leyte southern john nightingale muck diving philippines

As beautiful as coral reefs may be they, sometimes they just can't touch the excitement of diving in a wasteland of mud, sand and rubbish, knowing that hiding there will be some of nature's weirdest underwater creatures. John Nightingale takes us muck diving in Southern Leyte, the Philippines.

When you've had enough of all those wonderfully coloured fish and dazzling invertebrates living in harmony with the endless magic of the corals then it's time to come over to the dark side. Shallow bits of underwater desert characterised by fringed eyes swivelling to follow you, poisonous spines rising up if you stray too close and shapes and colours so muted and cryptic that it's often hard to recognise them as fish at all.

This is muck diving, and it takes place on the rough side of town, the marine equivalent of back streets and dark alleyways, whose denizens are either lurking in the shadows in heavy disguise or so venomous that no-one wants to mess with them – and that's exactly what makes these sites such fascinating places to explore.

Red white dwarf scorpionfish muck diving philippines Dwarf scorpionfish (Scorpaena elachys) / All photographs by John Nightingale

Two such muck diving areas have been found in Southern Leyte, a province in the Eastern Visayas region of the Philippines. One is a sandy area just offshore in Sogod Bay that has come to be known as Little Lembeh, after the black sands of the Lembeh Strait in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, and the second is just round the headland under a pier by a town called Padre Burgos.

Little Lembeh can be dived from the shore or from a boat and is made up of three contiguous sites. It has a stubby concrete jetty at one end called Malitbog Pier, a labyrinthine fishing trap in the middle section and the remains of some Second World War Japanese pontoons at the Northern end. 

We started under the pier, which was absolutely packed with one of nature's stranger creations, the frogfish.

Every concrete leg had them hanging off at ridiculous angles, wedged into corners, even perched on one another. They came in every colour from jet black to dirty cream, each one vying to be more inconspicuous than the other.

frog stargazern`      Left, marbled stargazer (Uranoscopus bicinctus); right, giant frogfish (Antennarius commerson)

These guys are con artists, hanging a lure off their forehead like a spiv with a fake Rolex, giving it a little wiggle occasionally to interest some passing fish dumb enough to be fooled by such an obvious scam. If it comes closer for a second look, then it's had it. A frogfish may look like a lump of innocuous protoplasm stuck by four silly feet to a piece of concrete but, when the moment comes, its mouth shoots out in a microsecond and, with a great inhalation, that little sucker is history.

An eagle-eyed local guide is an essential for muck diving and, as we dropped into the middle section, my buddy pointed to a little muddy blob on the sand.

Dwarf Lionfish muck diving philippinesDwarf lionfish (Dendrochirus brachypterus)

As I moved in for a closer look two spines slowly rose up from its back, then a pair of unexpectedly beautiful wings shot out in yellow, red and cinnamon and it thrust forward a little skull-like head. Having made it quite clear that I messed with him at my peril, this devil scorpion fish grumpily stalked off on its little claw-like legs to find somewhere it wouldn't be disturbed by rubbernecking tourists.

In a neighbourhood like this if you don't pack one hell of a punch then you need to keep a low profile, and a couple of bits of dead sea grass spotted with mildew that drifted passed in the current were a great example of that. Look very closely at those bits of weed and you see two sets of tiny eyes - a pair of ghost pipefish, surviving by being virtually invisible.

Further along the shore is the third part of Little Lembeh which contains a huge splash of colour in the form of a couple of WW2 Japanese pontoons absolutely covered in soft corals, sponges and a multitude of fish.

Closer inspection revealed lots of the classic Filipino micro life, ornate crabs and jewel-like lobsters, living within the bodies of the sea stars and anemones. There were ghost pipe fish here too but, in response to the colour all around them, these were the bright and spiky harlequin pipefish, designed to merge in with the radiant feather stars around them.

Harlequin ghost pipefish 1 muck diving philippinesHarlequin ghost pipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus)

Anemone Shrimp 1 LL muck diving philippinesGlass anemone shrimp (Periclimenes brevicarpalis)

When you do manage to pull yourself away from the bright lights and bustle of the pontoons it takes a moment to get your eye back in, but soon you start spotting the shadowy life all around you again. Mantis shrimps edging out of their holes, killer punch at the ready, swivelling those huge eyes to check that the coast is clear, and banded sea snakes working their way in and out of the sea floor burrows like a deadly house to house search.

After a few days of head down in the muck, I was persuaded that there was one local reef that I really shouldn't miss. Called Napantao, it was a 50m wall on the other side of Sogod Bay that had been a marine sanctuary for years.

I've been told about many 'unmissable' reefs over the years, few of which actually lived up to their reputation, but I can honestly say that this place absolutely blew my socks off. There was great visibility and an extraordinarily packed and colourful reef bed full of hard and soft corals, anemones and giant sea fans, but it was the sheer concentration and variety of fish that was so astonishing.

Rising up and down were huge shoals of anthias and chromis, with triggerfish, groupers and trumpet fish above, all watching for the quick snack, and the bigger boys - barracuda, trevally and tuna - working the water above them.

Turtles were everywhere, munching on the reef, and white tip reef sharks dozed under the overhangs. The current picked us up and flew us along the reef edge, with the packed ranks of fish opening up in front and closing back in behind us as we passed. One of those rare occasions where I just folded away my camera and drank it all in. I was told that in season it was common to find whale sharks here but I couldn't imagine how they'd ever fit them in among so many fish. Quite extraordinary.

Enough of being up on the posh reefs with the smart set, it was time to get back down to the ghetto where the real action was, and this time, go diving the mean streets at night.

Bugos Pier padre muck diving philippinesPadre Burgos pier

Crinoid crab 4 muck diving philippinesCrinoid crab (Ceratocarcinus longimanus)

The Padre Burgos Pier couldn't look less attractive if it tried. It sticks out into the water on badly cast concrete legs and is only improved by the colourful double outrigger fishing boats tied up to it.

The entrance to the water is down some incredibly steep, slippery and very narrow concrete steps and, once underwater, you soon know that you're back in the shady end of town. But lurking among the jetsam was an extraordinary cast of characters that you only ever find in places like this. Nobody was who they pretended to be and most were busy trying to keep a very low profile.

Every turn of the torch revealed some new individual – dwarf cuttlefish and nudibranchs, tiny scorpion fish and porcupine pufferfish. Stargazers, showing nothing above the sand but a set of razor sharp teeth and two staring eyes, always give me a chill with their death's head look and unblinking glare. Yet when I encountered one moving across the sea floor I was astonished at how round and plump it was, though it was quick to burrow its fat belly back into the sand so as not to jeopardise its scary reputation.

Delicate little red and yellow-banded pipefish, with the male carrying two rows of tiny orange eggs along its belly, seemed too enticing a mouthful for such a tough neighbourhood, and a little pair of sea moths, using their dragon-like wings to stay near each other, far too defenceless to survive here.

pregnant pipefish muck diving philippinesPregnant yellow-banded pipefish (Dunckerocampus pessuliferus) - note the eggs on the underside

Decorator crab muck diving philippinesDecorator crab with half a sardine affixed

The closest thing to a 'normal' looking fish I saw was what appeared to be half a sardine moving vertically along the bottom. A closer look revealed a decorator crab, in heavy disguise of course , dragging this fishing boat discard off to its lair.

Just when I was wondering if anything was what it appeared to be I met the biggest conman of all, the mimic octopus. Already the exact colour of the sandy bottom, he tried out half a dozen different identities in rapid succession to try and convince me that he was someone else. When none of these weird and unlikely shapes succeeded in either frightening me, or making me lose interest, he became a flat fish and undulated away across the bottom into the darkness.

Mimic Octopus muck diving philippines 1Mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus)

Juvenile African pompano 3 muck diving philippinesJuvenile African pompano (Alectis ciliaris)

As we turned back towards the shore I spotted something going on near the surface that I couldn't recognise at all. Two flat, diamond-shaped, silver, fish, each no more than a few inches long, were pirouetting together just below the surface. What made it so extraordinary was that both had a series of fine silver filaments trailing 18 inches behind them from their dorsal and anal fins.

Dancing is the only word that describes the complicated twisting and turning, dipping and diving that these two little fish were doing around each other, with those long filaments swirling and spiralling around them.

With a nearly empty tank and dying batteries I spun around those two little marvels, trying to get a shot of their extraordinary movements without smacking my head on the keels and outrigger poles of the three fishing boats moored directly above me. Once on shore my guide, despite having dived that pier for over 15 years, was as perplexed as I was. They turned out to be juvenile African pompano fish, which normally do their growing up in pelagic waters. Only once they are adult, and looking completely different, do they come closer to shore, which explained why this was such a rare sight.

If you like getting down and dirty then this corner of the Philippines is definitely one for the list. Come here between December and May and the chances are that whale sharks will also be here, allowing you to jump from the sea's largest inhabitants to some of its smallest, from the big and beautiful to the tiny and weird and from the posh end of town to the wrong side of the tracks.



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