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The 6 Best Muck Diving Locations in the Coral Triangle 

If you’re already interested in muck diving, or you’re a diver or marine life enthusiast who wants to get into macro photography, you likely already know what “muck diving” refers to. 

If you are new to diving or just wading into the muck diving niche, here’s a short primer on the geography and geology of muck diving.

Muck diving basics

Muck diving is a term coined by diver scuba diving legend Bob Halstead. The “muck” in muck diving refers to the sediment that sits on the bottom of a lot of dive sites. 

That sediment is typically a mixture of materials like silt, sand (often black volcanic sand) and other natural debris like coral rubble. 

The conditions that create the best muck diving sites include black sand or grey silt sea bottom, often on the outskirts of a larger reef system or with scattered reef rubble and coral bommies. 

A source of fresh water (to bring silt) and a cross-current (to bring in nutrients) are the ideal conditions for a thriving sand or silt-bottom ecosystem. 

Proximity to a river mouth and volcanic landscape and general seismic activity/history are usually prerequisites for good muck diving–which is why so many of the best sites in the world are off of Indonesia and the Philippines. 

A large amount of sediment stops coral reefs from taking over and creates the ideal conditions for muck diving. 

To anyone unfamiliar with muck diving or diving more broadly, the idea of entering the water (and paying to do so) to see mud and silt might seem odd. Why would you scour the muck for the odd critter if there are stunning coastal reefs nearby or offshore sites with large congregations of sharks and other pelagics? 

Muck divers know why. 

The reason divers and snorkelers love muck diving is that these habitats are often home to some of the more bizarre and astonishing marine creatures.

Animals like frogfish: 

crocodile fish: 

And ribbon eels: 

Muck diving is something that is very often done at night, and the silty conditions allow less light to penetrate, so even day muck dives and snorkeling generally take place in low light. 

You need a good dive flashlight if you’re going to be night or muck diving.

I’ve put together a pretty comprehensive review of what I feel are the best dive flashlights out there, categorized by purpose and budget. 

These are serious lithium-ion powered pieces of gear made by reputable manufacturers with good battery life, lumen output, and different light modes.

I think the best way to enjoy your time underwater and to enjoy nature in general, is to be fascinated with everything, so I always take the opportunity to muck dive or snorkel whenever possible. 

A teeming reef with dozens of coral species, large numbers of schooling fish, and a frenzy of activity and social interaction playing out is spectacular, and I will never tire of visiting these ecosystems, but searching for the bizarre and the cryptic in the muck is just as enjoyable to me. 

With that in mind, below are 6 of the best muck diving locations around the world.

Anilao, Batangas, Philippines

Source: Google maps

Anilao is located just a few hours from Manila, and it is definitely one of the most popular and easily accessible muck diving destinations in the region.

It is widely known as the nudibranch capital of the Philippines and one of the best places to see macro life in the world. 

Situated in the Calumpan Peninsula, the Verde Island Passage near Balayan Bay on the north end and Batangas Bay on the south channels immense tidal forces that supply a ton of nutrient-rich water to the area, including zoo and phytoplankton from as far away as the Bismarck Sea in Northern PNG. 

Best muck diving sites in Anilao

The best muck dive sites in Anilao are: 

  • Twin Rocks 
  • Anilao Pier
  • Secret Bay

Commonly encountered critters

  • Ghost Pipefish
  • Mimic Octopus
  • Blue-ringed Octopus
  • Coconut Octopus 
  • Flamboyant cuttlefish 
  • Stargazers
  • A wide range of nudibranchs

And so much more. One of the best guidebooks for the Indo-Pacific is the “Reef Fish Identification – Tropical Pacific” book by Allen et al. 

Lembeh Strait, Indonesia

The Lembeh strait is the stretch of water between Lemeh Island and mainland North Sulawesi. 

It is one of the most famous muck diving destinations in the world and one of the top macro dive sites anywhere. 

Underwater photographers (particularly macro photographers) flock to Lembeh from around the world for a chance to shoot creatures like Mimic Octopus, Ghost Pipefish, Sea Moths, Hairy Frogfish, pygmy sea horses and many more unusual critters. 

In short, it is a widely known fact in the dive community that Lembeh is a critter paradise. 

Just 16km long and only 1.2km wide, there are over 80 dive spots in the Lembeh Strait.

It is home to stunning habitat and species diversity and has generated countless new species discoveries over the years. 

Best muck diving sites in the Lembeh Strait

  • Hairball
  • Police Pier
  • Nudi Falls
  • Pantai Parigi
  • Teluk Kambahu

Commonly encountered critters

  • Pygmy seahorses (Hippocampus bargibanti)
  • Hairy frogfish (Antennarius striatus)
  • Harlequin shrimps (Hymenocera picta)
  • Flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi
  • Wunderpus (Wunderpus photogenicus)
  • Mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus)
  • Ornate ghost pipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus)
  • Blue ring octopus (Hapalochlaena Sp.)
  • Rhinopias scorpionfish (Rhinopias Sp.

Lembeh Straights resorts and dive shops that offer muck diving 

Here are some of the top-rated hotels and resorts in the Lembeh area offering muck diving opportunities: 

  • Black Sand Dive Retreat.
  • Dive Into Lembeh (Hairball Resort)
  • Thalassa Dive Resort Lembeh.
  • Two Fish Divers Lembeh.
  • White Sands Beach Resort Lembeh by Eco Divers.

Tulamben, Bali

Tulamben is a small town in northeast Bali and a world-renowned muck diving destination. Just a couple hour’s drive from the capital and international airport, Tulamben is probably best known for its wreck, the USS Liberty.

Tulamben has a black sand sea bottom that characterizes many of the best muck diving sites throughout Indonesia (and the world), and macro life abounds. 

What Tulamben does not have, however, is an abundance of coral and clear water diving. The previously mentioned USS Liberty wreck, of course, attracts a ton of marine life, but for the most part, Tulamben is pure muck. 

Best muck diving sites in Tulamben

  • USS Liberty Shipwreck
  • Batu Niti
  • Sidem
  • Melasti
  • Kwanji
  • Seraya

Commonly encountered critters

  • Harlequin shrimp
  • Frogfish
  • Ghost pipefish
  • Leaf scorpionfish 
  • Rare nudibranch species like costasiella, cyerce, eubranchus and doto donut nudibranch

Tulamben resorts and dive shops that offer muck diving 

Because Tulamben is such a popular regional and international muck diving destination, pretty much any dive resort is going to offer macro dives to the northeast coast’s most popular sites. 

Here is a list of some of the dive resorts and hotels in Tulamben. 

Mabul, Borneo

Mabul, in northwest Malaysian Borneo, is the best muck diving destination in Malaysia and when it comes to diversity and habitat, it can be on par with Anilao, Lembeh and Tulamben. 

Divers sometimes choose Mabul over the aforementioned locations because the habitats are more varied. Around Mabul, you can find everything from sloping coral reefs to seagrass beds, jetty dives, artificial reefs and sandy slopes. 

Combined with Mabul’s proximity to the neighbouring world famous Sipadan island, this is a great option for divers and snorkelers looking to do both macro-focused dives and experience the region’s beautiful coral reefs. 

Best muck diving destinations in Mabul

  • Seaventure.
  • Froggy Lair.
  • Eel Garden.
  • Lobster Wall.
  • Crocodile Avenue.

Commonly encountered marine life

  • Flamboyant cuttlefish
  • Blue-ringed octopus
  • Stargazers
  • Seahorses
  • Various types of frogfish 
  • Ghost pipefishes

Mabul resorts and dive shops that offer muck diving 

Mabul is a small island and fishing village, so there are not as many dive resorts and hotel options as you would get in places like Anilao or Tulamben. 

Here are some of the most popular dive resorts on the island. 

Ambon, Indonesia

Another of Indonesia’s world-famous muck diving locations, Ambon offers macro (and reef) divers a chance to see some of the most sought-after muck critters. 

Best of all, plenty of Ambon’s most popular and best muck diving destinations are close to the airport. You can land and be at your resort in very short order in Ambon. 

Underwater photographers from all over come to Ambon’s muck dive sites to see things like Clown, Giant and Hairy Frogfish, Mandarinfish, and the endemic Psychedelic Frogfish and Ambon Scorpionfish. 

Ambon’s best muck dive sites

  • Air Manis
  • Duke of Sparta
  • Laha
  • Pintu Kota
  • Hukurila Cave 

Commonly encountered marine life

While the “common” critters in Ambon change with the seasons, it is a place where you can reliably see: 

  • Rhinopias
  • Unusual nudibranchs
  • Ambon scorpionfish
  • Ghost pipefish
  • Harlequin shrimp
  • Tiger shrimp
  • Hairy shrimp 
  • Ambon frogfish.

Ambon resorts and dive shops that offer muck diving 

  • Spice Island Divers
  • Critterjunkies

Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea

Located in remote southeast Papua New Guinea, Milne Bay (both its coastline and surrounding islands) is considered by many divers to be the place that most popularized, and best characterizes the abundance and diversity of PNG diving. 

In addition to incredible black sand muck diving, Milne Bay has to offer some of the most varied diving anywhere in the world. 

With incredible dropoffs, coral dive sites–including sweeping wall dives and both coastal and offshore reefs–as well as drift dives and, of course, wonderful muck and rubble diving. 

Milne Bay’s best muck dive sites

In addition to places like Dinah Beach, Milne Bay’s best muck diving is best reached by liveaboard dive boats, which take guests to the prime muck diving spots. 

Commonly encountered muck critters

An abundance of:

  • Seahorses
  • Ghost pipefish
  • Cuttlefish
  • Frogfish
  • Mandarin fish
  • Myriad species of nudibranchs

Milne Bay resorts and dive shops that offer muck diving 

The Tawali Dive Resort is probably the most iconic dive resort in Milne Bay. 

Honourable mentions

It’s next to impossible to put together a “best” list because everyone has an opinion, and often it’s based on where they’ve had the best experience. 

Dive conditions, time of year and pure luck determine what you see in a given location. The stars might align for you in Anilao but not Milne Bay and vice versa. 

That said, I would challenge anyone to find a better top 6 locations in the Coral Triangle (and, by extension, the entire world). 

There are, of course, other muck sites in the Indo-Pacific, and within the coral triangle, that are well worth diving. They include: 

  • Pulau We (AKA Sabang), Indonesia
  • Dauin and Dumaguete, Philippines
  • Alor, Indonesia
  • Ulua Beach, Maui 
  • Puerto Galera, Philippines

Pretty much anywhere in the Indo-Pacific with a lot of volcanic activity (and therefore, black volcanic sands), heavy sediment from nearby rivers that make it difficult for large coral colonies to grow, and (lamentably) a lot of fishing and manmade debris–tires, pvc piping, concrete, etc.–you will find the conditions for macro diving. 

Muck scuba diving tips and techniques

Muck diving is quite niche and it is usually not something for novice scuba divers. 

You need a lot of patience, an appreciation for weird and wonderful critters, and excellent buoyancy control. 

Most of the time you’re hovering a metre or so above easily disturbed substrate that, if you’re not very careful, is easily whipped up into a cloud that kills visibility (in what are usually already low-vis conditions), scares away marine life, ruins your underwater photography opportunities and, if you’re with other macro lovers, will make you a pariah with the rest of the dive group. 

Below are some tips and techniques for successful macro diving. 

Keep your fins up

Buoyancy control is the foundation of all good diving, but especially muck diving. The only way to improve that control is to practice, which means dive. 

Buoyancy control is also essential during muck dives because a lot of what you’re looking for while macro diving is venomous. 

A scorpion or stonefish hiding just under the sand can deliver a very painful (potentially even deadly) envenomation from a fin spine. 

Beyond that, if you want to avoid stirring up sediment while muck diving, you need to keep your fins up. 

A lot of your movement while diving muck sites will be “frog kicks.” This is where your legs are akimbo, and you make small, controlled horizontal movements with your fins using just your ankle muscles. 

It avoids creating wash and violenting disturbing the water. 

Invest in the necessary camera equipment

Most muck divers are also underwater photographers and a large part of the niche is photography and videography. 

Capturing these animals and sharing them with the world is half the fun and to do so, you need either a macro lens and a housing for your mirrorless or DSLR camera, or a digital camera with built-in macro settings. 

For the latter, I really like the Olympus TG-6, which is the best underwater digital camera on the market with the best microscope and macro settings. 

Check out my review of it here, which also contains some other affordable waterproof digital cameras that I like. 

Here are some of the macro shots I’ve taken while muck diving with the TG6

Keep an eye out for shelter

A lot of what you see while muck diving is out in the open, either relying on camouflage, aposematism (aka, advertising toxicity with striking colours), or ornate and spiny defences. 

Still, plenty of critters would rather be close to or inside something if possible, and at muck sites, that often means rubble and human debris. 

Always keep an eye out for things like cinder blocks, PVC pipes, discarded fishing gear, bottles, logs, and the like. Approach slowly and scan carefully. 

Understand your subject

Understanding your subject–its behaviour, habitat, and relationships with other organisms in its environment–is one of the most important underwater photography tips (and wildlife photography tips, more generally), no matter where you are. 

It’s especially important when you’re muck diving, though, because you’re usually looking for individual subjects along sandy or silty bottoms in comparatively sparse environments. 

Generally speaking, macro diving doesn’t take place against a spectacular reef backdrop where you are surrounded by an explosion of plankton feeding anthias and chromis or big fish at all times. 

You’re slowly and methodically scanning the sand and sediment for cryptic macro species that are very often quite small–often much smaller than a lot of divers realize. 

Knowing the kinds of conditions that your targets prefer, as well as how they position themselves and the environmental cues to look out for, will make it far more likely that you find what you’re after. 

I would recommend investing in something like the Field Guide to Tropical Reef Fishes of the Indo-Pacific by Allen et al. 

It’s available in Kindle and paperback format, and it is the best field guide-natural history combination book out there. 

Of course, going out with experienced local dive guides who know the sites like the back of their hand–including where a lot of the resident critters hang out (many sites often have creatures that have been there for years)–also helps.

Why muck dive?

Muck diving is probably too tedious for the average casual diver. Sure, it’s cool to see some of the ocean’s more bizarre creatures up close, but finding them can be a chore. 

It’s a lot easier to dive a big healthy reef and enjoy the constant stimulation. 

That said, I love both, and while there is no substitute for the awesomeness of a thriving reef ecosystem, coming across the strange organisms that colonize the mud and sand flats of the world’s tropical seas is something special. 

The above six destinations are surely the best in the world when it comes to that.