How to Get Started with Muck Diving

what is muck diving

Is scuba diving starting to feel a little samey? Are you an underwater photographer or a lover of the wonderfully weird? Then muck diving may be for you. Despite the yucky sounding name, muck diving is how you can see the most unique and vibrant creatures in the world.

The practice of mucking diving originated in Papua New Guinea and even though it’s still quite niche, it’s starting to become more popular. Each muck dive location holds a treasure trove of delights; the marine biodiversity simply cannot be matched. Read on to learn more about this exciting type of scuba diving.

What is muck diving?

First, let’s discuss the elephant in the name: the name muck diving. It sounds disgusting and probably needs some PR help. Even though it doesn’t have the most attractive name, muck diving has a bit of a niche following. So what exactly is it, and why does it appeal to so many divers?

When you think of recreational scuba diving, you think of vibrant coral reefs. They are like the cities of the underwater world, wonderful and fascinating in their own right, home to several magical species. However, coral reefs are not the only habitat for marine life. In fact, some fish live far away from the coral reef. Going along with our metaphor, these fish live in the countryside or the “muck.”

how to get started with muck diving

Ironically, the muck is home to the most diverse and exotic looking marine life unlike anything you’ve seen before. All you need to do is venture away from the busy coral reefs and spend a little time scouting out the environment and you’ll find all kinds of wonderful animals camouflaged with their surroundings.

You can find octopuses hiding in coconut shells, “sponges” that are actually frogfish, seahorses camouflaged in plain sight, nudibranchs sliding by; these environments are rich in marine life and a little world unto themselves. Finding these creatures is the joy of muck diving.

There is an art to diving close to sand or mucky bottoms, patchy reefs, or what looks like an unsavory environment at first glance. However, in these environments live a veritable amount of wonderfully weird marine species, and finding them is like a treasure hunt. Once you’re invested in muck diving, it’s hard to stop.

So throw away all the bad notions associated with the word “muck,” and dive into a new, bizarre, yet wonderful world. This is muck diving.

Why go muck diving?

muck diving destinations

Diving in muck is not every diver’s cup of tea. Some divers are understandably wary of diving in silt or debris. However, muck diving is not about sifting through dirt to find treasure or proving you’re some kind of rugged diver; it’s about testing your sense of observation to the test.

When you muck dive, you are focused on finding the exotic marine life. You should treat it like a treasure hunt or a game of Where’s Waldo. The fun of it is seeing how many critters you can find that hide in the silt or other surroundings.

Muck diving is very similar to macro diving and some divers use these terms interchangeably. They’re not the same, but muck diving can be described as another rewarding type of macro diving.

Is muck diving for me?

As we mentioned, muck diving is quite niche and does not appeal to everyone. So how can you decide if it’s for you? Unfortunately, it’s impossible to truly know until you try it for yourself. However, we can try to guide you in the right direction.

If you prefer spectacle, love seeing the vibrant ocean floor, and prefer your marine life to be big, then muck diving probably isn’t for you. There won’t be manta rays or sharks swimming around in the muck. However, if you have sharp eyes and like to see detail in nature, then you’ll be surprised at what lives in the muck. Due to the low visibility, you’ll literally be inches away from the bottom, but that’s where you can spot some of the small marine life that reside there.

What lives in the muck?

pygmy seahorse
Caparbio, CC BY-SA 3.0

Muck dive sites are a goldmine of beautiful macro shots for wildlife photographers who want to capture exotic creatures. You can find frogfish, stargazers, nudibranchs, cockatoo waspfish, and many other unique creatures that aren’t often found in other dive sites.

In the Asian continent, muck dive sites there contain burrowing octopus, snake eels, tube worms, jawfish, harlequin shrimps, gobies, flamboyant cuttlefish, crocodilefish, mantis shrimp, spring tiger shrimp, bobtail squid, paddle flap rhinopias, flatworms, and arrow crabs are some of the common creatures you can find there. The Asian continent contains some of the best muck dive sites in the world.

Diving conditions at a muck dive site

If you’ve never muck dived before, the first time might come as a bit of a shock to you. You may be used to diving in crystal clear waters, with visibility in all directions that stretches for dozens of metres. Unfortunately, visibility is often very poor in muck dives. The bottom has layers of loose sediment which is easily disturbed.

Despite the poor visibility, eventually your eyes adjust to it and you won’t be as paralyzed by it. Furthermore, your face will be inches from the seabed as you look for signs of life. Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s arguably easier to find camouflaged critters here due to the lack of coral growth for them to hide in.

True muck dives are often located in areas where there is volcanic activity. The volcanic ash deposits iron into the surrounding area, which encourages phytoplankton growth which affects the food chain. This accounts for the “unusual” marine life you can find at muck dive sites. The creatures here have adapted to thrive in the barren environment via dietary, behavioral, and genetic changes.

Muck diving for underwater photographers

Nudibranch Goniobranchus Kuniei
Kris Mikael Krister, CC BY 3.0

Underwater photographers are more likely to enjoy muck diving. While coral reefs and big fish are dynamic and fast moving, the stars of the muck diving world lie in wait for their big moment to shine. They rely on mimicry and camouflage to stay hidden in plain sight; only the sharpest eyes can spot them and snap a quick picture of them.

The marine life in the muck are such good photography subjects because it’s like playing a game of Where’s Waldo, even in the finished shot. However, once you see them, you get an Aha! moment that is immensely satisfying. Furthermore, some of the creatures are vibrant, eye-catching, and inspiring. The most exotic photographs were likely taken during a muck dive.

In order to take underwater photographs in a muck, you need the right gear. Specifically, a good macro lens or camera that specializes in macro photography is necessary, as is a strobe. That’s about it for camera equipment, the rest is up to the photographer’s sharp eye to find these creatures and capture them in a photograph (with some help from a local guide). If you’re an underwater photographer and you’ve never tried muck diving, you’re missing out.

Muck diving tips for first-timers

  • Look, don’t touch. Resist the urge to touch any animals you see. We realize that it can be frustrating when the critter isn’t in the optimal position for the perfect shot, but do not touch the animals. This is not just for the animal’s sake, but for your own as well. Many of these creatures are venomous and will not hesitate to attack you if they feel threatened.
  • Try not to stir up the sediment. When you’re diving so close to the seabed, it’s really easy to stir up the sediment. The goal here is to not do it on purpose. You may have seen some videos of divers doing it on purpose, or being encouraged to do it by dive operators. Just because the water isn’t as crystal clear as you’re used to doesn’t mean you should make it worse. The silt will not only disturb other divers, but it can displace the animals you’re trying to find. And going back to point one, you don’t want to harass the animals in any way. The best type of kick for this is the frog kick.
  • Master buoyancy control. Easier said than done, but buoyancy control is a fundamental skill in all types of diving, and especially for muck diving. Mastering buoyancy control will help you disturb the sand less often. The sand found in muck dive sites are black sand, which is finer than white sand and takes longer to settle. If you disturb the silty bottom, it can take a long time for the water to clear so that you can get the perfect shot.
  • Use a muck stick. Muck sticks are useful tools when used carefully because they can help you get into or maintain a better position. Simply insert the tip of the stick to a lifeless area to give you extra support. Unfortunately, some divers use the stick to poke and prod the marine life to manipulate them into a better position, or they just do it for fun. That’s not the right way to use a pointer stick.
  • Be careful with strobe lights. If you’re trying to get the perfect shot, you need sufficient lighting. Unfortunately, a bright underwater flash can cause distress to some species, such as pipefish and seahorses which don’t have eyelids. Some argue whether strobes have any impact on marine life, however some photographers noted that some species appear to be stressed out when they have been exposed to a strobe light.
  • Think of others. As we mentioned, try not to disturb the silt and don’t hover too long over an animal. Let other divers get a chance to observe the animals, take photographs, and enjoy the muck diving experience.

Best muck diving destinations

Nudibranch Hypselodoris Infucata
Kris Mikael Krister, CC BY 3.0

Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is thought to be the birthplace of muck diving, so our first recommendation is Milne Bay in the southeastern tip of Papua New Guinea. Milne Bay provides the best muck diving experience when it comes to the variety of creatures you can find there. From seahorses, ghost pipefish, frogfish, flatworms, cuttlefish, mandarin fish, nudibranchs, and even the extremely rare rhinopias can be found here.

Lembeh Strait, Indonesia

Indonesia is famous for its awesome muck diving sites, and the one that stands out the most is Lembeh Strait. Here, you can take rare macro photography of juvenile humpback batfish, frogfish, and cockatoo waspfish. The abundance of species here is thanks to the rich deposits of black volcanic sand in this area.

Anilao, Philippines

Anilao is yet another destination that lies along the Coral Triangle, which is home to the most biodiverse waters on Earth. Situated a few hours south of Manila, Anilao is the Philippine’s hotspot for muck diving. Nearly every variety of juvenile fish and other marine life reside here. From hair frogfish to blue-ringed octopus to pipefish and rhinopias, the muck dive sites in this region are bustling with marine activity.

Mabul, Borneo

The small island of Mabul was often overlooked as a place of interest because it is located near the world-famous Sipadan. Eventually, divers realized that there are lots of small wonders hidden in Mabul, and that it’s worth exploring too, particularly their dive sites. Today, the island is famous for being a macro photographer’s paradise.

All sorts of creatures can be found hiding behind rocks, in the sand, or between rubble caused by broken coral. Some of the critters you can spot here include mimic octopus, flamboyant cuttlefish, blue-ringed octopus, and many varieties of nudibranchs.