Diving The Muck

Why would divers seek out bad visibility? Welcome to the world of muck diving.

Divers travel far and wide to find great dive sites, many of which are known for their stellar visibility. Some destinations would probably never see divers at all if not for the water’s clarity — one such place could be Thingvellir in Iceland, a small, narrow lake, where temperatures hover around freezing. But with more than 300 feet of visibility, divers still flock there.

On the flip side, there are some divers who seek out spots with terrible visibility, places where 5 feet of vis is considered a “good day.” Why? The answer: muck diving.

I first heard the term in Bali, Indonesia, while discussing my dive itinerary with my local guide. He suggested many great sites, from Manta Point to Tulamben. But then he suggested one that gave me pause. “It’s a great site,” he said, “very low visibility!” I assumed his real meaning was lost in translation, and asked him if he didn’t mean “great,” rather than “low”? But no, there was no translation problem here. Low-visibility diving in Indonesia? I didn’t come all this way for poor visibility, standard on all my dives back home. But, my guide had been good so far, so I figured I’d try it. And by the end of the day, I came to appreciate the muck.

Muck diving’s appeal comes from the fact that the animals in these areas have, over time, evolved to suit their environments, which has created some unique creatures. And because the low visibility works as camouflage for them, they are often braver and less jittery than animals in clearer water. Divers can get much closer to animals such as leafy frogfish, seahorses, and the famous mimic octopus in muck-diving areas.

And after a while, the diving itself becomes appealing. Your attention becomes focused on a very small area, typically that space up to 5 feet from your mask. This creates an almost meditative state, one where you stop scouting the distance for faraway animals, and focus instead on the here and now.

So even if you’re someone who usually seeks out 100+ feet of visibility, give the muck a chance. You’ll find excellent muck diving all over the world, in oceans, lakes and rivers. By far one of the most famous places for muck diving is Lembeh Strait on the north coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia. In the narrow, busy strait, you’ll find world-class muck diving, with some of the most unique flora and fauna around, including your best chance of almost anywhere in the world to see the aforementioned mimic octopus. This small black-and-white striped octopus is famous for pretending to be other animals to escape predators. Its skills include imitations of sea snakes, stingrays and lionfish, among others.

To make the most of muck diving, local guides can be extremely helpful, as they will have expert knowledge of where the local critters are most likely to hide out. A strong dive torch can be very useful to help cut through the muck and give you a few extra feet of visibility. If you’re planning on bringing a camera, make sure you bring a wide-angle lens for close-ups, or a macro for extreme close-ups.

My final muck tip is to slow down, and keep your eyes open, almost like on a night dive. Even if you’re a visibility hound, you’re likely to also see the appeal of the muck once you give it a try.