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Creatures of the Muck



Janice 1Muck diving.  “Le” muck diving.  There is no pretty way to say muck diving even if you are French.  In fact when you do muck dive for the first time and look out over a silty, sandy slope, or a pile of coral rubble, it seems that a hopeless hour underwater searching for some form of life, including your dive buddies, is ahead.  I was especially worried about unfairly judging muck diving at Maluku Divers in Ambon because my trip there immediately followed a boat trip through Raja Ampat which is so full of color and life everywhere.  But with a beautiful Balinese meal sitting in front of me at the end of the first day of diving on Ambon, my thoughts were that, perhaps all of the previous 15 days of travel, including three international flights through four countries, two domestic flights, and a liveaboard trip of twelve days, was just to arrive at Maluku Divers on Ambon.

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Although we took one of the longest, but most scenic, ways to get to Ambon, once we arrived there, our traveling was over.  Our first dive at Laha I, along the southern coast of Ambon Bay, was reported to be an absurdly long interval away from the resort when in fact it took less than five minutes – barely enough time to be introduced to Jamal, our experienced dive guide from Lembeh, Mo our boat driver, and Hafez, a young Indonesian king who helped us with our equipment on the day boat.  Topside, this dive site happens to be a small but active wharf area where people seem to both live and work on their boats.  The children are especially intrigued by the foreign divers.  They wonder why we use our money to travel so far just to see the fish right under their boats.

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Janice 3We did a backward roll into the warm water and swam to a pile of rubble directly under the boats.  It was noon so I was completely surprised when it was a mandarin fish colony that we were on a mission to observe.  My previous encounters with mandarin fish were to watch them having sex at 6:30 in the evening, but they were also busy scampering about at noon, just ignorant of the opposite sex and yet brilliant against their colorless home.  I was so focused on getting that perfect photo of a mandarin fish that I almost missed just how many other creatures inhabited this rather small rubble complex.  Banded pipefish were just hanging in the water, and very long white antennae revealed the location of the largest banded coral shrimp that I had ever seen.  One of the oddest-looking fish, an estuarine stonefish, was lying there like a sunken shipwreck.  With the exception of the stonefish that seemed cemented into this habitat, I found it difficult to understand that out of the entire ocean these creatures chose this noisy, close to shore site, and yet they live here together at least during daylight, harmoniously.  These were my first 30 minutes in Ambon.

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As we continued on just this first dive, it became apparent that there is no comparing the diving here to that in Raja Ampat because muck diving is just simply an entirely different sport. While in Raja Ampat we were more on a guided tour of mountaintops and walls underwater where classic coral underwater scenes were plentiful; in Ambon we were encouraged to stay in one spot, maybe one where there was just a pile of unremarkable rocks, and look for anything moving.  Jamal’s mere thoughts seemed to bring forth different creatures, at an exhaustive and uncontrolled rate, like he was a genie in training, but I forced myself to pause and try this alternative dive style approach.  I had incredible luck finding creatures.  In the Laha area, sea urchins of many types are serious diving hazards everywhere, and you are tempted to overlook them, but this is a mistake.  I initially was compelled to look at the fire urchins because of their vibrant colors, but then I started to see other animals living within them.  I discovered that they harbor all sorts of crustaceans and are like a mini habitat that transports squat lobsters, zebra crabs, and the beautiful pairs of spotted Coleman shrimp across the sand.  This “wait and see” method was quite useful to practice, because in Ambon, as you are waiting to peek at some main event creature, which was often, you could say so what, and find something else nearby that occupies your attention, like a solar powered nudibranch because you wonder which end is doing the driving.
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When asked, divers who come to Ambon immediately respond that they want to see histiophryne psychedelica, the new species of frogfish that was re-discovered by a novice diver in 2008.  It disappeared though or so they say, but when the other dive group from the resort returned from their first dive at Rhino City with photographic evidence of the celebrity fish, we were hoping to be his next human visitors.  I did not want to miss this fish so I followed Jamal closely on this dive.  The psychedelic frogfish had not been disturbed, because Jamal was able to lead us directly to it.  This fish was identified as a frogfish ultimately through DNA analysis, but it has features that distinguish it from typical ones.  Most notable is its flat forward looking face, but it also has no lure.  Like any unusual looking creature, this fish deserved a few minutes of quiet inspection without movement or flashing lights, but I was attracted to it in an unexpected way.  Often fish have physical features that advise the onlooker to keep away, but this fish has a soft, fleshy appearance that really tempts you to touch it.  As if to remind me not to do this, was an eel, a sort of bodyguard to the frogfish, living in the same crevice.


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The psychedelic frogfish’s coloring was also a bit of a mystery to me.  It is usually obvious why a frogfish looks as it does; generally I am not sure that I have actually seen one when I have seen it because they imitate their habitat so well.  Although the overall color of the psychedelic frogfish allows it to blend in with the sand of Ambon, there are vibrant white lines that extend radially from its eyes and then swirl around over the main part of its body.  It was not until I read about this fish, where these patterns were shown to parallel those from certain hard corals, that I could begin to see how the fish evolved to mimic its environment.  However, the lines also have a sort of hypnotizing affect on the viewer, and perhaps have a dual purpose in distracting as well any prey so that it loses concentration for a moment.

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Histiophryne psychedelica was an amazing fish to see, but what was additionally fascinating is how many other unusual “what was evolution thinking” kind of creatures were on the same dive and within meters of the shore and surface.   There is a resident giant black frogfish in about two meters of water at one end of the dive.  We also found a rhinopias scorpionfish hiding in the halimeda algae.  A white leaf scorpionfish and an army of hinge-beaked shrimp occupied the coral bommie across from the psychedelic frogfish.  It was also a place for finding all sorts of nudibranchs that seemed big enough for the nearly blind to see.

Janice AThe dives in Ambon rarely went below twenty meters.  Only once did I find myself at twenty-five meters and that was to watch a flamboyant cuttlefish that we had inadvertently chased to this depth.  Most dives occurred on this same coast, just different sections of it.  Even though the landscape was somewhat similar overall, sloping sandy, I was starting to feel that there were different neighborhoods.  The Laha dives were where the harlequin and bumblebee shrimp, pipefish, and assorted frogfish lived in the rubble and the sand.  Further west, the landscape becomes more covered with corals and especially crinoids.  Here there is also a jetty, Air Manis Jetty, where a different lifestyle is in development.  There is quite a bit of human refuse where eels and giant banded coral shrimp could find a home.  The crinoids here have space to move about the sand like ladies in 17th century ball gowns and were sometimes escorted by a matching ornate or long nosed ghost pipefish.  Octopi displayed themselves openly in daylight, and fat nudibranchs were busy chewing the sponges that covered the pilings of the pier.

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Unexpectedly by day, I was really becoming a confident diver in Ambon.  I was filling my log book with the description of creatures many of which I actually found myself:  a xenocrab on an isolated whip coral protruding from the sand, a curious long armed shrimp by a tree anemone, a pair of leaf scorpionfish that I nearly drowned myself in excitement over and no one around to show, lots of pygmy cuttlefish, shrimp in crinoids, and shy long snout seahorses bobbing about as if they were drunk.  I found that I could spend most minutes of a dive looking at a single anemone.  All varieties exist on the sandy slopes of Ambon, bubble anemones in different colors, carpet anemones, and tube anemones.  So many different types of shrimp and crabs could live in one single anemone.  Especially at the anemones if you waited long enough, the animals would begin to crawl out from hiding.
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But who comes out for the moonlight?  I boldly proposed to postpone dinner one evening for a night dive on the house reef.  An hour and a half later we returned to the resort with a whole new set of images in our heads.  It is not clear what you are looking at sometimes during a day dive in Ambon, but at night it takes some special imagination to identify an animal and where its eyes might be.  This is especially true with the crabs for which there seems to be an endless parade of.  It is a bit like dropping in on Alice in Wonderland’s underwater tea party where everybody’s hat mimics his own favorite piece of underwater habitat, but sometimes it looks ridiculous and awkward for the crab to live with.  One case in point was a decorator crab with long thin pink vertically growing sponges on its head.  It looked to be performing some sort of balancing act, and so perhaps, I thought it is with a bit of pride or personality that each animal adopts its headgear rather than merely for survival.  There were open soft corals, a giant pleurobranch, many kinds of nudibranchs, and a bobtail squid that buried itself up to its eyeballs in the sand to escape while peering at us.  We were nowhere near finishing our air on this dive; it was actually hunger that drove us back to the shore after one and a half hours.

Janice 8Each hour underwater at Ambon went by like lightening for me.  I am not sure what kind of rating system one can apply to diving in Ambon.  A star rating system does not seem accurate because it conjures up more typical images like corals and blue water and big animals and whether there is current or not.  Things are not swimming around much and if they do have fins they can also have legs attached to creep around, and sometimes your photos of an odd creature inadvertently advertise Coke.  I am a scientist, and I cannot help but think of evolution when I am under the water.  All sorts of ideas pop into my head, like what exactly was evolution thinking, and how genetically different am I really than the rhinopias scorpionfish?  To me it seems that Ambon is a collection of evolution’s experiments or abandoned ones in addition to the usual animals, and perhaps a rating system should correlate to remarkable skills of evolution at work here and your confidence level as a diver when you leave.

Janice Nigro is an avid scuba diver with a PhD in biology.  She is a scientist who has studied the development of human cancer at universities in the USA and Norway, and has discovered the benefits of artistic expression through underwater photography and story writing of her travel adventures.

Marine Life & Conservation

Exhibition: Protecting UNESCO Marine World Heritage through scientific research



From now until 30 October, the photo exhibition “Protecting UNESCO Marine World Heritage through scientific research” features 21 photographs at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, as well as a digital edition.

Exceptional photographs highlight how innovative marine experts and scientists take the pulse of the ocean by exploring ecosystems, studying the movement of species, or revealing the hidden biodiversity of coral reefs. Scientific discoveries are more important than ever for the protection and sustainable conservation of our Marine World Heritage. This memorable exhibition comes ahead of the launch, in 2021, of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (“Ocean Decade”). The exhibition was jointly developed by UNESCO and the Principality of Monaco.

The 50 marine sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, distributed across 37 countries, include a wide variety of habitats as well as rare marine life still largely unknown. Renowned for their unmatched beauty and emblematic biodiversity, these exceptional ecosystems play a leading role in the field of marine conservation. Through scientific field research and innovation, concrete actions to foster global preservation of the ocean are being implemented locally in these unique natural sites all over the world. They are true symbols of hope in a changing ocean.

Since 2017, the Principality of Monaco supports UNESCO to strengthen conservation and scientific understanding of the marine sites inscribed on the World Heritage List. This strategic partnership allows local management teams to benefit from the results obtained during the scientific missions of Monaco Explorations. The partnership also draws international attention to the conservation challenges facing the world’s most iconic ocean sites.

The exhibition invites viewers to take a passionate dive into the heart of the scientific missions led by Monaco Explorations in four marine World Heritage sites: Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (Philippines), Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary (Colombia), Rock Islands Southern Lagoon (Palau), and the Lagoons of New Caledonia: Reef Diversity and Associated Ecosystems (France). It is also an opportunity to discover the work of a megafauna census; the study of the resilience of coral reefs and their adaptation in a changing climate; the exploration of the deep sea; and the monitoring of large marine predators through satellite data.

To visit the Digital Exhibition click here.

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Dive Training Blogs

Deptherapy returns to its Roots – Part 7



Join Richard Cullen from Deptherapy for the final part of his Blog about the charity’s recent expedition to Roots Red Sea, El Quseir, Egypt.

Deptherapy expeditions do not just magically happen, they need planning and they need funding.  This expedition was funded by our long-term partners the Veterans’ Foundation.  The funding is part of a grant they awarded us for programmes this year, which were then put on hold because of COVID.

All charities in the Armed Forces’ Sector are struggling for funds. Deptherapy desperately needs support going forward and every penny counts.

We know what we do works and at the end of this blog you will find details of the research studies into Deptherapy’s programmes and how they impact on the lives of our beneficiaries.  This includes details that are hot off the press about the latest study that reports that what we offer through scuba diving and 24/7 support has benefits beyond those found in other sporting rehabilitation programmes.

Well tomorrow we fly home, late in the evening with the journey home for some of the guys who live up North taking around 15 hours after leaving Roots.

We want to make the most of today but with the tide running we are not going to be able to dive until later this morning which means only two dives today.

Oatsie and Swars about to start their sidemount dives

Things, however are really busy over at the dive centre with Swars and Oatsie putting their sidemount kit together for their training dives with Steve Rattle leading to their RAID sidemount qualification.  It has been nice to be able to offer the guys this extra training, given the amount of work they have put in this week.  They have needed to get through their theory quickly but given the RADI online learning system this has not been too arduous.

Steve came diving with us yesterday to get some more photos and was really amazed at the progress that Corey had made. He was quite open in his praise, as in his view Corey has gone from a non-diver to being a very competent OW diver capable of diving, unsupervised, with a buddy.  Praise indeed.

Other than the sidemount course we are diving as a group today: Corey, Keiron, Michael, Moudi and me. Corey has been given some tasks – SMB deployment on both dives and the afternoon dive will be a ‘naturalist dive’.  Guy Henderson has set Corey a task: ‘to identify three species of fish and record the time into the dive and the depth at which each one was spotted’.  Guy runs Marine Biology courses on the reef and knows where the fish are to be found, how long into the dive, and at what time.

The two Toms are getting put through their paces. They have walked their cylinders down to the entry point, but Steve sends them back to the dive centre to collect other kit they should have brought with them.

Our general dive goes well and the sidemount guys appear from their sidemount dive some 90 minutes after dipping their heads under the water.

Corey enjoying being a RAID OW20 Diver

Lots of bubbly chat at lunchtime, a group of really happy divers. Corey really has benefited from the week and over lunch thanked the team for making him a diver. He has very quickly become part of the family and after returning home he published an amazing post on Facebook about his experience.  Corey really gets Deptherapy and had soon realised that we see past mental and physical injuries and see the person inside and work with that person.  He also realised that we want beneficiaries to see their fellow beneficiaries in the same light.  He knows he now has another ‘family’ – a family of brothers in arms who have two things in common, they served their country and they have suffered life changing injuries or illnesses.

Back into the water for the afternoon dive and Corey identifies the fish and records the details on a slate.  The two Tom’s complete their second dive and qualify as RAID Sidemount Divers. Great!

Kit packed away and it is time to return to the camp for a few well-earned last night drinks.

I am often asked why we use Roots as our exclusive base for diving. I have mentioned before that it offers us an ideal retreat, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. We are secluded and there are no distractions such as late-night bars etc.

Roots Accessible Room

The second reason is the amazing welcome we receive from Steve, Clare, Moudi and the team.  We have been going to Roots since 2014 and many of the staff have become good friends, they understand our needs and are the friendliest people you could ever wish to meet.

The third reason is the huge investment Steve and Clare have made in making the resort and dive centre accessible for those with physical injuries including those who need to use wheelchairs.  All our beneficiaries can enjoy Roots and, in fact, love it here.  The reef is perfect for us and in non-COVID times we can travel to the Salem Express and other dive sites to enjoy more of the Red Sea experience.

Accessible toilet on the Roots beach

After discussions with the team I was very proud to be able to tell Corey that his progress had been such that we were inviting him on the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust sponsored two-week Marine Biology Course at Roots in June 2021. There is lots of homework to undertake under the guidance of Dr Debbie McNeill of Open Oceans and Corey will be sent the Red Sea Guide which is the basis for study.

While on that programme, Corey with fellow beneficiary Dale Mallin, will complete his RAID Advanced 35 course.  This all builds to a 10-day Red Sea liveaboard in 2022, onboard Roots’ new boat Big Blue where 18 beneficiaries will compare the coral and aquatic life on the wrecks of the SS Thistlegorm and the less known SS Turkia that is to be found in the Gulf of Suez and is rarely dived.

Paul Rose, our Vice President, is supporting the programme and is seeking the support of the UN and the Royal Geographical Society. A comprehensive report will be submitted to our partners in the project and to the Egyptian Authorities.

Last night and chill

What we do works:

In recent years there have been three academic studies into our work:

2018 – A study by a team from the University of Sheffield Medical School.

2019 – A study by The Centre of Trauma at Nottingham University.

Both these studies reported very positively on Deptherapy’s work both underwater but also in terms of the provision of 24/7 support.

The following is from our press release which was issued on 26th October:

‘A new study into Scuba Diving Rehabilitation Charity Deptherapy’s approach to supporting Armed Forces veterans with psychological injuries such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through the medium of scuba diving has been carried out by Petra Walker in conjunction with Hanna Kampman of the Posttraumatic Growth Research Unit at the University of East London.

This study, which used Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), demonstrates that scuba diving has rehabilitation benefits beyond those found in other forms of sporting rehabilitation exercise. IPA is a qualitative methodology that examines the experiences of participants and has been used in previous studies of Posttraumatic Growth (PTG) in para-athletes.

Petra is an experienced diver herself and was exploring the wellbeing aspects of scuba diving as part of her Masters in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology when she came across a previous study on Deptherapy. Past studies have mainly focused on the medical aspects of diving, so the opportunity to examine the mental health side of rehabilitative scuba diving was impossible to ignore. The full study is currently embargoed until it is published at a future date in an academic journal, but it follows similar academic research into the work of Deptherapy by the University of Sheffield Medical School (2018) and the University of Nottingham (2019).’

This is amazing news and sets us apart from other sporting rehabilitation programmes.

We are currently working with our VP Richard Castle who is a Consultant Psychologist and our Dive Medicine Advisor Mark Downs to identify further areas of psychological and physical dive related research.

We end the week on a happy note.  A young man who has learned to dive properly with a RAID OW 20 certification, a new RAID Master Rescue Diver, two new RAID Sidemount Divers, 5 new RAID O2 Providers, many assessments for our DMs but most of all a week of learning, of making new friendships, renewing old friendships, and building on our family ethos.

Until we meet again…

For us, Deptherapy is a journey, a journey that continues to push boundaries in the use of scuba diving in the rehabilitation of those suffering life changing mental and/or physical challenges.  On our journey we want to change the way the scuba diving industry views diving for those with disabilities.

In the new year, we will be launching, with our diver training agency partners RAID, a new and exciting adaptive teaching programme that will offer diving to the disabled community. We can’t wait to share it with you!

Find out more about the work of Deptherapy and Deptherapy Education at

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