What is Muck Diving?

You put your regulator in, vent your BCD, drop below the surface and glance down to get a hint of the wonders that await you below. But, something is not right.

You must be in the wrong place. There are no glorious coral formations here in fact there is no reef at all. Instead the seabed is grey and almost featureless and the water visibility is poor, thanks to the outflow from a nearby river. There are even piles of trash lying on the seabed.

Initially, you are disappointed but, an hour or so later, when you return to the surface, your mind is reeling and your camera’s memory card is full of pictures of some of the most incredible marine life imaginable. You have just been on a muck dive a game of hide-and-seek with some very clever opponents and the closest you can get to a scuba diving treasure hunt.

The Genesis

While early scuba divers were marvelling at the beauty of coral reefs and hanging out in the blue watching for whale sharks and manta rays, a whole universe of amazing creatures were going about their business under the sea completely unnoticed.

They remained undetected because they were small, they had developed the art of concealment to a very high degree and they lived in places that were not particularly beautiful or welcoming.

Then two major things happened to bring these little creatures into the limelight.

First, in the mid-1990s, a few enterprising individuals in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines started searching for marine life in unusual places such as jetties, river mouths and black sand slopes where nobody had looked before and began to find some absolutely astonishing things.

Second, significant advances in underwater cameras and lenses made very small animals easier to see and photograph in detail.

Soon, images of these new discoveries were appearing in dive magazines all over the world. Muck diving became a sensation.

“Muck”, by the way, is a British English word for dirt, rubbish or manure. And the animals you are looking for are commonly termed "critters", an American English variation on the word "creatures".

Where to Go

New muck diving locations are being discovered all the time but, so far, the world capital is Lembeh Straits on the northeastern tip of Sulawesi in Indonesia.

Other locations that also deserve honourable mention include a variety of sites right across northern Bali, Anilao and Dumaguete in the Philippines, Pulau Mabul off the coast of Malaysian Borneo, Ambon and Alor in the Indonesian archipelago and Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea.

The latest hot spots for curious critters are in Japan and Taiwan, showing that Southeast Asia does not have a monopoly on muck.


At first, finding these small, well-camouflaged animals can seem an impossible task but persevere and, with a little experience, you will be start spotting hidden treasures yourself and not have to depend on a dive guide. The thrill of discovery when you come upon something rare and exotic is hard to beat.

These tips may help: -

• Move slowly
• Be patient
• Stay alert
• Get as close to the seabed as you can, without touching it
• Keep your fins up above your body line and move them gently to avoid disturbing the environment around you
• Examine foliage, outcrops and debris in the sand very carefully to find shy, camouflaged creatures that may be hiding within.

More Spotting Tips

You can also increase your chances of spotting success by knowing where to look for particular animals, for instance: -

• Ornate ghost pipefish hang out among feather stars.
• Pipefish and seahorses hide among sea grass.
• Baby clown frogfish love rotting wood.
• Sea cucumbers host colourful emperor shrimps as well as swimming crabs
• Harlequin shrimps feed on sea stars
• Urchins are often home to shrimps and baby fish
• Fire urchins are where zebra crabs live
• Tube anemones often have small harlequin swimming crabs on their trunks
• Sea pens shelter porcelain crabs in their fronds

Just Scratching the Surface

Even in sites that may look empty and boring at first, there is plenty to find. You just need patience and sharp eyes. Remember too that people only started muck diving comparatively recently. Every year, new creatures are being discovered that are completely new to science. On any dive, you may come across something that nobody has ever seen before.
How exciting is that?

Want to know more? This post is adapted from a chapter in Scuba Confidential - An Insiders Guide to Becoming a Better Diver