When big stuff shows up unexpectedly it is a joyous moment. A low flying manta or whale shark swimming by in the blue is always exciting and gets a big tick in your log book. There are occasions when you go somewhere expecting big fish like great whites in Guadalupe or tiger sharks in the Bahamas, but you do need to time it with the correct seasonal migration patterns.
Why does megafauna please us divers? Is it the sheer size, their intelligence or their threatened status, which - like a white rhino – make sightings rare? Shark behaviour is certainly never dull. Whether it is an apex predator charging a school of fish in the Sardine Run or a basking shark guzzling a plankton bloom off the western isles of Scotland, we love to be at the heart of the action. Seeing their beauty and agility is a bucket list experience.
Manta rays have the largest brain of any fish. Being in the wild with them is an intimate experience. They are interested in us and often make eye contact. Many would go so far as to say they were friendly and playful even, particularly giant Pacific mantas. Schooling sharks are mesmerising, moving continuously because of their lack of swim bladder to avoid sinking. Where they school can be challenging environments for divers which is perhaps why the experience is particularly rewarding.
So much large marine life is on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species. Scientific research includes satellite tagging, taking DNA samples, underwater ultrasound and photo-recognition databases. These help us to learn more about reproduction, migration patterns and behaviour which all contributes to protecting them in the oceans for future generations. Certainly human interference is more of a problem for the world’s megafauna than for the world’s macro.
Seeing big stuff is a thrill while looking for small stuff is more of a challenge. The most famous type of diving with macro life is muck diving. It will introduce you to some of the strangest looking marine life you have ever seen. Muck diving sites aren’t pretty and are often comprised of sand, rubble, sea grass and sometimes rubbish. The black sands of Indonesia’s north Bali and the Lembeh Strait are well known muck diving regions.
Otherwise known as “critters” much macro life lives buried under the sand and occasionally in bottles. It is worth carrying a magnifying glass to find the small stuff and be aware they are masters of disguise. Mimic octopus, hairy frogfish and pygmy seahorse can easily be missed as they blend into their surroundings. In contrast, you may also witness colourful show-offs like the flamboyant cuttlefish and blue ringed octopus who stand out like sore thumbs. Expert dive guides know exactly which sea cucumber to find the Emperor shrimp under and which anemone the porcelain crabs will be hiding in!
You will certainly never be bored on a muck dive! Alien behaviour goes hand in hand with alien appearance. Frogfish have a lure on their dorsal fin that is used as bait to tease prey. They think they are getting a tasty worm but alas end up as frogfish lunch instead! They can open their mouths wide enough to swallow prey twice their size and also walk on the bottom on their fins. The mysterious Bobbit worm is another ambush predator with razor sharp jaws known to snap its prey in half. Five antennae sense movement above its head resulting in a snatch and grab, pulling the poor victim underground to a grisly end. Considering they grow up to three metres in length, only a few inches of the Bobbit worm is seen above ground.
Diving for macro often goes hand in hand with underwater photography. Workshops popular in muck diving destinations are the Anilao Underwater Shootout and the Lembeh Gulen Critter Shootout. You will need at the very least a 60mm lens, powerful strobes and preferably a right angle viewfinder attachment to get a better view of your subject. Good buoyancy is crucial. While it may be tempting to lie on the sand to get closer to tiny marine life, you will be destroying crucial habitats of the very animals you are photographing.
Other top macro diving destinations include Mabul in Malaysia, Dumaguette in the Philippines, Ambon in the Banda Sea, Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea and Babbacombe in South Devon.