Diving in search of small yet enigmatic critters is no longer the sole preserve of the famous resorts of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Whether you call it muck diving, macro hunting or critter bothering, little is the new big for thousands of divers who want to experience a safari in miniature. Here we explore alternative destinations for seeking out the small, the weird and the weedy
West Palm Beach • Florida
I was introduced to the Blue Heron Bridge three years ago by my friend Jim Abernethy, the famous shark diver. When his liveaboard, the Shearwater, returns to port in West Palm Beach, this is where Jim and his friends go diving for fun. They swap their wide-angle shark lenses for macro or close-up rigs, and the challenge is on to photograph the smallest, strangest creatures they can find.
The site is a mooring area for sailboats, and the moorings provide the first places to search for critters. Broken moorings in particular are an old favourite of seahorses, and if these elusive creatures appeal to you, the site is well worth visiting as they can be found in a variety of colours – from pale yellow to a rich, dark purple, depending on their background.
Have a good look around the moorings and you are likely to find common octopus, various species of blenny, juvenile filefish, nudibranchs and tiny dragonets. There are regular reports of painted frogfish lurking around these moorings. With the exception of a few colossal stingrays that cruise these shallows, everything is small, so there’s no point charging around at high speed; even when you’re moving slowly, it’s all too easy to swim over the most amazing creatures.
Everyone has their own take on the Blue Heron Bridge, but my favourite spots are the wall on the left side approaching the ‘old’ bridge, and the wreck of a little motorboat further out into the channel. Along the wall, there are so many octopus and blennies that you eventually lose count and begin looking for a different challenge. During my last visit, a family of reef squid was resident along this section of the dive, and although they were quite wary of divers, they did seem inquisitive. Further on from the wall is the low-lying ‘approach’ section of the bridge, where fishermen cast their lines – be careful here.
Out on the sand, you have to be alert. There is a type of mimic octopus here that enjoys hunting over the sand flats, and will perform similar ‘mimicry’ to its Indo-Pacific cousin, although its colouration is less glamorous as it generally mimics the sand.
All of this is very shallow, to the extent that none of the dive really gets below the level of a safety stop (5m). This does, however, introduce an element of danger, as there is boat traffic in the area. You are supposed to trail a surface marker buoy (SMB) so that boats know where you are – although there are ways to circumvent this law (by diving from a boat with a dive flag on display, for example), I strongly recommend that every buddy pair has an SMB, as some of the boat owners in this part of the world are, quite frankly, away with the fairies.
If you want to expand your horizons, the open sea dives off West Palm offer encounters with green and loggerhead turtles, and around September you should find big goliath grouper gathering for mating aggregations on the local wrecks. Alternatively, you could drive across the state to Crystal River and have a go at snorkelling with the manatees.
Need to know
Despite being shallow and sheltered from the open ocean by Singer Island, this is a dynamic site, and the cast of creatures is changing all the time. It is best to time your dives for incoming tides, when clear ocean water floods into the nearby Palm Beach Inlet. The idea is to dive 30–40 minutes before high tide until about an hour afterwards; after that point, the current picks up and the dive becomes unmanageable.
West Palm Beach has its own airport, and you can fly there via a choice of hubs – Charlotte Douglas in North Virginia and Newark in New Jersey both seem to work well. The good news is that transatlantic flights should offer you two bags of hold luggage (23kg each maximum) and this rate is also good for your internal flight. I flew with Continental, which has a generous sports luggage allowance on its internal flights – my return-flight package (Heathrow–Newark–West Palm Beach–Houston–Heathrow) cost £360.
What to bring
Florida is always hot, but the water temperatures do vary. In the depths of winter, you’ll want a 5mm and a hood and gloves, plus a rash vest or supplementary suit if you feel the cold. In the summer, a 3mm or skin should be fine. As for topside clothing, it’s shorts and T-shirts all round, but if you come in the winter you should bring a fleece and long trousers.
Dumaguete • Negros • Philippines
For years, the Philippine island of Negros was a blank spot on the international diving scene. Most of the dive tourism seemed to be concentrated on the island of Cebu to the east, where the reefs were better explored and the infrastructure was more advanced. Negros was all too easy to ignore, and the town of Dumaguete on its southern tip was equally overlooked until the fashion for macro subjects led local divers to look at the reefs in a different way. I visited Atlantis Dive Centre in the hope of finding some miniature marvels, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Dumaguete’s marine scene is Lilliputian in scale. With many creatures barely the size of a penny, they can be easy to overlook, but the local guides are experts at finding cryptic critters such as the ornate ghost pipefish. There’s a waiting list to become an Atlantis guide and a palpable sense of pride in being one. Guides are rotated between Dumaguete and Puerto Galera (a popular resort area in south Luzon) to keep them fresh, and ongoing training is part of the ethos. All the guides have a thorough understanding of the local ecosystem and know the species, and many give talks in the evening on specialist subjects such as the local frogfish.
Ever willing to find me new subjects, the guides left me in a quandary time and again. Should I stay and shoot such-and-such a critter, or move off to see what else they’ve discovered, knowing only too well I’d never be able to find the first one again?
Accompanied by the resort’s marketing manager, Paul O’Toole, I made several dives in search of ghost pipefish. On other dives, I saw thorny and pygmy seahorses, flamboyant cuttlefish, porcelain crabs, nudibranchs, frogfish and mandarinfish. It’s a roll call of some of the world’s most sought-after marine creatures, and their abundance here has put Dumaguete on the diving map.
Of course, there’s always one critter that manages to remain elusive during your visit – in my case, it was the small but deadly blue-ringed octopus, a fashionable subject with macro photographers. Still, it gives me a good excuse to go back…
Need to know
Visibility is highly variable, ranging from 30m on the plunging, sponge-lined coral walls of Apo Island to 10m or so off the beach. Dives are normally led in groups of four to six. Atlantis is careful to match divers’ abilities to the dives, tailoring them if necessary. With many dives on offer during the course of each day, you can choose the ones you want to do and avoid those that sound like hard work.
Dumaguete is not a big-fish destination. However, the hard corals are spectacular and the walls of Apo Island – a regular day trip from Dumaguete – offer beauty on a grand scale. Apo can be quite challenging, and is known for its downcurrents. The water teems with typical Indo-Pacific reef fish, and you’ll find a swirling school of jacks in the current off the point. I also managed to see turtles and sea kraits here.
What to Bring
Underwater photographers should consider extreme macro configurations. To shoot with a digi-compact, you need to bring at least one close-up lens – for really small stuff, you need to take two and use them together for some serious magnifying power. If you’re a digital SLR user, bring a 105mm macro lens and teleconverters. Wear a 5mm wetsuit if you feel the cold – 3mm otherwise – and a hood, just in case. Bring light, long-sleeved shirts and trousers for those mosquito-tastic evenings.
I flew Cathay Pacific from London to Hong Kong, then on to Manila, from where I took a 60-minute internal flight to Dumaguete. Expect to pay about £700 for return flights from London.
Nuweiba • Egypt
In my past life as a dive travel consultant, I had arranged a holiday to Nuweiba for photo guru Alan James and partner Heather Hammond. On their return, they regaled me with stories of all the wonderful photographic subjects they had encountered, and I decided that I had to go and see for myself. It was another year or two before I made it out there in January 2005, but since that first trip I have returned several times and have still not come close to exhausting the area’s potential for great macro diving.
Nuweiba is perched on the edge of the Sinai peninsula between Taba to the north and Dahab to the south. The town was built around the former Israeli settlement of Moshav Neviot, which demarked the boundaries for the two local tribes. There’s not that much to the town itself – the name more commonly refers to a collection of hotels along this stretch of coast. The Gulf of Aqaba is renowned for its array of macro supermodels and Nuweiba is certainly no exception. In recent years, it has attracted some of the world’s best photographers and many award-winning images have been taken here.
All diving in Nuweiba takes place from the shore, so you can dive any depth from the surface to around 30m. My favourite site is the Abou Lou Lou house reef at the Coral Hilton. Even in the shallow depths just off the shore, you need to keep your eyes peeled on the sand, where you can see several types of crocodile snake eels, fragile little sea moths, razorfish, shrimp, stargazers and even the occasional mimic octopus. The seagrass also plays host to several types of shrimp, pipefish and seahorses.
The main reef lies between 5m and 20m. You should peer under all the rocks in the shallows, as large numbers of peppered morays can be seen jostling for space under the overhangs and a number of octopus squeeze themselves into the smallest cracks. Towards the deeper end of the reef is a beautiful pinnacle surrounded by glassfish, which also houses several cleaning stations.
Under the main overhang, you can watch large coral trouts and lyretail groupers enjoying the attentions of the resident cleaner shrimp and wrasse. The common and yellow-mouthed morays are often waiting patiently to the side for their turn. On the other side of the pinnacle, a smaller cleaning station looks after the needs of the anthias, glassfish and tiny boxfish. As well as the cleaner shrimp, there are a myriad of other such crustaceans to be seen, including marble shrimp and the tiny emperor partner shrimp, which can be found hiding among the gills of Spanish dancers.
This pinnacle is a hot zone for benthic life, from the comical frogfish balancing on pipe corals to delicate and colourful nudibranchs on the seagrass.
Should you tire of macro diving, the jetty just off the beach offers some great wide-angle spectacles. When darkness falls, the lights on the jetty softly illuminate the reef, attracting little fish and creating the perfect hunting scenario for the local lionfish, which congregate in great numbers. Just a short trip from the Coral Hilton are two classic dives: the Sinker and the MFO pipeline, both with beautiful coral vistas and a good chance of seeing turtles.
Need to Know
Very occasionally during the winter months, the wind can whip up the surf, making entries and exits awkward and stirring up the visibility in shallow water. Fortunately, these adverse conditions never seem to last very long. Generally, you can dive the Abou Lou Lou house reef at any time of day. Night dives should not be missed: large numbers of squid can be seen off the beach after dark, and the sand becomes alive with hermit crabs and anemone carriers. Sometimes you can even see guitar sharks out hunting for their supper.
To reach Nuweiba from the UK, you can fly into Taba airport, which is located close to the Egypt–Israel border in the north of Sinai, then take the 43-mile transfer south. Alternatively, you can fly into Sharm El Sheikh airport to the south and take the 110-mile journey north. Thomson fly to both airports from several British cities.
What to bring
In winter, the evenings can be quite chilly in the desert, so don’t forget to pack a fleece. The water temperature can drop to 21°C around this time, so for long macro dives where you are hardly moving, you need a 5–6mm wetsuit or semi-dry with a hood. The summer can be very hot, so full sun protection is a must. A 3mm wetsuit will suffice for diving.
west palm beach
Jim Abernethy’s Scuba Adventures www.scuba-adventures.com 001 561 842 6356
Divequest www.divequest.co.uk 01254 826322
Geo Dive www.geo-dive.com 020 8538 3838
Hidden Depths www.hiddendepthsdivetours.com 01722 501692
Worldwide Dive and Sail www.worldwidediveandsail.com
Regaldive www.regal-diving.co.uk 01353 659999
African Divers Nuweiba www.africandiversnuweiba.com 00 20 123 11 05 05
Crusader Travel www.crusadertravel.co.uk 020 8744 0474
Explorer Travel www.redsea.explorertravel.co.uk 020 8816 8789
Regaldive www.regal-diving.co.uk 01353 659999