As a new diver, Brook Peterson came to appreciate the beauty of the underwater world, but not all diving is rainbow reefs and unicorn fish. Muck diving is just what it sounds like: scuba diving over an a barren seafloor covered in rubble, dead coral and e
As I back-rolled off the banca* into the comfortable waters of Anilao, my mind conjured up images of beautiful coral gardens, colourful fish, and turtles lazily basking in the sun-drenched sea. This was my first experience in the Philippines, and my expectations were high. I wanted a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but little did I know that I was about to have a life-changing one.
Anilao is arguably one of the best destinations in the world to experience a diverse variety of small critters. It occupies a portion of the Calumpan Peninsula, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Manila. The Verde Island Passage is near Balayan Bay on the north of the Peninsula with Batangas Bay on the south. Because of this, tidal forces supply huge quantities of nutrient-rich water to the area, along with plankton and larval animals from as far away as Papua New Guinea. It seemed like the perfect choice for a dive vacation.
Before I entered the water, the guide explained our dive plan. We would descend in about 20 metres of water, then follow a zig-zag pattern uphill until we reached our time limit. Donning my mask, I looked down from the surface and found that I could see nothing. No bottom, no beautiful coral, just hazy blue-grey water. I continued to sink into the sea and soon found that a shadowy grey bottom was coming to greet me. To my great disappointment, there were just a few scattered coral bommies on a vast muck-grey bottom.
I had heard of muck diving and had done enough research to know that the animals in this area would be small. But I wasn’t really prepared
I looked down from the surface and found that I could see nothing. No bottom, no beautiful coral, just hazy blue-grey water. I continued to sink into the sea and soon found that a shadowy grey bottom
was coming to greet me
for what I would see. Vast expanses of sand and silt and dead looking rubble seemed devoid of life to my eyes and I began to feel that I had made a serious error in judgement by choosing this destination
Nevertheless, I dutifully followed the guide to one of the bommies, where he began to pick through some debris that had accumulated around it. Within minutes he was motioning for me to come and look. He pointed to a rock. I looked at the rock, then at him, thinking maybe I was missing something. Again, he pointed to the rock, then held the back of his hand to his forehead with his index finger crooked. I shrugged and started to turn away. The guide signalled to me again to look, so I decided to humour him, even though I had no interest in the rock. But then the rock moved. Ever so slowly my eyes began to understand that I was not seeing a rock, but a frog fish. Suddenly, the “rock” became very interesting and I watched as it used its lure to attract a small fish.
I would soon learn how dependent I was upon the dive guide’s expertise. The guides in Anilao are not just dive masters who lead a group along a predetermined path. They are highly trained individuals who have experience locating interesting subjects for their clients. They know where to look for certain types of animals and will see things that the average diver cannot even fathom. They have standard hand signals for common animals and it is valuable to become familiar with them. My guide showed me a tiny speck of algae in the water, which made me think he was crazy. But I took a few shots with my camera and later discovered he was showing me a hairy shrimp. I truly thought it was nothing but sea dust until I spotted its tiny legs and eye through my camera’s lens.
With my new eyes, I began to look closer at the small clumps of coral and debris scattered in the fine sand. There were large flat anemones full of porcelain crabs and clownfish. Nudibranchs and shrimp were living among the debris, and a small eel watched me from his den. By the end of an hour, I had seen more living critters in one dive than I had ever seen before and all of them were new to me. What had started as a disappointing dive turned out to be one of the most exciting
I had experienced to date.
The next dive started out similarly, only this time I was prepared for a featureless sea floor. I was not disappointed. The sea floor was covered with broken dead coral and other rubble. At first, it was all I could see, but then my eyes began to adjust to the small animals living amongst the debris. There were nudibranchs of all sizes and colours. Seahorses and tiny pipefish clung to twigs and even the animals had animals on them. Bubble coral heads were host to all kinds of delicate shrimp, mushroom coral heads had mushroom coral pipefish darting around the tentacles, and fire urchins had Coleman shrimp and tiger crabs riding on their back. I have since learnt how important it is to become acquainted with the symbiotic relationships that many small sea critters have with one another. Knowing that whip corals are home to whip coral shrimp and gobies has helped me to find these animals on my own. Likewise, learning that sea cucumbers are host to a variety of shrimp and crabs has led me to discover these critters.
A brilliant sunset marked the end of an exciting day, but little did I know that the best was yet to come. As this was one of my first dive trips, I had very limited experience diving at night. Anilao is well known for a dive site at Anilao Pier. Here the water is only five or six metres deep. The bottom is sandy and during the day, a diver might only see a few small fish. But once the sun sets, the sand transforms into a living and breathing entity. Octopuses begin to emerge from hidden dens. They are on the hunt but appear playful and will entertain divers for hours if given a shell or a discarded jar.
The sand yields other interesting treasures as well. The Bobbit worm, a strange and creepy looking worm with powerful jaws bobs up out of the sand to catch fish. Crabs, snails, shrimp and sand dwelling flatworms creep out of their hiding places to feed. Frogfish appear, reef squid occupy the space just above the sand, and stargazers bury themselves just under the sand. Because of the shallow depth, a diver could easily spend two hours there and never see everything the site has to offer.
After a day filled with so many new finds, I discovered I was hooked on muck diving. I have explored the many sites around Anilao hundreds of times, visited Lembeh and Bali, Indonesia; Romblon, Philippines; and many other muck sites around the world. Each time, I am awed by the animals I see and the behaviour they exhibit. Muck diving has shaped the way I travel and the destinations I choose. It has inspired a love of discovery in me as each site has something new to offer. Indeed, it has fostered a deep appreciation in my heart for the wee beasties that live in the muck. BROOK PETERSON is an avid scuba diver and underwater photographer who enjoys capturing the beauty of the underwater environment throughout the world. She is an original member of the Sea&Sea Alpha programme. Her work has been featured in both print and online magazines. She is the owner of Waterdog Photography and authors a blog on underwater photography and techniques.
ABOVE: A frogfish sits atop a small wreck in Anilao, Philippines
TOP: A pair of Hypselodoris tryoni nudibranchs host a pair of emperor shrimp ABOVE: A snowflake moray eel hunts for prey in the sandIMAGES: Brook Peterson
BELOW: An ornate ghost pipefish hides in plain sight BOTTOM: An emperor shrimp living on the back of a sea cucumberIMAGES: Brook Peterson
TOP: A reef squid hunting in the water column above a muck siteABOVE: A lizardfish feasting on a dragonetIMAGES: Brook Peterson
FEATURE MUCKING AROUND