MUCK DIVING

 

The definitive guide

By Bob Halstead

MV Telita at Muck site

 

One fine day I cruised our much loved live-aboard dive boat Telita into a sheltered bay with a black sand beach, dropped the anchor down the rubble slope and tied the stern to a tree ashore just a few metres behind the boat. The river mouth a hundred metres or so away was spewing a plume of brown mud after a recent downpour and the visibility appeared to be zilch.

“What are we doing here?”, one of our guests anxiously questioned “Trouble with the engine?, is there a storm coming? are we picking up some vegetables?”

“No” I replied, to the assembled group, “this is a dive site.”

My answer met with an explosive response.“We’ve paid thousands of dollars to come to dive PNG and we are not going to dive here, you lunatic, move the boat!”

They were seriously angry and I was in trouble. I had misjudged the sophistication of our dive group. Their expectations were for classic coral reefs and walls and crystal clear water – in fact just like the dives they had experienced during the first few days of our expedition.

I back-finned furiously, “I will move the boat straight away – but please just try the dive for a few minutes. The fresh muddy water you see is floating on top of the sea water, just go down 2 metres and the water will be clear, and although this is not much of a reef you will see more creatures here than on all the reefs you have dived so far put together. Please try it for just five minutes, if you do not like it come up and I will move immediately.”

As a last resort a I made the lawyer’s plea – “Trust Me!”

I must have been persuasive because I managed to get them in the water but they were convinced that this was a big con and I was just trying to save fuel, or too lazy to take them to the great reefs.

The interesting thing was that no one surfaced for 40 minutes or so and then it was because they were out of film and needed to reload – and get their tanks topped up at the same time.  They boiled with excitement raving about the creatures they had seen and marvelling at each others discoveries. My reputation saved I announced:- “Welcome to the wonderful world of Muck Diving!”

1.       WHAT IS MUCK DIVING?

Muck diving takes place at any site which does NOT have beautiful underwater scenery. Do not expect to see acres of beautiful corals. There may be patches with hard corals, gorgonians or sponges but these are usually isolated and not the main feature of the site. There may even be discarded human junk scattered around on the bottom. This does not sound very appetising so why would anyone want to dive a site like this?  The answer is that Muck sites are habitats where many interesting and even bizarre marine creatures can be found, and extraordinary marine life behaviour can be observed. Be warned now – Muck diving is addictive!

2.      HOW IT ALL STARTED

Exquisite Venus Comb Murex likes black silty sand

At one time Dinah and I were very keen shell collectors. We picked shells up, alive or dead, whenever we came across new ones, and had a modest but treasured collection. However we could not find many of the different species that we saw illustrated in books about shells, but which should be in our area. Then we met Australia’s one and only Neville Coleman who showed us that most shells did not live on coral reefs but in sand, silt and mud and amongst debris. We studied his beautiful and inspirational book “What Shell is That” first published in 1975, and reprinted several times since. The good news for divers is that this book has been revised and is being republished by Neville himself  in 1999. This book has stunning photographs of dead shells but, even better, many photographs of living shells in their habitats, and details of the habitats, most of which were not coral reefs. In 1980 Neville published another wonderful book called Shells Alive and this is still available directly from him – call tel 07 3341 8931.

We realised we had been diving in the wrong places and so immediately started to explore sandy bays, sea grass beds, river mouths, mud and mangroves. Our shell collection expanded rapidly however our interest gradually changed from marvelling at the beauty of the shells that we found, to marvelling at the miraculous animals that created them. We stopped the tedious and smelly business of collecting and cleaning shells and concentrated on the more challenging task of photographing the live animals. We also increased our frequency of night diving since shells are much easier to find at night when they become active and emerge from their daytime hiding places to feed and mate.

Inevitably we started to find other creatures that we had not seen before. Weird fishes, exotic nudibranchs, peculiar shrimp and strange sea stars suddenly appeared before us. It was like opening a vast treasure chest of marine goodies.

And that is how I describe Muck dives now when I brief divers. I explain that although the scenery is not much to look at, if divers look carefully they will find a multitude of marine treasures. Think of the dive as a treasure hunt for marine gems. Some sites are easy and even beginners will stumble across amazing critters, others are more difficult requiring a good eye and patient searching. As with most endeavours practice is the answer, and after a while any diver can learn to see even the best camouflaged beasts lurking in the Muck. As I have described, it sometimes was a struggle to get divers to accept Muck dives,  but once they had tried it they were usually enthusiastic.

Exotic Crab

Some of our prime Muck sites in PNG have become famous. Dinah’s Beach and Observation Point are two that are now on the regular itineraries of several dive boats, and boats are even chartered to spend weeks at time exclusively at these sites. Photographers know they can get results and other divers enjoy the calm water and easy diving that the sites offer. I do remember however the early reluctance of our overseas agents to advertise the fact that we offered Muck Diving. They thought it would be a disaster and they would never be able to sell our cruises. Call it Exotic Animal Diving they pleaded! We stuck with Muck, and now there are a dedicated group of highly sophisticated, and all seeing, Muck divers searching the world for new Muck Sites!

Muck diving disciples have now found sites around the pacific that until recently were never considered by divers. Indonesia has some amazing shore dives that are very popular and the Solomon Islands are also producing some great sites. Most travelling divers now demand a selection of dives – great reefs, wrecks and walls for sure, but also a good selection of unadulterated MUCK.

3.      MUCK DIVING SITES

Often great Muck sites will combine several different Muck habitats. For example Observation Point has a mangrove area, sea grass bed, and sand slopes. I am going to describe particular Muck habitats, but please remember they often occur together.

MANGROVES.

Just don't look up ...

Mangroves are a vital part of coral reef ecosystems. Not only do mangroves protect the shore from erosion, and thus reefs from siltation, they provide nurseries for juvenile species which will eventually move out on to coral reefs. Mangroves are also homes for creatures that will spend their entire lives living in them. Since we are talking about a habitat that forms the shore, mangroves are among the shallowest of Muck dives. In fact they may be impossible to dive at all at low tide, and can quite often be better dived with just a snorkel than with scuba. Many mangrove areas have very murky water and are exposed to wind and wave and these areas are not recommended. Search for mangrove areas which are sheltered and which are close to deeper water. Then dive them at high tide when water conditions can be clear.

This year I dived Morovo Lagoon with Bilikiki Cruises. The lagoon is dotted with perfect tiny coral islands and I was interested to learn that very few of them had been dived. The Cruise Director Scott Waring was keen to explore so we selected Matimbako Island, an idyllic South Pacific island one hundred metres or so across.  The Island was surrounded by a reef drop off and most people decided to make their dive along the wall that this formed but I chose to go up on top of the reef where shallow coral gardens on a white sand base extended almost to shore. What interested me were the mangroves growing next to the white sand beach. I had a tremendous dive with clear water and a juvenile batfish and other gems among the mangrove roots. The sun’s rays were filtering through the mangroves and the view was spectacular. I called Scott and his wife Diane over for them to have a look while I went back to the main boat to change film and fill up my tank for a second dive at the site. There would be literally hundreds of like sites just in Morovo Lagoon waiting for exploration.

HighlightsLook carefully on the mangrove trunks for sea horses, pipefishes and shells. Juvenile batfishes will swim close to the bottom between the trunks. Cardinal fishes, archer fishes, garfishes and needlefishes, and also juvenile great barracudas and other juvenile reef fishes will be seen hiding among the trunks.

Risks

Mangrove sites should be selected with care as there may be a possibility of meeting a salt water Crocodile. Avoid sites close to river mouths or which are part of very extensive mangrove lagoons. Often small islands a distance off shore will have a mangrove area and these are ideal, especially as the water is likely to be clearer. Local knowledge can be helpful here and it is always a good idea to ask the locals if any crocodiles have been seen in the area.

Wunderpus!

SEA GRASS BEDS

Solenostomus cyanopterus

Usually close to shore, sea grass beds extend down to no more than 8 metres or so deep and rise to the low tide  level. The sandy tidal area above the sea grass should not be ignored and in particular the top edge of the sea grass beds, which usually has an accumulation of twigs and dead leaves along it, can be a particularly productive place to look for unusual marine life. Often large logs may be found laying in the sea grass. These have drifted in from the sea or simply fallen down from the beach and are excellent places for finding critters. They should be searched thoroughly.

My first experience diving a sea grass bed came by accident when strong winds and rough seas forced us into a sheltered bay to anchor. The water was clear however and the bottom sloped down to very deep water from a shallow ledge near the beach which had luxuriant sea grass beds. We decided to night dive the site, but found so much stuff in the Muck that we actually stayed three days, even though the wind died down and we could have easily dived the off shore reefs. This site is Bunama on Normanby Island in the D’Entrecasteau group. Our first exotic find, on the slope just below the sea grass, was a colony of Venus Comb Murex, surely one of the most beautiful and miraculous of all sea shells. We tracked the shells as they hunted at night and discovered that they used their spines to trap small clams which they then ate by boring a hole right through the clam’s shell. We also discovered Panda clownfish, sea horses, cowfish, frogfishes, dwarf lionfishes, pipefishes and other gems right in the sea grass. Bunama turned out to be one of our most successful site discoveries.

Highlights

There are often anemones living in the sea grass and in our area they mostly contain the Panda clownfish, an anemonefish which was considered rare until people realised that it favoured sea grass to coral reef. If you find one always look beside the anemone because there will often be a coconut shell or other debris on which the Panda clownfish will have laid its eggs. The shallow edge of the sea grass beds is a good place to look for sea horses and juvenile Orbicular batfish, which mimic dead leaves. Frogfish (anglerfish) of all colours, even bright yellow, can be found in the sea grass, particularly near rotting logs which will always have a collection of lionfishes and juvenile file and triggerfishes. Horned cowfish and well camouflaged green trigger fishes are sometimes difficult to spot but the best camouflaged of all the sea grass in habitants are the pipefishes. The Double-ended pipefish and the Robust ghost pipefish are very difficult to see and are a prized finds. Another prized find, and one which can give you quite a start after concentrating on little critters is a dugong. Forget it if you are diving with a gang of people but if you are off by yourself you may have one of these usually very shy but wonderful creatures come and give you an inspection.

Risks

Watch out for stinging anemones and venomous sea urchins. It is a good idea to wear a full dive skin, even in the very warm waters that occur close to shore, and to be very careful where you put your hands. There are a great variety of stinging anemones that live in sea grass areas and some are small and well disguised but will give you a vicious sting. Avoid touching them at all costs, and also be aware that although a dive skin will help, some anemones and their relatives are able to sting you right through the lycra.

SAND SLOPES

Sand diver, Trichonotus halstead

Sand slopes are the most barren looking of all the muck sites, and one of the most challenging, but actually contain a myriad of interesting beasts big and small. The slopes can vary considerably in consistency. Some slopes are made up of loose coral sand which is continually being deposited. This sand slides down the steep slope making a very dynamic habitat. You will not find creatures that make permanent burrows here but you will find creatures that can dive into the loose sand, and even some fishes that can ‘swim” through it! Other sand slopes are firmer and contain permanent burrows and often patches of soft coral, sponge or algal growth. Any debris such as sunken logs, even beer bottles or other junk should be give a close inspection as these act as oases and attract critters seeking shelter. Dinah actually found a new species of goby that lives inside discarded bottles – now the fish is being named after her.

Observation point is a staging point for small boats on the long run from the D’Entrecasteau Islands to Alotau, the Provincial Capital of Milne Bay. The beach is sheltered from the trade winds and boats are secured by dropping an anchor down the sand slope and tying the stern to a tree ashore. I did exactly that on a boat called Kedidia back in 1975. I had organised the charter the boat for a weekend of diving with friends from Alotau. At the time we were more interested in the nearby reef wall, but I noted the sand slope from the beach and at the next opportunity made a night dive there. Again we were amazed by the fantastic creatures that we found – that was my first meeting with the extraordinary Flamboyant Cuttlefish. Later we used the site as a base for research, with Dr Eugenie Clark, into sand divers of the genus Trichonotus. We were fortunate to discover a new species which was eventually named after Dinah and I, Trichonotus halstead. Several new species have been discovered at this site, some of which remain unnamed. Observation Point is on the Milne Bay itinerary of Mike Ball’s Paradise Sport.

Highlights

Sand divers, razorfishes, sand octopus, cuttlefishes, mantis shrimp, snake eels and scorpionfishes all love sand slopes. Watch out for any crinoids sitting on the sand as these may have ghost pipefishes, shrimp and crabs hiding in them. Night diving can be especially rewarding as many creatures that are buried in the sand emerge and wander around. Large pleurobranchs (nudibranch like creatures) are common, shells are abundant, and small shrimp and planktonic fishes can be so numerous they may obliterate the visibility. During the day look for fishes such as goat fishes, snappers and even eagle rays that feed by digging in the sand. Also watch for trevally and other fast moving predators that will try to catch an unwary fish wandering above the sand.

Firmer sand which can sustain burrows is the habitat for shrimp gobies. This amazing group of fishes live in a symbiotic relationship with blind shrimp. The shrimp dig and maintain the burrows which shelter the gobies, and the gobies warn the shrimp of approaching predators. One of the shrimp’s feelers is always in contact with the goby. There are many different types of shrimp gobies and this is one group where it is certain that many species remain undescribed. Careful and patient dive techniques are required in order to approach closely enough for excellent photographs – a real but rewarding challenge.

Risks

Diving sand slopes is a low risk activity, especially as they are usually close to shore and an easy exit is always available. However some caution should be taken watching out for scorpionfishes, particularly the demon stinger, which will bury themselves in the sand, and do not react kindly to having a hand shoved on top of them. Scorpionfishes become more active in the evening and at night.  Also watch your depth and bottom time carefully. Since a lot of swimming is not involved and fascinating creatures can distract, some divers have found themselves staying at depth for far too long.

BEACH REEFS

Flamboyant Cuttlefish laying eggs

These are sites usually found along sheltered beaches, which have poorly developed patches of coral reef usually mixed with patches of sand or rubble and algae such as Halimeda. They are incredibly productive and often harbour shrimp cleaning stations where fish of all shapes and sizes queue to be cleaned by a variety of cleaning shrimps. The reefs are rarely deeper than 10 metres and they may occur in the middle of a sandy plain in which case they act as oasis and can have a truly surprising  amount of marine life living on and around them.

The most famous of the beach reefs in PNG is Dinah’s Beach which is situated on the north coast of the mainland only a dozen nautical miles west of East Cape. Perfectly sheltered from the south east trade winds, Dinah’s Beach is one of two close dive sites, the other being Deacon’s Reef – named by us after Australia’s Kevin Deacon – off a place known in local language as Lauadi, and which is owned by Dinah’s family. In fact her mother lived here during the war when Milne Bay itself was the site of fierce fighting. Deacon’s reef  drops dramatically below a cliff with overhanging trees, and coral pillars reach up to within two metres of the surface. It is a beautiful reef and photos from this site taken by David Doubilet on a Telita cruise were featured in National Geographic in April 1988. From Deacon’s Reef to a river mouth a couple of hundred metres to the west stretches Dinah’s Beach. It starts with a steep rubble slope then flattens out allowing scattered small corals to grow among algae beds.

We first dived the property in 1980 after the caretaker had died and the family wanted the place checked out. The village was deserted at the time and we actually used the empty village houses for our camp and dive safaris for a while from our first dive boat Solatai. The first thing we noticed was the abundance of rare shells and nudibranchs. Again we dived at night, since shells were our main interest at the time, but diving in the daytime also had its rewards. There were hundreds of lionfishes of several different species, blue ribbon eels, cleaning stations frantic with activity, octopus lairs and even octopus mating in the open. The great thing with this site was that there is always something different to see whether at one metre depth or 30 metres, and it is possible to spend hours and hours in water shallower than 10 metres, in near perfect conditions. Does it look a great site? – well no, as I pointed out in my introduction – but what we have learned is that sometimes ordinary looking places can be magnificent dive sites. Above water the place is just stunning with lush jungle and a walk along the river which leads to two splendid waterfalls.

Several dive boats visit Dinah’s Beach, and it is a regular on Mike Ball’s Paradise Sport itinerary.

In Bali, Tulamben has a reputation similar to Dinah’s Beach as a great beach dive, and access is so simple because there is a dive resort right on the beach.

In October 1998 I joined an exploratory cruise on board the Golden Dawn, one of PNG’s finest liveaboards. We dived a beach site which was basically sand but with occasional coral bommies each about the size of a small truck. One turned out to be a cleaning station at which manta rays regularly visited and we had the very best manta ray dives I have ever experienced. Mantas hovered right over our heads as they were being cleaned, and returned time and time again. The Golden Dawn has since revisited the site and found mantas every time. The visibility is not the greatest – but does not matter as you are able to get so close, and the mantas are so friendly. This is yet another extraordinary muck dive – but this time with giants. Craig De Wit, owner of the Golden Dawn named the site Giants at Home.

Highlights

Octopus are common and their homes can be easily recognised by the pile of coral rocks they use to guard their holes. They may be seen out feeding and also mating even in daytime. Watch for cod or coral trout following the octopus around hoping for easy prey as the octopus disturbs the creatures hiding under the coral rocks. Cuttlefishes, mantis shrimp, tiger cowries and other shells, nudibranchs, a multitude of shrimp and crabs, make these sites invertebrate heavens. Juvenile fishes, such as the juvenile emperor angelfish, are seen quite often along with the mature adults. Moray eels, of all sizes love these sites, watch out for the beautiful blue ribbon eel, and so do a variety of different lionfishes and scorpionfishes. Stonefishes are sometimes seen. One beach reef has six different species of anemonefish living there with different kinds of anemones. Beach reefs can also attract large pelagic animals such as marlin and  manta rays which come to get cleaned at the cleaning stations.

Risks

Again, since the best sites are shallow, sheltered  and close to shore Beach Reefs are low risk environments. Any risk comes from the marine creatures rather than the diving conditions. Remember that although marine creatures very seldom attack, they are very well able to defend themselves and careless, or clumsy, divers run the risk of being stung or otherwise injured. At Dinah’s beach the lionfishes have learned that night divers with their bright dive lights will often distract small fishes and make them easy prey. Thus divers may find themselves with a small flock of viciously plumed lionfishes following them around and need to be slow and cautious to avoid getting pricked.

WHARVES

Samarai Wharf, great for critters

Wharf diving is so interesting it was popular even before Muck diving became the rage. With typical lack of respect for the oceans humans have been chucking junk into the sea off wharves and jetties since the day they were first built. Some of this junk has survived the years and now attracts artefact hunters – for example some old bottles are now collectors items and worth considerable sums of money. When divers collect old bottles however they usually discover that a marine creature has discovered it first and made it into a home. So although chemical pollution of the seas is devastating, object pollution, although unsightly, can actually increase biodiversity and abundance by providing  different and more habitats. This is of course the theory behind artificial reefs. I should say here that clean up campaigns, although obviously worthy in intent, may actually do more harm than good if habitats are removed. The big clean up campaigns we should all be encouraging will clean up the water quality and prevent sewage, chemical fertilisers and other chemical pollutants from entering the ocean.

The wharves also provide shade and this can attract large numbers of schooling fishes, which in turn attract predators. Corals that grow on the wharf piles may have their polyps extended even in the day time simply because of the shade.

Every diver has their own favourite wharf site. Portsea pier is one I have heard of over the years – and the Bonaire wharf in the Caribbean is one I have read about. My own favourite is Samarai wharf in Milne Bay. Above the surface the wharf is derelict, virtually abandoned since the provincial capital moved from Samarai Island to Alotau. But underwater, what joy! The piles are adorned by yellow cup corals whose brilliant orange yellow polyps are often extended even in daytime because of the shade from the wharf.

Currents can be quite strong but can be accurately predicted from the tide tables so timing is important to avoid too much effort. Once underwater careful searching among the piles reveals many treasures – of both marine and earthly variety. Collecting historic bottles is a fascinating extra on this dive and many wharves, and bridges too, are places where real treasures can sometimes be found. I have heard of divers making a living by diving under ancient bridges in England. Samarai wharf has an unusual variety of Black Velvet Angelfish, Chaetodontoplus melanosoma living under it. For some time it was speculated that this might be a new species, but it is now considered a colour variation of  C. melanosoma, which is not a common fish at the best of times, but which is found in the Samarai area. In the water sloping down from the wharf isolated coral heads are haven for spiny lobsters.

Highlights

Search among the junk for a multitude of different marine critters. Juvenile angelfishes and other juveniles love wharves, but so do adult fishes. The abundance of marine life will attract larger predators including Wobbegongs. Light rays penetrating the deck of the wharf, the swarming fishes and colourful encrustations on the piles make for dramatic and colourful photographs. Search carefully for frogfishes, crocodilefishes and scorpionfishes. Pipefishes and seahorses are common finds.

Risks

Boats. Some boat owners actually think the wharf is there for their benefit and not divers! But, as crazy as this may sound, because boats are big, and dangerous, divers need to keep clear of them. Permission may be needed before diving some wharves. Also watch out for fishing lines, always carry a knife or line cutter. Wharf piles are usually covered in sharp clams, sharp spined urchins and lionfishes, or have rusting edges, so swim carefully with slow short fin kicks, and wear gloves.

WRECKS

Wreck diving often falls under the category of Muck diving, particularly as most captains or pilots were selfishly inconsiderate of divers by sinking their ships and planes in Mucky places close to shore. Wrecks not only provide new habitats and therefore attract marine life, they often harbour creatures that would otherwise be found in much deeper water. This is because parts of a wreck are inevitably shaded, and these darker conditions favour deeper dwelling creatures.

It is difficult for me to select a favourite wreck – muck dive as there are so many. The wreck of the Muscoota, once a grand iron hulled clipper ship and the P38 Lightning aircraft, crash landed during the war, both in Milne Bay, are wonderful dives combining the excitement of marine life discoveries with the aura of living history. but I have also dived the Bonegi, and other wrecks in the Solomon Islands, and Rabaul’s famous wrecks – before the volcanic eruption ruined some of them, and the fabulous wreck of an armed freighter in Three Islands Harbour near Kavieng, New Ireland – which turned out to have an intact midget submarine sitting close by, discovered by Kevin Baldwin on an early Telita adventure.

The Yongala is Australia’s greatest shipwreck dive and certainly can rank as a muck dive. The visibility is often reduced and coral is not what you go to the Yongala for – it is the incredible fish life that the wreck attracts acting as a kind of oasis for fishes, and marine reptiles for that matter – turtles and sea snakes being abundant –  in the middle of a sand/silt desert.

Highlights

The area where the wreck meets the bottom is a wonderful place to look for creatures. If a shipwreck is upright and leaning the shaded side of the hull should be given close attention. Divers are often surprised by large growths of black corals for example, but when you think about it they should be expected. Everything imaginable can be found on Mucky wreck sites from Giant Grouper and Tiger Sharks to exotic nudibranchs and exquisite ovulid shells.

Risks

Penetration of wrecks should be avoided without specialist training, and care should be taken not to swim beneath loose sheets of steel or debris. Wrecks in Muck areas are particularly silty and visibility can rapidly reach zero.

MUD

Slipper Lobster

Mud, Mud, glorious Mud! goes the old Hippopotamus song. A bit of this attitude is essential for successful mud diving. Do not try to stay clean – revel in it! Dirty Diving may not appeal at first thought, but I can really recommend it, and there are surprising critters to be discovered after you have located the bottom. The bottom is usually the part which is thicker than the rest. All right, I admit, sometimes it is not always easy to tell. One thing I can tell you about mud diving, assuming you are first in and can find the bottom, is that it is important to keep moving, and be decisive. Usually you get one chance to study, grab or photograph the mud subject before being engulfed in the plume of mud which you inevitably drag with you. Forget about a buddy, you will be lucky if you can see yourself.

I have no favourite mud dives and even if I did I doubt I could find them again.

Highlights

Apart from the fascinating experience of complete disorientation and zero visibility that often accompanies mud diving, it is possible to find creatures that you will not find elsewhere. Yes they probably do have a low IQ too. Look for fabulous ribbon gobies, hidden cowries – check under any debris for these – and other shells.

Risks

Select the site with care so that an easy ascent can be made. Since you will be disorientated this should be sheltered with an competent look out on the surface able to pick you up.

3.      FOR EXPLORERS

How do you go about finding a great new Muck site? The best sites are sheltered and shallow, although it is good to have deep water nearby, as this increases visibility and invites visits from larger and pelagic beasts. I once photographed a marlin at Dinah’s Beach. But the essential characteristic of all great Muck dive sites is that there is some water movement at the site. Am I saying you need current? Yes I am, but not the sort of raging current that makes diving difficult, I am talking about gentle currents THAT BRING FOOD to the site. A tightly enclosed bay may look perfect but if there is not enough water exchange in the bay, there will not be much food – and there will not be many critters. Try to find sheltered shallow areas, near deep water, which have gentle daily tidal currents flushing them with plankton.

4.      DIVE TECHNIQUES

Muck sites are typically easy to dive, they generally require no special skills for survival. No great depth is usually involved, the shore is often nearby, the surface calm, and strong currents not a problem. Even the visibility, with the probable exception of Mud Diving, is usually quite adequate and comfortable UNLESS you stir up the bottom. This is an extraordinary risk of Muck Diving and one you need to know about right now. Muck Divers who are also photographers should NEVER be approached underwater.  They may have just spent 30 minutes searching for the incredibly rare Blue Striped Hairy Long Finned Ghost Wattlefish and there it is perfectly framed before them. Noticing the photographer has discovered something of interest, you, in your usual friendly manner, fin over to see what has been discovered. The action of your fins on the sea bed rises a storm cloud of silt which, propelled by the vortex of your own motion, and obeying a well known law of underwater photography, smothers the subject in an impenetrable fog. A few moments later you notice that no more air can be drawn from your regulator and that your mask has disappeared from your face. A sharp pain in the ribs causes you to feel down to find the blunt end of a dive knife sticking out of your buoyancy compensator………..

Here are some useful hints for the wise:-

1.       Never kick your fins close to the bottom. Rise well off the bottom if you intend to swim anywhere, otherwise slowly and gently pull yourself along the bottom. Use buoyancy control.

2.       Stay well clear of other divers, especially if they are obviously taking photographs. You can patiently watch from a distance and, if this courtesy is extended, the photographer may share his discovery AFTER some good photos are in the can.

3.       If on a slope and a subject is seen ahead approach the subject from below, never above. Even the most skilled diver will find it difficult to avoid a landslide of silt rolling down on a subject if approached from above.

4.       Use any slight current to your advantage and approach a subject from down current.. Be aware that any silt you are stirring up will be moving down current, and consider any divers in that area.

5.      MUCK PHOTOGRAPHY

Giant Flat Worm grows to 30 cm and lives on black sand

Muck photography introduces some interesting challenges to underwater photographers. I am going to assume that you already know something about photography, and emphasise the challenges of Muck photography.

1.       Visibility.

Visibility is often limited on Muck sites. The classic answer is always to get as close as possible, but this does NOT limit you to macro. Wide angle extreme close up can achieve some remarkable results. I have no idea how to operate an automatic camera but here is the wide angle technique I use for my manual cameras:-

*       Measure the background light and set the camera for that so that the background does not appear all black.

*       Move my twin strobes as far back behind the camera as I can and aim them so as to spread the light evenly over the subject area, and reduce backscatter.

*       Frame the subject and get as close as possible, focus the lens on the subject.

*        Set the strobes on full, half or quarter power to get the correct exposure – the strobes are producing colour rather than illumination because I have already set the camera for background light.

*       Wait for the magic moment, pray to Neptune, then press the shutter.

*       Repeat with any other camera settings I can think of.

2.       Strobe Positions

Getting the strobes back behind the camera reduces the chance of picking up intense backscatter, the same effect can be had by placing the strobes very wide but this is sometimes awkward.

The most important thing I can tell you is that twin strobes should be in the same horizontal plane as the camera, pointing horizontally, for Muck photography and not above the camera pointing down. Strobes above the camera produce a shadow beneath subjects close to the bottom which connects them to the bottom. Horizontal strobes separate the subject from the bottom producing far more dramatic pictures. Also in volcanic areas the bottom sand often has reflective mica in it which will produce flare from strobes pointing down into it.

Single strobes can only be used with close up macro, and even then twin is preferable.

Eunice the Wicked Worm loves mud and silt

3.       Avoid silting your subjects.

Approach all subjects from below and down current.

4.       Poke the Sea

Photographers often try to move subjects to make an interesting composition. However subjects should not be harassed excessively and should always be placed back exactly where they came from. We are dealing with living creatures here and as you know living creatures have feelings. If you do harass subjects then the Greenies, and Animal Rights activists, modestly heroic and over-sung defenders of the rights of voiceless trillions of the worlds critters, will have rules imposed on us as to how many strobe exposures any shrimp can be exposed to during a dive and so on. You have been warned.

5.       Bracket your shots.

Shoot lots of film, and try different settings. White sand for example can be very reflective and require less light or smaller apertures – higher f stop numbers. Green Mantis shrimp always seem to require about one stop more exposure – smaller f stop numbers.

6.       Be There!

6.      SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERIES

Xyrichtys halsteadi

Since Muck diving is a relatively recent pastime there are still many discoveries to be made about the myriad creatures that inhabit Muck. New species, ie. species which have yet to be scientifically described and named, are being found regularly RIGHT NOW. If you thought it had all been done and that there was no opportunity for you then you are mistaken. In some ways it is actually easier now because there are many good books available on marine identification so that it is relatively easy to find out if you have discovered something at least unusual.

If you do find something that you think is new try to establish the critters habitat – depth, place etc – and photograph it. Get the photograph off to an expert before you try to collect a specimen. Specimens will be required eventually for scientific description and naming, but if you have recorded the habitat you will be likely to find it again if you need to. It is a total waste to kill and collect specimens just because you have not seen it before, check with the experts first.

It is possible that you will can have a creature named after you if you are really the first to discover an undescribed species, but this can take several years, and depends on the scientist who is writing the paper, which then has to be rigorously reviewed by peers before final publication. Amateurs should not try to describe critters themselves, it is a complex job to do properly and requires detailed study of all closely related species.

7.      LEARNING TO SEE

If you put a group of divers on a fabulous muck dive there will often be one or two who will come up and say they did not see anything. Sometimes this means that nothing bigger than a metre long swam directly in front of their face mask, but more often it means that, although they were looking, they simply did not know how to SEE.

Seeing is an acquired skill, and it can be learned. I define it as ACTIVE LOOKING. Scanning the scene is not good enough, the brain has to be engaged and questions continually asked and investigated.  A colour or shape looks different – question what it can be and go over for a close look, touch, with a probe or knife, if necessary. Perhaps it is a piece of sponge – but what a thrill if it turns out to be a frogfish! If something moves which should not move, check it out.

If a new creature is seen, carefully go over its features, count the stripes, note the spots and colour – even better draw a sketch on a divers slate. All too often divers surface and try to describe an interesting creature they have seen but fail abysmally. Look and note the DETAILS, if you are going to discover a new species it is almost certain that these will be the important thing.

A good library of marine identification books is also important – most boats and resorts have them but if you are not sure then carry a couple with you, and mark off the creatures you have seen. After a while they will all become old friends and when you go diving and look at a site you will really start to SEE all the different critters. It makes diving an even greater thrill.

MUCK IS GOOD!

 

June 1999

 

 Posted by at 8:01 am