Muck Beauties

Text and photograph by Brandon D. Cole

The freak show is in full swing. Nondescript lumps of algal scuz come to life as hairy frogfish, awkward bodies totally obscured by weedy skin growths cloaking their predatory presence. Thrusting up through the black sand, slack-jawed snake eels have symbiotic shrimp dancing atop their heads. Having buried all but two of its banded arms in the sand, a mimic octopus puts on a most convincing sea snake act, writhing back and forth in a sinusoidal wave. Then it fools me again, impersonating a giant, menacing crab and next a venomous lionfish. An amorous pair of cockatoo waspfish flops from side to side in the surge. Brilliant mimics in color, shape and movement of the brown leaves scattered about on the bottom, they are all but invisible.

I found more strange, new life forms in one hour of diving than in years of diligent searching planet-wide. And all on a flat, featureless, dirty dive affectionately known as Hairball.Seated among the splendor of Kungkungan Bay Resort's central dining room, I'm half-listening to the mealtime conversation, which ranges from golf to angioplasty. My mind is whirring, wrestling with the question, Why are so many beasties here in Limbeh Strait? I'm about to break the ice with just that query when someone turns to Larry Smith-critter hunter extraordinaire and head of dive operations at KBR-and asks what those "ugly whatsits" were today.

A Flying fish gurnard skims the seafloor looking for unwary prey Lembeh Strait is a narrow passage on the south side of the northern tip of Sulawesi, Indonesia. Whereas the warm, clear waters and lush coral reefs of the Bunaken Marine Park to the north are world famous and have been explored by divers for decades, the Strait is radically different and relatively unheard of-at least for the moment."Hairy frogfish," responds Larry, beaming with pride. "Or do you mean the hairy Ambon scorpionfish, or the hairy ghost pipefish? We saw them all today. Hairball was really smokin'!"

Cauldron of Creation

Lembeh's waters are surprisingly cool (about 75 degrees F) and the visibility, averaging 20 to 25 feet, is a far cry from Bunaken. The shallow, current swept area is primarily a soft-bottomed habitat: black volcanic sand slopes, muddy plains, coral rubble piles, etc. Although there are vibrant coral reefs and "typical, tropical fish" in abundance-biologists claim that this region of the Indo-Pacific is the epicenter of marine species diversity-the focus here is truly on this wonderful muck habitat. It's a showcase for the lifestyles of the weird and infamous. Among underwater photographers and critter hunters, the area has quickly garnered such catchy titles as "The Twilight Zone" and the "Muck Diving Capital of the World." In a spectacularly active area of the Pacific Ring of Fire-here nature's oddities brew and spew forth like an evolutionary highlight film in action-Lembeh Strait is truly a Cauldron of Creation.

Just Mucking Around

A cockatoo waspfish, which imitates the motion of seagrassMany of the "high-voltage" muck sites are like circus tours from one bizarre attraction to another. Every time I'd hear Larry's goofy whistle I'd leave something extraordinary-such as a giant sea tiger nudibranch with a symbiotic Periclimenes shrimp riding side-saddle-to fly off into the murk to find his dive light pointing at something even more amazing than the last, such as the football-sized frogfish "Old Yeller" repeatedly inhaling butterflyfish appetizers! One grows complacent with the cliche of gorgeous fish-another curious cuttlefish and leaffish at Magic Rock, for example-glossing right over them in the frenzied hunt for the fingered dragonets and black juvenile sex-changing ribbon eels.

Warning: Venom is Everywhere

Lembeh Strait was recently chosen as the site for a documentary film on venomous marine life. Divers must pay extremely close attention to where one puts hand or knee down. The Twilight Zone is literally crawling with dangerous fishes and invertebrates, many of which make matters even trickier by blending in perfectly with their surroundings. Flat mud bottoms and rubble fields don't offer a lot of shelter, so inhabitants use sneaky survival skills such as mimicry, camouflage and venom to protect themselves.

Stonefish-likely the world's most venomous fish-are everywhere. Larry's guides once found nine on a single dive at Police Pier. At least a half-dozen species of lionfish bristled venomous spines in my direction every day. There are sea snakes and fire or "toxic" urchins sheltering Coleman's shrimp, and my personal favorite-the devilfish, known to some as the Caledonian Stinger. When not buried for ambush purposes (leaving only the business tips of its dorsal spines exposed), this dour faced scorpaenid drags its "pin-cushion of stingers" body across the bottom with the aid of finger-like fin spines. When threatened, it flares brightly marked pectoral fins wide-an obvious warning and one to be heeded. Cute and cuddly blue-ringed octopuses possess what might be the world's most potent natural poison. Divers see them at many sites here, even right under the pier in five feet of water.

Seahorses and Their Kin

A one-half inch seahorse is taking the world by storm. Pygmy seahorses are undeniably cute and captivating, their tiny pot-bellied bodies covered with bumpy, red warts mimicking the polyps of the gorgonian on which they live. Rare and only recently discovered, they have been sighted in only a few places in the Indo-Pacific. No where seems to hide as many pygmies as the Lembeh Strait area, where up to 25 individuals have been counted clinging to a single seafan. People are flying half way around the world for a look at this diminutive dynamo. Muck madness it is.

At the Petting Zoo, Larry led me to a stately six-inch thorny seahorse wandering about a rope sponge garden in 60 feet. Just up the silty slope was a resident pair of banded pipefish snaking back and forth, the male proudly displaying a belly bulging with eggs. At Nudi Retreat I saw my first sea moth (aka Pegasus) waddling about the rubble, black proboscis protruding from a stocky, armored body from which sprouted bumble bee-like wings. At famed Hairball I photographed male and female robust ghost pipefish, levitating snout down, tail up, tattered palm fronds washing to and fro for all the world to overlook.

Under the Cover of Darkness

The daytime denizens of Lembeh Strait are weird enough. But when night drops her mantle and Stygian blackness claims the sluggish waters of the Strait, a new cast of characters takes the muck stage. Juvenile boxfishMy most disturbing nightmares couldn't have conjured forth a more frightening apparition than the stargazer. With bulbous eyes and twisted-lip smile leering up from under the sand, its grim visage makes a charming picture. Another horror is the elusive bobbitt worm, a voracious predator armed with wicked spines used to hook and grasp its prey while the mandibles shred the victim food processor-style. Side-gilled slugs, bubble shells and moon snails ooze slowly yet purposefully along in hot pursuit of mates, which they stalk by following a slime trail.

Night dives proved exceptionally productive right off KBR's beach and at nocturnal favorites such as Aer Praeng or Nudi Falls. I witnessed octopus and cuttlefish attacking fish and was dive-bombed by frenzied squid. I found a four inch sole, black rimmed in red, which mimics a toxic flatworm. Decorator crabs wore such convincing costumes of sponge, algae and debris I'm certain I overlooked ten for each one recognized. Sponge crabs, mantis shrimp, furry armed "orangutan" crabs and zebra crabs nestled in long-spined sea urchins add to the list of the exotic crustaceans found in the region.

Muck diving. It may not be a PADI specialty course yet, but it certainly is catching on fast. What is it? A compulsion? Delirium? A trendy fad? Maybe all of these, but it's also new, great fun, and for the critter hunter and/or photographer, tremendously rewarding. It doesn't appeal to everyone, but if "one beautiful coral reef begins to look like any other," the time could be ripe for a change. Time to dive somewhere that doesn't look like it holds anything at all-a mud pit.