Jan 2019

How to Spot Macro Critters While Diving

By Mike Waddington

For me, the most exciting aspect of scuba diving if finding the incredible animals that live below the oceans surface, and as a macro freak, the smaller and more unusual the critter, the more excited I am!

When I was just starting out as a divemaster, I would struggle finding even the most common of marine animals. As time went by, I learnt a few tips and tricks to spotting the smaller and more cryptic critters.

1) Always Dive Slowly

Probably the number one mistake so many divers make when heading out with their buddy is they swim too fast. Although swimming faster will allow you to see more of the dive site, you will get much more from the dive if you go slowly.

Most macro life is not only small, but also very cryptic, which means it will blend in seamlessly with its environment. If you swim by it too fast, you will not have a chance to spot its giveaway signs such as waving antennae or reflective eyes. By swimming too fast, not only will you miss all the amazing macro life, but your pace will also scare off the other fish, so your dive will probably be a boring one.

Aside from missing most of the marine life, swimming too fast will shorten your dive time, as you will need to breathe a lot harder to give your body enough oxygen to deal with physical exertion.

A good rule to follow is ‘swim as slowly as possible, and then go slower’.

2) Get as Close as Possible

Although you may have been told during your Open Water course that you need to keep your distance from the reef, you are only told this because when you are a beginner, you are far more likely to lose control of your buoyancy and crash into the corals.

Once you are comfortable with your buoyancy, there is no problem getting a bit closer. This will allow you better access to all the nooks and crannies in the reef. You should check each one, as you never know what might be living in there.

Just make sure you are streamlined so nothing is dragging over the reef, and take extra care to ensure your fins aren’t knocking into anything either.

3) Be Careful Around Sand

Macro animals can live in the most unlikely places.

Remember that sand patch your swam over as fast as you could to get to the next patch of corals? Well, it may have been home to a plethora of amazing critters. Much of the best macro diving in the world take places over large, seemingly barren black sand or muddy areas, and it is known as muck diving.

For most divers experiencing muck diving for the first time, their initial thoughts are somewhere along the lines of “It’s just sand and low visibility, what am I doing here?”. But once they start to understand what they are looking for, an amazing world of unique and otherworldly creatures begin to show themselves.

Good buoyancy and trim is essential for muck diving. Many of the critters that live in the sand are tiny and extremely delicate. Even stirring up the sand by flutter kicking will cause some of the smaller animals to fly into the water column, which will cause severe stress and may break their camouflage leaving them open to predation. Frog kicking is your best method of propulsion, and if you struggle with buoyancy, a pointer should be used to stabilise yourself on the sand.

While not all sand diving can be considered as muck diving, the sandy areas are still an important habitat which house a number of species – including jawfish, pistol shrimp and their partner gobies, spearing mantis shrimp and snake eels.

So next time you find yourself over a sand patch, don’t just rush over it. Slow down and have a good search. You never know what you might find.

4) Bring some Extra Tools

There are are a few extra tools that you can take on the dive to make finding macro critters easier.

I would always recommend taking an underwater torch with you. As very little light reaches into the nooks and crannies on the reef, the torch will make it much easier to see what is living inside. Most animals eyes reflect the light back to you, making them even easier to spot.

If you need reading glasses above the water, you may want to invest in an underwater magnifying glass. They are normally neutrally buoyant, so you don’t need to worry about the extra weight, and they are very helpful for those who struggle to see some of the smaller critters. Even if you have good eyesight, they are helpful when you want to identify particular small animals, as you will be able to easier spot important identifying features.

5) Get a Local Guide

The vast majority of macro critters will stay in the same area for an extended period of time. Some animals like Barbigant’s pygmy seahorses will spend their entire adult life on the same sea fan.

Before you decide to just kit up and go for a dive with your buddy, consider taking a local dive guide with you, or at least speak to one before you jump in the water.

They can show you things you would probably never find on your own, and you wont have to worry about navigating the dive site as they will know the layout better than the back of their own hands.

If you you would rather just dive with your buddy, speak to a local guide so they can tell your the rough of certain critters. Even then, you may still have a tough challenge in finding them, but at least you will have a starting point.

6) Study Up

Finding amazing macro life becomes infinitely easier when you have some information about the animal you are looking for.

Does it burrow in the sand? What does it eat? When is it most active? All of these are questions you should be able to answer if you expect to find a certain critter. Nudibranchs tend to be near their favourite food, while ornate ghost pipefish will almost always be living near a crinoid.

Most marine animals have seasons too. Some areas may have frogfish or a certain nudibranch species for months, and then they may disappear for the rest of the year.

The internet is your most valuable tool when it comes to finding out such information, but there are plenty of beautiful, well written books which specialise in different types of animals, such as “Nudibranch & Sea Slug Identification”.

7) Bring your Lucky Charms

Finding macro critters can be hard, and aside from a keen pair of eyes, you will need a dose of good luck too. Even the best dive guides will have a bad dive every now and then.

You can have the most amazing dive one day, and go back to the same place the next and not see anything. It’s just how it is.

The video below showcases an excellent array of macro critters you can spot when diving Lembeh Strait, Indonesia:

Do you have eagle eyes when it comes to underwater spotting? Maybe you have some tips of your own? If so, we would love to hear from you. Leave your comments in the comment section below and we will get back to you.

‘How to Spot Macro Critters While Diving’ was written by Mike. Photo credit: Wakatobi Flow

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Mike Waddington

I first discovered diving in 2008 after going snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. After trying diving at a flooded quarry in England I decided to head out to warmer more interesting waters in Thailand where I ended on the Island of Koh Tao completing my Open Water course. Instantly addicted with money to spend and plenty of time on my hands I decided to continue until I became a Divemaster so I could live what seemed as the perfect life.

After that I headed to the Caribbean to an island called Utila to complete my instructor course, I spent several months out there completing the MSDT internship, teaching students and leading dives. This is also where I discovered my interest in the technical side of diving, taking part in equipment repair courses and learning about blending gasses and running compressors.

With all my new qualifications it was time to head back to where it had all started, Back to Koh Tao where I intended on living the dream. Once I arrived I quickly found a job and started teaching straight away. During my time on Koh Tao I took part in all many technical diving courses, learning how to dive with re-breathers, in caves and even going down to 90m/300ft!


PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer
PADI/DSAT Tech Deep Instructor
PADI/DSAT Gas Trimix Gas Blender
PADI/DSAT Trimix Diver
TDI Intro to Cave Diver
TDI Advanced Wreck Diver
TDI Inspiration rebreather Decompression Procedures
PADI Professional Videographer
BSAC Compressor Operator
TDI Equipment Service Technician

Dream Dive Locations:

Silfra, Iceland
Cenotes, Mexico
Chuuk Lagoon, Micronesia
Ice Diving in Russia