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The term ‘muck diving’ was first coined by Bob and Dinah Halstead in Papua New Guinea, who were amongst the first to discover the delights of exploring those ‘less than optimal’ sites in search of the weird and wonderful.
In contrast to colourful corals, a typical muck sites might have a barren or exposed seabed, covered in silt, algae, even natural or manmade debris - and the animals that are able to thrive here are those that most excite critter hunters. These species have evolved incredible adaptations to life in these difficult habitats, most often showing incredible camouflage, subterfuge and mimicry, or vivid warnings that threaten a noxious mouthful if eaten. And it is the quest for these rare or unusual animals that lies right at the heart of muck diving.
From the incredible critter sites in the Lembeh Strait, to Anilao, Ambon and Alor, dive in and explore ZuBlu’s guide to the best muck diving destinations in Asia.
Although the term ‘muck-diving’ was first coined to describe dives on ‘less-than-optimal’ sites in Papua New Guinea, the title of ‘jewel in the critter-crown’ must go to the famous Lembeh Strait. Since its diving discovery in the early 1990’s, Lembeh has become synonymous with a spectacular diversity and concentration of weird and wonderful critters that make their home on the sand, rubble slopes and reefs.
A complete list of the critters and macro-life found in the Lembeh Strait will never be complete, but a simple list of iconic species that are commonly seen reveals just how good Lembeh is - rare octopus and cuttlefish, spectacular camouflaged fish such as Rhinopias and Ambon scorpionfish, seahorses big and small, huge numbers of different nudibranchs, 8 species of frogfish, hairy shrimps, boxer crabs and Bobbit worms amongst many, many other species. And as well as actually spotting a particular critter, divers to Lembeh also have a good chance of being witness to plenty of behaviour - mating, laying eggs, feeding and fighting are very obvious parts of life in the Lembeh Straits.
Lembeh offers a mix of barren sand slopes, reefs, walls, wrecks, jetty dives, plains of seagrass - and everything in between. Animals come and go and certain sites will have more critters than others so it is best to ask the guides at your resort if you would like to see anything in particular - they are the ones with the relevant and up-to-date information and are experts at finding those rarities!
Once famous for its role in the spice trade and fought over by colonial powers, Ambon today has become world-renowned for an entirely different reason - as home to some of the best ‘muck’ diving on the planet. And ‘muck’ it is. Some dive sites can be dirty and littered with man-made waste, but they are home to an astonishing array of bizarre and beautiful critters. Ambon is easily on a par of other famous muck destinations and with its unique species and low-key diving, could rightly claim to be the best muck destination in Indonesia.
Diving in Ambon is focused on the famous ‘muck’ sites of Ambon Bay. These sites are concentrated along the north coast and hidden on the gentle slopes are an incredible variety of unique critters - some found nowhere else in the world. Close to the airport is the Laha area, named after a small village next to Maluku Divers resort. Here, at the ‘Twilight zone’ can be found Rhinopias, frogfish, ghost pipefish, different species of unusual octopus, crustaceans and nudibranchs galore.
Amongst the legs of the jetty and amidst piles of debris thrown overboard from fishing boats are schools of striped catfish, silversides and moray eels, whilst Ambon scorpionfish and Inimicus lie camouflaged. Further away from the ‘Twilight Zone’ are equally interesting sites - Rhino City, Mandarin City, Middle Point and more are all home to unusual and fascinating species. Whilst some of the diving is ‘muck’ to the extreme, these sites are some of the most consistent for sightings of unusual critters in the world.
With its fantastic marine biodiversity and healthy reefs, Anilao is regarded as one of the best dive destinations in Asia particularly for macro-lovers and muck diving enthusiasts. With it’s easy access from Manila, divers can head down for a long-weekend or book an extended stay to fully appreciate the incredible critters that have made this destination so famous.
Anilao has developed a well-deserved reputation for being the type of destination where guests can see pretty much every critter on their wish list! Rare species of shrimps, crabs, frogfish, scorpionfish, pipefish, seahorse, and octopus are all seen regularly, and the dive guides have become expert at leading guests to the right spot at the right time.
On top of all the muck sites to choose from there are also some very healthy reefs with an abundance of hard and soft corals - perfect for gorgeous wide angle photography. To add a bit of variety, day trips to nearby Verde Island are also possible, but most people stay focused on macro and critter spotting.
Like much of the rest of the Philippines, diving in Anilao is from local open boats, called bangkas. These boats can be hired by visiting groups along with freelance guides with the knowledge and experience to find the rare species - giving guests the best possible chances to find all the critters on their wishlist. In many other locations, night dives are often regarded as optional but in Anilao they are almost seen as compulsory – in the darkness, Anilao comes to life with the unexpected and unique always a possibility.
Hidden away at the foot of Mt Talinis are the volcanic black sand beaches of Dauin. With such stunning topside scenery, visitors might be forgiven for staying on dry land, but they would be missing out on exploring one of Asia’s muck diving gems. Dauin's fascinating inhabitants rival those of the muck diving meccas of Lembeh and Anilao, and as such, this beautiful destination makes a perfect, quiet coastal retreat for macro lovers.
Dauin and Dumaguete have recently gained a reputation amongst critter-loving enthusiasts for their amazing biodiversity. From yawning frogfish and camouflaged ghostpipefish, to mating flambuoyant cuttlefish and hunting coconut octopuses, Dauin’s gently sloping sand plains, dotted with coral patches, are home to plenty of rare species. Other critter highlights include thorny and pygmy seahorses, exotic nudibranchs and flatworms, velvet ghostpipefish, Ambon scorpionfish and mating mandarinfish.
If that's not enough, nearby Apo island, surrounded by coral walls and bustling reefs, makes a great day trip and perfect complement to the muck-diving that so regularly steals the show. Just a 30 minute ride on a traditional Filipino banca, divers visiting Apo Island can see large schools of jacks, plenty of turtles and the occasional roaming pelagic, a testament to the conservation efforts that have protected these reefs for so long. And keep an eye out for the volcanic gases bubbling up through the sand - it is not every day you can say you have dived in a geothermal vent.
Perched on the edge of the Celebes Sea, Mabul Island is perfect for those keen to explore Sipadan’s incredible marine life, but also offers some amazing ‘muck’ diving in its own right. The fringing reefs, coral bommies and sand patches of the surrounding area provide the perfect habitat for an eclectic array of 'muck' critters, reef fish and more, making this area one of Asia's best all-round dive destinations.
The diving around Mabul and Kapalai is about diversity and interesting critters, rather than great visibility and big fish and although there are some interesting reefs, they are not a patch on those of Sipadan nearby. The mix of different habitats around Mabul and Kapalai means a great diversity of life and as a result, the islands have become well known amongst divers hunting for unusual species and ‘macro’ critters.
A typical dive on Mabul or Kapalai might mean hunting for leaf scorpionfish, frogfish, ribbon eels, different crustaceans and ghost pipefish. Blue ring octopus are also a prime target here. In the sheltered sandy bays can be found more sought after ‘muck’ critters including mimic octopus, Ambon scorpionfish, frogfish, flamboyant cuttlefish, sea horses and some unusual nudibranchs. Wherever you dive, you will encounter amazing numbers of reef fish, schooling snappers and goatfish, sting rays and gobies in the sand, anemones in the shallows with their resident ‘Nemos’ and shrimps, and - this being Sabah - passing turtles.
Located in the heart of the Coral Triangle, approximately 1,000km east of Bali, Alor and the Pantar Strait provide world-class diving on one of the most well-preserved coral reef systems in Indonesia. With its currents, critters and hammerhead sharks, volcanoes and villages lost in time, Alor is one of Indonesia’s last frontiers.
Diving around Alor is characterized by clear waters and currents, a near-pristine reef system and endless fields of beautiful corals, sponges and anemones. Unusually for such a small area, visitors can explore an entire spectrum of different dive sites - from colourful reefs packed with marine life, to current swept pinnacles with big pelagic species and sheltered bays with amazing muck diving - all in a single day.
As well as its spectacular reefs, Alor is building a reputation as a world-class muck diving destination - particularly amongst divers that would like to get away from the crowds at more popular destinations. Most of the reef sites have a fantastic diversity of life, but it is the proper ‘muck’ sites in Kalabahi Bay, Alor, and Beang, or Beangabang, Bay on Pantar in the southwest, that attract those divers in search of unusual ‘critters’.
The currents that run through the strait push nutrient-rich, cold water into these bays, creating perfect conditions for exciting macro diving. Rhinopias are the star of the show here, but seahorses, frogfish, ghost pipefish, Ambon scorpionfish, unusual crustaceans, Mandarinfish, weird and wonderful nudibranchs and plenty of unusual cephalopods are all on the cards as well.
Image courtesy of Alor Divers.
Bali’s vibrant mix of culture, arts, beaches and waves, all set against a stunning backdrop of verdant rice fields, temples and volcanoes, have long drawn visitors from around the world. However, Bali also has some of Indonesia’s best and most accessible diving, including some exciting muck diving at several well-known sites around the island.
Bali’s diving is best summed up with one word - diversity. Diversity of species and diversity of locations. Lying within the Coral Triangle and at the edge of a channel that funnels extraordinary volumes of water from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, the range of conditions and habitats around Bali support a huge diversity of species.
From the fringing reefs of Menjangan and black sand ridges and patch reefs at Seraya, to the current swept rock of Nusa Penida - all are home to a fantastic diversity of marine life. Close to Gilimanuk in the far northwest, the aptly-named Secret Bay is filled with unusual critters and juveniles that are washed in with the change of the tides. Divers can search for unusual frogfish, seahorses, Bobbit worms and different juveniles, all hidden amongst the debris that litters the floor of the bay. Further east is the famous PJs or Puri Jati, a featureless sandy plain at the mouth of a small river covered in small cup corals. Here, guests can hunt for those experts of camouflage and subterfuge - mimic octopus, frogfish and Ambon scorpionfish. Closer to Tulamben is Seraya Secrets, a classic muck site marked by a series of coral ridges separated by sandy plains. Seraya is well-known for its harlequin shrimps, nudibranchs and boxer crabs, but maybe other critters are commonly seen here.
Finally, on Bali’s southeast coast is the Padangbai jetty. Originally built for cruise ships, the abandoned jetty has now become a haven for critters that have taken shelter beneath the jetty, and is also Bali’s best spot for Rhinopias that are found here when the water is cold.