is usually less than on the reef or wreck sites of the area.” Ehm…. okay. Doesn’t sound that great to be honest. But I at least wanted to give it a try, before I’d go back to taking selfies with turtles.

Nudibranch (Red Lined Flabellina)
Nudibranch (Red Lined Flabellina)
Photo by Christian Gloor

An underwater treasure hunt

Fast forward a few years, and I too have become a muck convert – though I hope I’m not as much of a snob about it as the divers I spoke to back then. For me, the best way to describe muck diving is as an underwater treasure hunt. The goal is to find tiny, alien-like marine creatures, also called critters. These critters can be found hiding in the sand, seagrass or around marine debris. These environments don’t look very exciting at a first glance: it’s mostly just sand, rubble like tires and ropes, and more sand. But in that sand and rubble, you’ll find some of the most fascinating creatures on this planet. Fascinating not just because of their weird looks, but more so because of their special skills or unique characteristics. Finding them is not easy, as they’re often miniscule in size or masters of camouflage. But that’s exactly what makes it so rewarding when you finally find one.

Octopus in a bottle
Octopus in a bottle ~ Photo by Diving In Wonderland

Muck diving challenges

There are three reasons why muck diving can be challenging and why it may not be for everyone.

You need to have perfect buoyancy skills

Because the craziest critters are often miniscule in size or hiding from plain sight, you need to get very close to the (sandy) bottom to see them. If you get close to the bottom but accidentally bump into it because you don’t have your buoyancy under control, two things will happen: you’re going to disturb the environment and everything that lives in it. And you’re going to piss off all your fellow divers by ruining the visibility (because you’re stirring up the sand). Especially when you’re diving with underwater photographers, this will not make you very popular 🙂 Another option is of course to keep a safe distance, but you probably won’t enjoy your dive as much because you will not see anything.

Peacock Mantis Shrimp
Peacock Mantis Shrimp
Photo by Christian Gloor
Harlequin Shrimp
Harlequin Shrimp
Photo by Christian Gloor
You need to have some knowledge of marine life

When I was just getting started with muck diving, it happened all the time that my divemaster pointed at something, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to see. One reason for that was that these critters were really small (as in: 1 mm small). But I also just didn’t know what to look for. I had zero knowledge of marine life, and was often too shy to ask others who seemed to know everything. So I started to look up everything that I saw on my dive, from sea cucumbers to tiny shrimps and crabs. I looked for photos and background information on Google and in books about marine life (most dive centers have those lying around and will be happy to let you use them). Most of the knowledge I have about marine life, I gained this way. And the more I learned about it, the more fascinating it became, and the more excited I got when we found a new or rare creature.

Juvenile Painted Frogfish
Juvenile Painted Frogfish ~ Photo by Q. Phia
You need to be (or dive with) a good spotter

Spotting critters is a skill that takes talent and training. Everyone can see a whale shark or a shipwreck, but it’s something else to find a juvenile frogfish or a candy crab. I’m not a great spotter, although I’m already a lot better than a year ago – so it’s definitely something you can learn. To really get the most out of your muck dive, you need to have a divemaster with something similar to laser vision, and who knows the dive site like the back of his hand. But relying solely on a divemaster to find stuff, can also make you a bit lazy. For me, half the fun lies in finding critters myself. As with everything, practice makes perfect, but this will take some time.

These three challenges are not that hard to overcome, but do take some level of experience. This is the reason why muck diving is usually not that enjoyable for new divers. But if you’re interested in it, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not ready yet. Nobody was born knowing what a frogfish looks like, and we’ve all ruined visibility for someone else at one point or another.

Things to see on a muck dive (besides sand)

There are many fascinating creatures you can find on a typical muck dive, and it can vary per area or even the season. But here are some of my absolute favorite critters to find on a muck dive:

Pygmy Seahorse
Pygmy Seahorse
Photo by Christian Gloor
  • Nudibranchs and sea slugs 
  • Cephalopods;
    • Octopus (coconut, blue-ringed, mimic, wunderpus, etc.)
    • (Flamboyant) cuttlefish
    • Squid
  • Frogfish (giant, hairy, clown, warty, painted, etc.)
  • (Peacock) mantis shrimp
  • Seahorses (common, thorny, pygmy seahorse, etc.)
  • (Ghost) pipefish (ornate, robust, halimeda, etc.)
  • Shrimp (hairy, popcorn, harlequin, squat, etc.)
  • Crabs (harlequin, porcelain, candy, etc.)

Again, there are many more! But this is just a selection of my favorites. Check out the photos on this page to see these beauties in all their glory.

The best destinations for muck diving

Even though you can find sand on pretty much every dive site in the world, some places are better for muck diving than others. Lembeh in Indonesia is arguably the muck diving capital in the world (or so I’ve been told – haven’t actually been there myself). Another famous location for muck diving is Dauin in The Philippines. There are countless amazing dive sites along the Dauin coast, accessible both by shore and by boat. The great thing about Dauin is that Apo Island – a marine sanctuary famous for its abundance in healthy coral gardens and turtles – is just a short boat ride away. So if you need a break from squinting your eyes at tiny critters, you can do so while still enjoying some of the very best diving the Philippines has to offer. There are a few other great destinations for muck diving, most of them in Indonesia or the Philippines.

Halimeda Ghost Pipefish
Halimeda Ghost Pipefish ~ Photo by Elias Levy

Is muck diving the holy grail?

My appreciation for muck diving has grown as I gained more dive experience. New divers often focus mostly on air consumption, buoyancy and surviving in general, and it takes time to shift that focus to the environment around them. It also takes time and additional training to really get your buoyancy under control. That’s probably why it’s not common to see a newbie diver that’s really into muck diving, but that doesn’t mean muck diving is the holy grail. I can still be amazed by all the beautiful colors and textures of a healthy coral reef, and I still get excited if I see a turtle (anyone who claims they don’t is either lying or a psychopath). I’m jealous of people who dive with sharks and my biggest scuba wish is to become a technical diver.

But for every diver out there that has never tried muck diving and thinks it’s boring, I hope this blog has convinced you that it’s really not. Why don’t you come to Dauin to give it a try? Check out this blog to find out everything you need to know about scuba diving in Dauin.

For those that are already muck converts, I’m curious what your favorite critter is! Let me know in the comments or drop me an email at iris@divinginwonderland.com.

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