By Lucy Grewcock
WHERE to dive with hairy frogfish and pygmy seahorses.
It’s got to be the most unappealing sounding sport but, for many divers, muck diving is the holy grail of scuba. And if the name isn’t enough to put you off, the sell that follows might do: with limited visibility, shallow dive sites, no stunning corals and zero chance of seeing deep-sea wrecks or big pelagic fish, it’s a wonder that so many divers have been inspired to try out this painstaking discipline. But those who do, however, rarely look back…
The appeal of muck diving is in the bizarre, extraordinary and disgustingly beautiful. Paradise for photographers, muck diving allows them to capture some of the ocean’s rarest inhabitants, snapping intricate and sophisticated species right up-close, in calm and controlled waters.
Instead of competing with your dive buddies to spot sharks and manta-rays, muck divers slowly and meticulously scan the seabed, searching for minute creatures, some less than a centimetre or so long, known as critters. In comparison to most other types of diving, poor visibility, suspended particles and silty sea-beds are of less concern, as the creatures you’re looking for are never more than a few centimetres from your face.
Typical critters to look out for include multi-coloured nudibranchs, pipefish, frogfish and seahorses, but there are millions more species lurking in the muck, many still unidentified, which simply adds to the appeal.
A big attraction of muck diving is that anyone can do it. No special equipment is required and, typically diving at shallower depths, the risk of decompression sickness is reduced. Excellent buoyancy, however, is important – your fellow divers won’t thank you if you spend your muck dive bobbing up and down on the seabed, finning up clouds of silt.
Some of the best muck diving spots in the world are found in South East Asia. Places like the Lembeh Straits and Secret Bay, in Indonesia, enjoy international fame. But one of the most illustrious muck diving sites of all is found in the waters just off Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo.
Mabul Island is a location synonymous with muck diving. Located off the north-east coast of Sabah, a 25 minute boat ride north of Sipadan Island, Mabul is a magnet for muck divers and one of the best places on the planet for macro photography. This tiny island has a coral reef that slips down to form a sandy bottom, freckled with coral growth and teeming with macro life and molluscs. Nudibranchs, shrimp and exotic urchins; purple and red fire gobies; seahorses and multicoloured frogfish can all be found here in clear, 30 degree waters, alongside loads of lobster and crabs, as well as every species of pipefish known to man.
There are stacks of muck diving sites to choose from at Mabul, but the grassy seabed at Crocodile Avenue is a favourite with many. This is the place to see crocodile-fish and garden eels, as well as seamoths, seahorses and the occasional eagle ray. Night dives are also popular here, where you can shine your torch over the colourful cuttlefish, nudibranchs and crabs.
Or, for the best frog-fish encounters, head to the aptly named Froggy Lair, where you can also expect to see cuttlefish and cowries, alongside ornate pipefish and numerous nudibranchs.
Another exciting dive site at Mabul is Eel garden, where colourful gobies and garden eels inhabit a network of tunnels in the sandy seabed. Blue ribbon eels, cleaning shrimp, rose-red frogfish and lemon-coloured moray eels are also commonly sighted here.
Muck diving in Malaysia doesn’t have to be all about Mabul though. If you fancy giving it a go but don’t want to make the trek down to Borneo, then Peninsula Malaysia still has some surprisingly good offerings, from the mimic octopus at Pulau Rumbia, on the west coast, to seahorse-filled sites in the north: coral fringed and best known for sea turtles, sharks and spectacular wrecks, muck diving in the Perhentian Islands is often overlooked but, from rarely seen nudibranchs and stacks of seahorses, to frogfish and blue ringed octopus’, it’s all here.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website
About the author…
Lucy Grewcock (UK)
Lucy Grewcock is a freelance writer based in Brighton, UK. Specialising in adventure travel, she has kayaked, skied, trekked and surfed her way around the planet, has led expeditions in the Arctic and the Amazon. Her work has appeared in The Independent on Sunday, The Mail on Sunday, Wanderlust and ABTA Magazine. In 2011, Lucy won the Guardian newspaper’s Adventure Travel Writing competition. She blogs at www.lucy-grewcock.blogspot.co.uk and tweets @lucygrewcock.