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Muck diving, what it is and photography tips

What is muck diving

Muck diving can be defined as diving on dive sites with sand or silt on the bottom.
Je zou muck diving dus kunnen vertalen als duiken in de viezigheid. Denk aan een bodem van zand, slib, dood koraal, steentjes. Niet echte viezigheid natuurlijk. Het is een natuurlijke bodem, maar het lijkt leeg en kaal.
The first time I did a muck dive I wondered why I was swimming on this empty stretch of sand. I saw nothing but sand, a rock or tuft of seaweed/coral here and there and nothing else.

Fortunately, that first time I swam with an experienced guide who immediately started pointing out all kinds of interesting marine life to me. How wonderful, there was so much to see and photograph.
Despite thinking I was swimming on a barren plain, I was soon feasting my eyes.
So definitely give that muck diving a try!

Is Muck diving for you?

You don't muck dive for the overall beauty underwater. No beautiful reefs, no coral garden, just bare bottom.
But make no mistake, despite all this apparent "nothing", muck diving is quickly becoming a dream for the underwater photographer!

This type of diving is all about the critters that live there. Mostly small animals that are hard to spot. That makes sense, they don't have much shelter to hide. So they are very well camouflaged or live in the bottom.
Muck diving is a bit like a scavenger hunt. You swim slowly, searching for a small movement, an anomaly in colour or shape. Looking for those special critters.

Muck diving is a completely different experience from diving in crystal clear water on a beautiful reef full of colourful fish. One is not necessarily better than the other, it is just a completely different experience.

Muck duiken

What kind of animals do you see in the sand?

The charm of muck diving is the unusual animals. Often they are small and you only find them in this environment. Some animals are truly otherworldly.
I certainly feasted my eyes and was able to cross a number of animals off my wish list.

Of course, what you can find depends on the country and season in which you dive. Some animals are widespread, others very regional or even seasonal.
Ask your dive centre or dive guide which animals are common in the area where you are diving. If you want to see something very specific, find out in advance whether you are in the right place and in the right season.

Typical marine life during muck diving include shrimp, snails (nudibranchs), crabs, various species of octopus and cuttlefish.
The frogfish and seahorse are also commonly found in this area.

muck duiken, macro fotografie

Tips for muck diving, diving skills

First, I'll give you some tips as far as muck diving itself is concerned.
These tips will help you have extra fun muck diving, for yourself, your buddy and the marine life.

  • Work on your buoyancy.
    As you watch critters in the sand, you swim close to the bottom. If your buoyancy is not up to scratch, then:
    a. make a lot of dust because you often touch the bottom with your body or fins.
    b. you cannot get a good look at the animals, let alone photograph them, because you are not hanging still enough, so you end up at a again.
  • Learn various finning techniques.
    Forget the standard flutter kick you learn by default when diving or snorkelling.
    Learn and/or perfect these fin techniques:
    frogkick, waarbij je je onderbenen en dus je vinnen naar boven houdt, terwijl je lichaam en bovenbenen horizontaal blijven. Zo komen je vinnen nooit in de buurt van het zand of slib en is de kans dat je het zicht verpest minimaal.
    helicopterturn, a way to turn yourself around in place. Ideally, turn around, whether 180 degrees or just a tiny bit. This way, you get right in front of your subject.
    backkick, swim backwards! Super handy for when you're just a little too close to your subject.
  • Plan the dive carefully with your buddy.
    After all, chances are you will each be tracking/photographing with your noses in the sand. Discuss together how best to stay near each other. It is easy to lose each other when you are concentrating on photographing.
  • Don’t be that guy!
    If you see a special animal, try to make sure you don't disturb and/or bother it. Never touch animals!
    Don't stalk your photo subject, don't keep flashing in his face unnecessarily. Take a few photos and swim on again. Fine for the critter, especially if there are a few more photographers diving into your group who also want a chance at a photo.
  • Swim slowly. And then some slower.
    You see more and when you see a subject you can also approach it more carefully.
  • Make sure nothing "dangles" under you.
    Your pressure gauge, octopus and whatever else you have clipped to your BCD, tuck it all away neatly and compactly so nothing drags through the sand.
buitenaardse dieren tijdens muck duiken

Tips for muck diving photography

De tips voor het duiken zijn het belangrijkste voor je fotografie tijdens het muck duiken. Het fotograferen in het zand en in het slib zijn min of meer hetzelfde als alle andere omgevingen waar je in fotografeert. Omdat de omgeving zo uniek is, zijn er een paar dingen om extra aandacht aan te besteden.

  • Familiarise yourself in advance with what to expect in the area.
    Which critters are mainly there and how do they behave. Are they easy to approach or very shy?
  • You could even make a "wish list" of critters you would really like to see. Your divemaster or dive guide can then help you find them. By diving with a specific photography goal, you will be better prepared for the perfect shot!
  • Is your photo subject not in the ideal spot?
    Is it hiding under a rock or ledge so you can't aim your torch properly? Or is he facing the wrong way? Then you can do two things. Wait for it to turn around/move or swim on. It is not good diving etiquette to touch animals and it can also be dangerous. Some animals are poisonous.
    Besides, you are wasting precious dive time by taking a picture which is likely to be nothing anyway. Swim on and use your air on a critter that is more cooperative.
  • Take a few test shots on a stone or from your hand.
    That way you know you already have a good basic setting on your camera and flash light. Do you see the perfect critter and only have 1 shot? Then that photo is more likely to succeed.
  • Look at your photo subject from a distance and try to think in advance how and from where you want to take the picture. Can you swim easily in front of it? Or do you need to aim a bit from above?
    If you have thought about what you want to do beforehand, you can then slowly swim towards your photo model.
  • Use a focus light, it can help you direct your light properly and it helps your camera focus better. Your camera can sometimes have trouble focusing in low light and/or well-camouflaged animals.
  • Take your time to approach your photo subject calmly. Swimming towards it quickly never works, the creature is always faster than you can shoot.
  • Low, lower, lowest. Try to get to your subject's eye level and shoot from there. That can be a challenge with those little critters.
    Here you will find out how important buoyancy and trim are. How low to the bottom can you get without blowing up sand/dust?
camouflage onderwater Muck duiken

Camera setup: wide-angle or macro?

Muck diving is all about small critters. Definitely macro then!
For your interchangeable-lens camera, a 60 mm macro lens is a good starting point. Most critters in the sand rely on their camouflage and are reasonably approachable.
If you shoot underwater with a compact camera, your macro mode is definitely a good option.
For all types of cameras, you can choose wet lenses/diopters, which you can screw onto the front of your camera port. With these, you can again vary your image further, for example super-macro. You also reduce your focus distance, allowing you to get even closer to your photo subject.

Ultimately, you shoot with what you have. Only have a wide angle? Then go for close focus - wide angle. You then shoot with your wide-angle at very close range, taking in the surroundings. That way, you can tell a nice story in your photo. You will not be able to photograph the smallest animals with this, you will need a macro lens or mode for that.

muck duiken fotografie
A snail, the size of two grains of rice. A macro lens is a must when photographing during muck diving

Flash light

To photograph in the mud, you need flash light. Even if you swim relatively shallow, the dark surface swallows up all your light. You lose light, contrast and colour. You can choose a flash or video light, both work well.

Extra interesting lighting is created with a snoot. The snoot turns your light into a concentrated beam, literally and figuratively putting your subject in the spotlight. Besides allowing your subject to steal the show, a snoot allows you to hide the background by not exposing it. You then get a dark or even black background.

muck duiken met snoot

My camera setup for muck diving

To give you an example, I dive with a Sony A6500 in a Fantasea water house.
I shoot 16-50 mm lens behind a flat port.
I can use these for critters the size of my hand or larger, but the focus distance is actually a bit large.
This means that the distance between the port and the animal is greater than I would actually like, so I have to be extra careful not to get any backscatter in the picture.

For anything smaller, I use Nauticam's macro converter, the CMC-1.

For macro, I generally use a regular flash and/or the Backscatter mini flash with snoot.

Best locations for muck diving

Have I got you excited? Are you ready to go muck-diving?
The most famous spots are in Asia, for example Bali, Lembeh and Raja Ampat.
Dauin and Anilao in the Philippines are very well known.
I made the most awesome muck dives in Dauin, I'm a fan!

Other cool diving destinations for muck diving are:
California, Blue Heron Bridge, Hawaii and Nelson Bay in Australia.

Eventually, you can "muck dive" anywhere you can find a sandy bottom. The question is whether you will see interesting creatures at all locations. After all, in Zeeland we also have sandy stretches, but you just don't find frogfishes there.

Give it a go, be curious and explore!
And let me know what you photographed, because the second best thing after diving yourself is reading stories from others who dived beautifully!