By Joseph Tepper
Muck: Brit. /m>k/ , U.S. /m^k/ “Excrement, manure; dirt, waste matter.”
Muck—it’s not the most appealing notion. So why would an underwater photographer travel 10,000 miles around the globe to a remote destination just to dive in it?
While some of the world’s muckiest locations might seem barren silt landscapes punctuated by recycling and used shoes, they are also undersea oases for the weirdest and wildest critters.
On my 6-week-long journey through the “Best Underwater Photography in the Indo Pacific,” I had seen a lot of critters—but the muck diving at Lembeh blew them all out of the water. That’s why the fine folks at Critters@Lembeh ask for only one thing when you arrive, your critter wishlist. Here are some of mine:
- Blue Ring Octopus
- Star Gazer
- Pygmy Cuttlefish
- Mandarin Fish
- Harlequin Shrimp
- Hairy Frogfish
But even the most complete, over-the-top wishlist you could think of couldn’t even come close to everything you will see in just a week in Lembeh…
Twenty years ago, diving in Lembeh was unheard of. Today, there are dozens of hotels, resorts, dive shops and even liveaboards that bring divers to the best muck diving in the world. But not all muck diving operators were created equal—and if you’re looking for only the best in dive guides, accommodations and food then you have to go to Lembeh Resort and Critters@Lembeh.
First opened in 2003, Lembeh Resort is one of the originals on the strait and continues to provide top-notch service to its guests. The 14 cottages and 2 garden view rooms climb up the hillside to provide breath-taking views of the straight right from your private balcony.
For divers and non-divers alike the amenities continue with a spa, fresh water pool, and restaurant and bar serving up three square meals a day. But for the hardened underwater photographer, most of the time will be centered around the Critters@Lembeh dive shop. Simply put, the team at Critters@Lembeh is one of the best in the business—they have a combined dive count in the strait of 50,000 and even have a full time marine biologist on staff to help you identify that rare nudibranch captured on your memory card.
Macro Muck Photography in Lembeh Strait
Lembeh Strait is so rich in subjects, that pinpointing one to a specific site is quite difficult. Where else in the world can you see ten different blue ring octopuses on ten different dive sites, a sea fan with dozens of pygmy sea horses, a mimic octopus disguised as seven different animals in one week?
While there are periods of time where a specific subject might be common to one site, the fact is, in Lembeh strait there are so many amazing subjects that on any given dive site, at any given time, you are likely to photograph something magical.
Here is the magic from my 10 days in Lembeh:
Even in some of the world’s best macro locations, a blue ring octopus sighting is a rare one, but in Lembeh, during most times of the year, you can see three or four on a single dive—sometimes even mating with each other. In their normal state, blue rings are quite a boring color, but using a pulse of water the knowledgeable dive guides at Critters@Lembeh can get what every photographer wants: big, bright, blue rings.
The blue ring also has a lesser-known cousin called the Mototi or Poison Oceallate Octopus. Although these beauties may feature only one ring when aggravated, they are just as poisonous and just as photogenic.
Both the Mototi and the Blue Ring often take to hiding in bottles and cans when clumsy photographers invade their personal space. In one amazing encounter with a frightened Mototi, the eight-legger took off into a Sprite bottle—rather than trying to exclude the bottle from the image I made a conscious effort to include it for an extra comical effect.
Like their blue ring relatives, cuttlefish require a little agitation to bring out their colors. To bring our their colors with your camera, make sure to use a good set of strobes even when shooting at low apertures.
The crustaceans of Lembeh might not receive as much attention as blue ring octopuses or frogfish, but they can be equally rewarding photographically. For a really colorful subject that pops out of frame, it’s hard to beat the emperor shrimp on a bright sea slug. Unlike many subjects in Lembeh, which live on a rather bland background, these shrimp tend to hitch rides on vibrant nudibranchs and sea cucumbers—perfect negative space.
The plethora of crustaceans in Lembeh makes for great practice of new techniques. For those crustaceans that choose not to live on an amazing nudibranchs background, a spotlight effect from a snoot is an effective way to draw attention to the subject.
Crustaceans like the Tozuma shrimp also make for excellent practice for shooting bokeh. While it is almost photographic instinct to shoot at high apertures for black macro backgrounds, there’s something to be said for a nice blue negative space in a macro shot.
Of all the shrimp in Lembeh, perhaps the most photogenic is the Harlequin Shrimp—with electric blue accents tattooed onto their porcelain body. In the case of Harlequins, two are better than one. Patience is key when waiting for both subjects to come into frame for a pair shot.
Eels and Sand-Dwellers
Lembeh’s muck isn’t only a draw for underwater photographers—but also for some of the creepiest critters that go bump in the night. Some of the most prized sand-dwellers – snake eels, stargazers, and crocodile fish – make their home in the muck.
Sand-dwellers are by no means in short supply in Lembeh, but the tricky part is finding a way to make them really pop from the background. Snooting is especially effective for sand-dwellers, as the rounded light modifier helps spotlight the subject from the sand.
Arriving in Lembeh, one sand-dweller in particular was at the top of my list: the Stargazer. As if you need any more reason to go on a night dive in Lembeh (in addition to the usual suspects), these benthic beauties pop their creepy faces through the sand in the dark.
Displaying proper muck diving etiquette is especially important when shooting sand-dwellers. Instead of a traditional fin kick, frog kicks will avoid stirring up the sand too much. Of course, sometimes backscatter can just look like stars in the sky…
Frogfish and Scorpionfish
Lembeh might just be the frogfish capital of the Indo-Pacific. From the size of a fingernail to several inches, from clean-shaven to hairy, there is a seemingly endless variety of “hoppers.”
In Lembeh, it seems that the hairier, the better. The hairy frogfish features dozens of tassels and is easily one of the more popular for photographers. While I stuck with a 105mm lens during my duration in Lembeh, the availability and familiarity of the frogfish with divers could easily lend itself to a 60mm or even close-focus wide-angle.
Of course, the signature frogfish shot is one with its mouth agape in the middle of a yawn. The excellent dive guides at Lembeh will never resort to the insensitive, unethical trickery of sticking a fishing line down the froggy’s throat (as is unfortunately commonplace for other dive shops), so it’s all about luck. And while I was not fortunate enough to witness a yawn-in-progress, I still managed to have a frogfish filled adventure.
Seahorses, Pipefish and Pipehorses
As with everything, underwater photography subjects come in trends. And right now it seems that the rage is all about pygmy seahorses. At many destinations you might have only one or two sea fans with only a couple pygmies: But at Lembeh, they come in the hundreds.
The advantage in richness of subject matter is not only avoiding a wait time for a seahorse, but from a photographic standpoint—you can move from one to another if it isn’t “cooperating” instead of hassling it.
Pygmies might be the most popular seahorse, but pipefish are also strong photographic subjects. With their sharp colors, banded pipefish are an easy choice for a photo—but getting them in focus is another matter. To eliminate distracting backgrounds, I chose to shoot with very low apertures in a technique known as Bokeh.
Instead of relying on my camera’s autofocus to get pinpoint accuracy, I locked the focal length and waited for the subject to come into focus and fire off a series of shots. This spray and pray method is more time consuming than autofocus, but will help assure precise focus.
Of course, even simple seahorse subjects in Lembeh can be used to experiment with your creativity. Here, I’ve backlit a plain seahorse with my snoot to accentuate his curves.
Mandarin Fish Photography in Lembeh
Here’s one kiss you’ll want to capture with your camera.
Each day at dusk, dozens of mandarin fish gather just outside the Lembeh house reef to seek a mate. In an act of romance, the male and female finish their mating with what has become known as a “kiss.”
Capturing this kiss is easier said than done. After 20 minutes of chasing the female, the male engages in the peck for only three seconds—a short time to lock onto the subject, much less change any settings. I found it best to take a test shot of the coral every few minutes to check the exposure as the lighting changes with the setting sun.
A focus light is a must on this dive for your camera to lock focus on the fast-moving mandarins. You can be even more prepared by using a red focus light, as the output seems to be less deterring to the fish.
It can be up to a 70-minute dive to prepare for the mating, which only lasts 10 minutes—but it’s worth it for a keeper kissing pic.
Lembeh's Other Fish Subjects
With all the weird and wonderful creatures to be found at Lembeh, it may be all too easy to forget about the less rare fish. But they are still worth a snap or two…
Lembeh: More than Macro...
Simply put, Lembeh is the muck capital of the world. The unrestricted access to the ultra-rarities of diving – blue rings, mimics, hairy frogfish – combined with the sheer amount of diversity is something that can’t be truly appreciated in a single dive or day or visit. It is a rare occurrence to find a first timer at Lembeh, and even more rare it seems to find someone who only went once.
And just when you think you’ve squeezed all the macro juice out of the strait, all you have to do is hop in for a quick boat ride to the outside of the strait for equally as impressive wide-angle opportunities. But that’s another adventure for another day…