Muck­ing Around

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

Asian Diver (English) - - Contents - By Brook Peter­son

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.

IMAGE: Brook Peter­son

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

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