Muck diving is not a
derogatory term describing a type of adventure one would experience in
filthy, cold, dark waters, but it is rather an exciting emerging warm
water dive trend that many get excited about, especially photographers. I have been diving for 18
years, logged close to 5000 dives, traveled around the world a few
times, but only recently heard about muck diving. It is hard to define
what muck diving really is about, but those who tried it, became
addicted to the rather unusual type of scuba experience.
After spending a week diving
the wealthy and diverse coral reefs of Wakatobi Island early November
2008, I had an opportunity to continue my travels through Asia and visit
a friend who runs a dive center on Lembeh Island. Even though Lembeh
Island’s location is not far from Wakatobi, we (my husband accompanied
me) had to return to Bali first in order to catch a flight through Ujung
Pandang to Manado.
Flying with Garuda Indonesia
is quite an experience on its own. At the check in desk all travelers
can see the warning: “Don’t put valuable items into your check-in
luggage!” The small transfer airport in Balipapa really gave me a
reality check. There were no bars, no food courts, and the smoking
room’s door was wide open, so the smoking man (woman don’t smoke) can
get fresh air. To our remedy, we discovered a foot massage place where
we could relax and get a half-an-hour massage for five dollars.
Finally, we arrived in Manado,
where we were greeted by a guy from the resort. Heading to the Western
part of North Sulawesi, we drove trough well kept, blossoming villages.
To my surprise, we saw a great number of catholic churches. For some
reason, I always pictured Indonesia to be a Muslim country.
After a short boat ride from
the mainland, Les Williams, the resort manager, welcomed us. He stood on
the last step of the stairs, and appeared from the shadow on that misty
night. He personally greets every guest, regardless of what time they
arrive. Just like in Fantasy Island.
Lembeh Resort has 14 cottages,
all of which were built on cliffs overlooking the pool, the dive center,
and the Strait. Viewing the sunrises and sunsets from comfortable
armchairs on the spacious verandas never seems to get boring. At dinner we reunited with my
friend, Johan. We worked together many years ago in Thailand as dive
instructors. Johan and his girlfriend Kat are the managers of the dive
center. While sharing our meal they briefed me about the dives for the
I was super excited to try
something new. I looked forward to muck diving like a kid looks forward
to opening Christmas presents. At last, the sun rose waking us up. I was
anxious to board the boat and finally get wet.
After descending into Lembeh
Strait, my first impression was, “this is like a garbage dump. What am I
going to do here for 60 minutes?” The next thing I knew, the 60 minutes
were up. I saw the most bizarre, unusual critters I had ever seen and
was dying to get back into the water to find more.
The muck is the perfect habitat for unusual, exotic and juvenile
organisms that make their homes in the sediment and trash at the bottom
of the ocean. Creatures hiding in the muck are so interesting and
different from the usual tropical marine life. I pictured a nutty
professor pouring some potion into the water creating these bizarre
looking animals that even the most imaginative fiction writers could not
have made up.
Odd and beautiful critters
were pointed-out for me by the enthusiastic divemasters. The local dive
guides knew where everybody lived underwater and were proud to show me
one thing after another. We encountered seven different types of frog
fish. My favorites were the hairy frogfish, and the one that looks like
it was the offspring of a frog and a clownfish.
The colors of the nudibranchs
we saw are indescribable. It was just too great of a variety to know
where to begin. I probably have seen every possible color combination of
purple, orange, blue, black, yellow, and pink… There were big ones and
small ones, then bigger ones and smaller. There were fast ones and slow
ones, brave and shy ones.
I found myself admiring rare
species of octopi for long periods of time -- the most impressive of our
dives. The octopi I came across before were very shy, hiding behind
rocks or in holes. Our divemasters, in Lembeh, found and lured-out the
mimic octopus, the coconut octopus, and the wanderpus providing
countless opportunities to photograph them from up-close.
The calm and shallow waters
offered amazing opportunities to take pictures of little creatures like
shrimps and the hairy orangutan crab. Muck diving in Lembeh Strait is
perhaps the best place on the planet for macro photography.
Peculiar critters included the
scary looking devilfish, the magical looking dragon mistress, the fairy
tale pegasus seamoth, the bright scorpion leaf fish, the vibrating
electric shell, the ornate ghost pipefish, the glorious flamboyant
cuttlefish and the frightful wasp fish.
The list of the extraordinary
inhabitants that mesmerize divers dive after dive seems endless. Even
today, every dive presents an opportunity to discover a species new to
science in that part of the world.
The dive crew was extremely
proficient at finding critters divers wished to see. I asked them to
point out manta shrimps for me as I am enchanted by them. Manta shrimp
are able to turn their eyes 360 degrees, look vivid and have a
characteristic temper. They are also known to dart out of their hiding
and brake aquarium glass or even camera ports when they feel frightened.
Most often however, divers on
our vessel requested to see the pygmy seahorse. They are difficult to
spot due to their incredibly well camouflaged body. The color of the
seahorse matches the pink or purple gorgonian it inhabits, while their
body tubercles look very similar to the polyps of the gorgonian. Their
quarter inch size doesn’t help spottng them either. An unusual aspect of
the seahorse is that it's the male who becomes pregnant and carries the
eggs in a pouch in his belly, after the eggs have been deposited there
by the female.
I found two great tools to
ease my task of macro photography. The first being metal pointer which
was given to me to dig into the muck in order to stabilize myself with
one hand while taking pictures with the other. The 2nd was magnifying
glass that I used to help me locate the tiny critters around Lembeh
Every dive proved to be
perfect for divers like me -- short attention spans! I could barely
finish taking a picture of one unusual critter when my dive guide was
directing me to the next one.
The boat crew was one of the
most attentive I’ve come across during my diving career. They were
extremely friendly, took care of our camera gear with great caution, and
found us all sorts of critters that divers asked to see (my list being
particularly long). Every member of the dive team has logged hundreds of
dives in the Strait and was extremely knowledgeable about the fish and
shrimp that lived in their waters.
After the thrilling dives, we
shared stories and well prepared meals in the restaurant with fellow
divers. One of things I enjoy about traveling is meeting new people, and
divers tend to be a whole different breed. There is nothing normal and
ordinary about us. It is intriguing to hear about places I never knew
were on the map, taking mental notes about their locations. Word of
mouth is the only true way to find out the real story about places you
should visit. Take it from me, leave the books on the shelf. Well-traveled divers, many who
have visited numerous famous dive destinations all over the world, agree
that there is no place like Lembeh. It is still relatively unknown,
therefore peaceful and filled with a great number of breath taking
Upon our departure, Les
waved us off and wished farewell, again, just like on Fantasy Island.