Poll: alternative muck diving terms

voteAfter the recent blog about the history of muck diving I received some interesting suggestions about alternative names to describe the activity. Because this is a democratic blog, it’s time for a poll! Tell me (and the rest of the world) which name you prefer and who knows, it might just catch on!

While less talked about than the term “muck diving”, a few people suggested the world needs a fitting name for muck dive enthusiasts (maniacs?).  In bird watching the most fanatic bird watchers are called “twitchers“. I reckon finding an appropriate term for those divers that love nothing more than finding new critters could be interesting.

I have been offered some suggestions, but feel free to add others. For the sake of inspiration, the name “twitcher” actually stems from the nervous behaviour of a well-known bird watcher in the 50s and 60s. So feel free to make fun of your photograph happy critter-enthousiast dive buddies 😉

Luke_Snoot_Black Hairy

Muck-enthusiast in action (can you see the black hairy frogfish?

On the origin of muck diving

The last 3 years of my life have been dedicated to intensely studying critters and socio-economics related to “muck diving”. While this is a relatively common term in the scuba diving world, the vast majority of people haven’t got a clue what muck diving is. I can’t count the number of times people at conferences, meetings, drinks, etc. have gone: “You study what diving???”. Marine scientists seem to prefer hearing “Cryptobenthic fish assemblages on tropical sublittoral soft sediment habitats” than “Critters in the muck”. Each to its own I guess?

Seahorse_muck

Classic muck diving scene (Photo: Dragos Dumitrescu)

It’s not just scientists who are confused, a lot of divers have questions about muck, or at the very least are curious about how it started and where the name came from, so I decided to dig a bit deeper and find out some interesting facts about the origins of muck diving. If you have never heard of muck diving or just aren’t sure what it is, here is how I defined it in my last paper:

“Scuba diving in soft sediment habitats with limited landscape features, with
the explicit goal to observe or photograph rare, unusual, or cryptic species that are seldom seen on coral reefs.”

Or easier: Diving on sand/mud/rubble to find cool animals you don’t see on normal divesites. The word “muck” means either “Dirt, rubbish, or waste matter” or even worse “Farmyard manure, widely used as fertilizer”. In British English it is also used for “Something regarded as distasteful, unpleasant, or of poor quality”. I would guess that it’s the combination of the first and last meanings that inspired the people who started this type of diving.

Muck diving in its current shape has its origins in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea. On a site called Dinah’s beach,  where Bob Halstead decided to try to do a dive on the site where their boat (the MV Telita) was anchored. The divers were skeptical at first as the site was mostly sand and did not look very appealing, but after discovering tonnes of creatures they had never seen before they were sold and muck diving was born. From its origins in Papua New Guinea, muck diving caught on and became popular across the world, but no place is as well known for muck diving as Lembeh Strait in Indonesia.

Map Milne Bay

Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, where it all started

It is clear why Lembeh is famous with muck divers, as it really is a great place to dive and find some of the world’s most amazing critters. But how did muck diving in Lembeh kick off? What many people don’t know, is that Lembeh’s origin-story as the world’s most famous muck dive destination is pretty grim. The first resort in Lembeh (Kungkungan Bay Resort) was built in 1994, but the owners did not build their resort with critters in mind….

Back in those days, Lembeh was one of the best sites in the region to watch the big stuff. The plankton-rich waters of Lembeh Strait attracted scores of manta rays, dolphins, sharks,… Until 1996, when mankind showed just how destructive it could be. In March of that year, foreign fishermen came in and (illegally) installed the “Curtains of death”. These were huge nets, placed across the migratory routes of the large fish near Lembeh Strait. The nets were deadly efficient, during the 11 months they were used they caught:

  • 1424 manta rays
  • 577 pilot whales
  • 18 whales
  • 257 dolphins
  • 326 sharks (including whale sharks)
  • 84 turtles
  • many other animals including turtles and marlins

The original article about the curtains of death can’t be found online, but if you are interested, send me an email and I can send a copy. If you want to know more about destructive fishing in Indonesia, this is an interesting source start with.

Rainbow2

Peaceful Lembeh Strait has a turbulent history

The numbers are staggering, and for the few tourism operators in the area it must have been quite a shock. Until they discovered that Lembeh had much more to offer than just the big stuff. While there are no records of it, the story goes that muck diving in the area only properly got started when people started looking down at the sand instead of up at the manta rays. It makes me wonder what the area would have looked liked otherwise, and if muck diving would exist in the way it does now…

As it is now, muck diving is big, it attracts divers from across the globe and new critter hot spots keep on being discovered far beyond from where it all started. It’s exciting to think about how much more we will discover in the future! For me, one of the changes I would like to see, is the actual term “muck diving”. The name coined by Bob Halstead stuck, but I think most people in the diving (and academic) world agree that it isn’t really the most inviting name. I’d like to hear your suggestions (below in comments) on more suitable names for this type of diving and the divers doing it. If I get enough suggestions, I’ll organise a poll later to see what is preferred by divers around the world!

2_MDeBrauwer_JuvenileFrogfish_MDB

It’s all about finding the small stuff – baby Painted frogfish (Antennarius pictus)

PS: Originally I wanted the full title of this blog to be “On the origin of muck diving by Means of Photographer Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured divesites in the search for Critters”. But the long title might have put off those readers who didn’t immediately get the very nerdy biology pun.

Growing up

Growing up isn’t always easy, going from the playful life of a child to become a (seemingly) functional adult takes blood, sweat and tears. Anyone reading this blog who longingly remembers the awkward changes your body goes through puberty, please feel free to share in comments below whether it was the pimples, the voice changes, gangly limbs or any other similar affliction you’d like to get back in your life. I am fairly confident the comment section won’t be overly populated. If you think growing up was hard for you or any other human, take some time to consider how much more extreme becoming an adult is for fish.

As you or may not know, most fish start their life as transparent larvae, floating through the blue. Once they are large enough to become proper fish, they “settle” on the reef. This settling is the first big growing up fish have to do.  Forget about years to grow from a baby into a teenager. Typically within less than 2 days, the freshly arrived larvae change colour and massively grow in size. If you think changing colour and doubling in size within a month isn’t hard enough as a childhood, consider the following. Over 50% of baby fish arriving on the reef get eaten within the first two days of arriving on the reef! Talk about a bad first day at school…

Childhood might be the most dangerous time for fish, but that doesn’t mean puberty is any easier. While we humans complain about acne and high pitched voices, fish have got other things to cope with. Many fish change colour again as they become adults, which is a minor nuisance compared to the fact that some radically change shape. Good examples are batfishes, which start by looking like leaves or flatworms to then turn into a relatively boring plate-looking fish.

Shapeshifting is peanuts compared to a process many fish have go through during puberty: sex change. Many fishes are born as one sex, but will turn into the opposite sex as they grow up. The best known example are clownfishes, which are all born as a male, but turn into females later in life. Including this process would have made “Finding Nemo” a much more interesting film in my humble opinion. Other species, such as parrotfishes and wrasses are born as females, but then turn into males as they grow up. While surprising to most people, the whole sex change thing is actually very common in the ocean.

Part of growing up in humans is learning to appreciate different kinds of food: whether it’s vegetables, olives or alcohol, children like different things than adults. The same goes for many fish species. Frogfishes for example start by mostly eating small shrimp, and then evolve a more delicate palate including fish like seahorses, lionfish, or pretty much any other fish that fits in their mouth. Interestingly, for frogfish growing up can mean that you start of as prey for a fish, but turn into a predator for that same fish once you’re big enough. Conclusion: growing up can be difficult for any animal, but some have it worse than others.

Critter getaway in Bangka

Mangrove view

Mangroves at Bangka Island

At the moment I am back in Lembeh Strait for what will be the last visit to Indonesia during my PhD. So I am making the most of it, enjoying every moment and taking time to visit friends spread out across the archipelago. A few days ago I went to Bangka Island to visit Sophie and Simon, who own Nomad Divers, a very pleasant small dive resort. I wrote about Bangka before, so check it out here if you want to know what the island is all about.

I enjoyed a few very relaxed days, playing (and losing ) board games, teaching their kids how to behave badly and philosophising about science while enjoying gin-tonics. But I also got to appreciate the abundant critters that live in the mangroves and jungle of Bangka Island. Those few days of not working (not a single dive done and no computer in sight), and just enjoying nature reminded me why I fell in love with the tropics in the first place. The beauty of Indonesia (and much of the tropics by extension) is that there is so much wildlife all around you, as long as you just keep your eyes open…or just get plain lucky.

Tarsier_nom

Tarsier in the ceiling! I never realised how long their tails were…

On my first night, while we were catching up and sharing stories about science hobbits, a small tarsier decided to have his dinner in the restaurant. These small primates are rare and vulnerable to extinction, they are only active at night and are usually very shy. If you want to see them in the wild, your best bet is to find yourself a good guide who knows where they roost during the day, so you can see them waking up and moving out to hunt when night falls. Just seeing one is great, having one sitting just above you, while eating a gecko is dumb luck and freaking amazing. For Sophie and Simon, this was a first in 4 years on Bangka!

Tarsir

Nomnomnom. Tarsier (Tarsius Tarsier) eating a gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus) in Bangka Island

There was plenty to see by day as well. I had a great time wandering through the mangroves, looking around for interesting crittersAs you may or may not know, mangroves are important nursery areas for all kind of fish, so it was no surprise to see lots of baby snappers, damsels and other small fish darting around in the shallows. But there was a lot more, loads of mudskippers (skipping around in the mud, as they do), kingfishers in the trees, and the always busy fiddler crabs in the intertidal zone.

Fiddler_faceoff

Two male fiddler crabs facing off

Fiddler crabs are colourful little crabs, and are named for the males’ disproportionally large claw. One claw is small and used like any other crab uses its claws, the huge claw is used to show off (what did you expect?). The males wave their big claw around to get the attention of females, and to ward of other males encroaching on their territory. If you  ever find yourself in a mangrove with plenty of time on your hands, I can highly advise watching these little guys at work for a while, it’s pretty captivating and highly entertaining.

While I didn’t go into the jungle, there were plenty of little lizards to spot while strolling along the beach or heading to my room. Apparently, there are quite a few snakes to find in the jungle, and legend has it there’s even deer around, maybe I’ll have to bring shoes next time and go have a look.  If mangroves or jungle or jungle trekking aren’t your thing, you can always just chill out, have a beer and watch the geckos on the wall eating bugs or fighting each other. The tropics really are accommodating for any life style 😉

Sophie_Max.jpg

Sophie and Max enjoying the ocean view