If you like easy diving and macro critters, then muck diving might just be for you. While the Lembeh Strait may be the most famous muck diving that North Sulawesi (possibly the world) has to offer, Bunaken Marine Park has a few tricks up its sleeve too, and Manado bay is just a 1 hour boat ride from Siladen.
The idea of muck diving is simple. We go to sheltered bays on the mainland, where a combination of nutrient rich black volcanic sand and mud has restricted coral growth to a minimum. There may be some rocks with areas of corals, and there might be a few sea grass patches. Basically, there are very few places for the animals to hide, which has resulted in some odd evolutionary traits. In some of the sites, we have more white sand than black, allowing shallow corals to flourish, but the idea remains the same.
Muck diving may be very different to any diving you have done before, and special procedures are to be followed if you want to get the most out of it.
Don’t touch anything!
And we mean anything, not just the critters or the corals. The sand is an important habitat that may be sheltering life you haven’t noticed. More important than that however, is that a number of ambush predators are hiding just under the sand, waiting for a meal to pass by. Many of these animals such as stone fish, scorpionfish, or stargazers, are venomous, and can inflict a very painful injury if touched.
Use a pointer.
In many places in the world, pointers are frowned upon. Many divers think of them only as a way to manipulate animals into the perfect positon. While this view unfortunately has some truth in it for a few bad divers, a properly used pointer can actually prevent a lot of damage to the reef.
When you are trying to get close to see a tiny animal or stabilise yourself for a picture, try finding a safe place to put your pointer. If this is sand, make sure you check before that nothing is hiding underneath. If this is on the reef, search for an area with no coral growth, such as bare substrate. Never use your pointer on delicate objects such as corals of sponges. Once you are finished looking or photographing, simply push yourself away.
Proper trim and finning.
Diving over black sand is very different to white sand, or no bottom. The characteristic black sand of muck diving is extremely fine, appearing more like the silt you encounter while wreck diving. One fin on the bottom can stir up all the sediment, leaving visibility almost zero. Remember as well, there are many delicate critters living on the bottom, and a misplaced fin could have the same effect to a sea horse as a fly swatter has to a fly.
You should keep a clean trim with nothing dangling, knees bent at a 90 degree angle, and small kicks to minimise water movement. The best kick is the frog kick, as it directs most of the water behind you, as opposed to the flutter kick with directs the water up and down.
Maintain perfect buoyancy
For the same reasons as number 3.
Never manipulate the critters.
As the old saying goes, ‘never work with animals or children’. Animals are unpredictable. They almost never stay still in the spot where you want them. Even if you think that ghost pipefish would look better away from its crinoid home, this doesn’t give you the right to put it there. The best way to photograph the animals is to go slowly, and never appear threatening to them. If they realise you are not a threat, they will go about their normal behaviour, allowing you to get the perfect picture. Manipulating then will only stress them out, possibly causing them to flee the safety of their homes.
Your guide will know how to properly handle the critters to get the best interaction. Did you know that octopus are very curious, and if you move a metre back, they will come out to inspect you? Pygmy seahorses will always turn away from you at first, but if left undisturbed they will go back to their normal position. The guides know how to interact with the animals without touching them or causing stress.
Know what to expect.
If you have never been muck diving before, you may spend the first 5 minutes thinking ‘what on earth am I doing down here?’. It is not like the other reefs. There are not colourful fish everywhere you look, in fact, quite often there is almost no colour whatsoever.
Most animals we see while muck diving are a) very small b) very cryptic, or c) very small and very cryptic. You will need to go slowly and have a guide with local knowledge. Before long you will be seeing critters you could never have even dreamt of!
Like in the last point, the critters are not as common as other reef animals. You may want to spend 10 minutes trying to get the perfect picture, but there are other people to think of too. If you are the only one in your group with a camera, be considerate and let everyone else have a look first.
It is not just other divers you need to be considerate of. While muck diving, the visibility is typically lower than it is elsewhere, and there is usually less light. Most animals have adapted to living in a constant twilight, and are not used to bright strobes firing constantly. Please minimise your shots with bright lights so to not stress the animal. Instead of just shooting and shooting, hoping the critter moves into a good spot, wait for the critter to get into the ideal position before taking the picture. The same goes with setting the camera up. It is better to get the settings and exposure correct on a nearby coral, rather than subjecting the critter to unnecessary shots.
Bring some extra tools.
Besides the controversial pointers I have already mentioned, there are some little extras you can bring along to maximise your muck diving experience.
I have already mentioned how it can be a little darker than on coral reefs. For this reason, a torch is nice to have in your inventory. It can help you spot critters hiding in the cracks, as well as bring back their true colours.
Have you ever seen a hairy shrimp or pygmy pipefish? There are very, very small… Often too small to see if you don’t have 20/20 vison. A nice little extra to have is a magnifying glass. Many dive manufacturers produce them, and some are even neutrally buoyant. These are very useful if you want to really see the definition on certain critters, such as a ghost pipefishes brood.