MUCK-DIVERS ARE an interesting breed, and what better place to observe these underwater wizards at work than at the Anilao Photo Shoot-Out competition in the Philippines?
Not only does the location make this a desirable and exotic competition to enter, but some well-known names adorn the judges’ “dressing-room” doors, too. David Doubilet and his wife Jennifer Hayes from the USA, Tobias Friedrich from Germany, Scott Tuason from the Philippines, Singapore’s William Tan and Japan’sYoshi Hirata can between them boast countless awards, books and years of glowing media exposure.
More than 7000 islands form the Philippines archipelago and my destination in the “pearl of the orient seas” is Mabini’s Anilao Bay, on the west side of the country in the province of Batangas. Landing in Manila and ravaged by jet-lag, I sleep for most of the three-hour airport transfer to the Aiyanar Beach & Dive Resort. I am out here to observe the titanic struggle.
Shoot-out contestants from all over the world, 173 in all, are spread out in accommodation around the bay, with Aiyanar and neighbouring Acacia acting as a base for most of the topside activities such as registration, briefings, photo workshops, press conferences and receptions.
The competitors are divided into a Compact Camera category and Open Class, which takes in any level of photographer with any kind of camera and accessories.
In both categories, participants can compete in the sections for Macro & Super Macro, Marine Behaviour, Nudibranch, Fish Portrait and Cephalopod.

NEW CATEGORIES FOR the 2017 event are Black Water & Bonfire, and Phone Camera & GoPro. In blackwater diving, a weighted line is dropped over the side of a boat with a light attached. Divers spend the dive under the boat in mid water photographing anything that’s attracted to the light from the depths, however small, and using a macro lens to compose the subject against the outer-space-like black background.
Bonfire also uses a fixed light to attract creatures of the night, but in shallow water and usually from the shore. Either way, the results can be mind-blowing, and droves of contestants at Anilao head for the water each night to seek out the coolest critters as the sun quickly disappears over the horizon.
What the Phone Camera and GoPro categories will turn up is anyone’s guess, but first, second and third places are up for grabs in each field.
One of the most important aspects of this and I’m sure many other such shoot-outs involving macro subjects is the photographer’s “spotter”. The Anilao competition organisers have lined up some 200 local dive-guides ready to be hired by eager participants. Without local knowledge, precious time would be lost and many of the most highly prized species could be missed completely.
Philippines-based Jun de Leon, an underwater photo-comp newbie with whom I am sharing a boat during the week, tells me he thinks he would have “only half a chance of finding subjects without a professional spotter”. I’m interested to see how he gets on.
Two queues grow steadily at the Acacia resort as participants arrive on the morning of registration to have their SD cards cleared and time-stamped by an official. They are handed a green, numbered identification tag to place on their regulator’s first stage – their spotter will sport a matching red numbered tag.

WHILE QUEUING, Jun explains to me that he set his camera up ready for the competition three days before the event “to make sure there are no nasty surprises to come on the day”.
During a spotter’s meeting I attended the evening before the comp, the organisers had stressed that, should anyone witness any destructive behaviour in the underwater environment, the contestant’s ID tag should be reported and the offender would subsequently be disqualified.
I learn that in the past competitors have been seen to move creatures to achieve more desirable compositions, to introduce wildlife to a scene and even to damage the reef in order to bag “that shot”.
I have no reason to think that the majority of divers are badly behaved during the event, but it would be only a matter of days before I witnessed some very “poorly placed” fins during a reef dive. Several other divers also noted this behaviour, and the offender’s ID tag number was duly taken and the diver given a warning later that day.
With 170-plus photographers in the water, most with spotters and all vying for the most photogenic subjects, I wonder how the contest will play out.
Will I witness scenes reminiscent of shoppers squabbling over cheap TVs on Black Friday? Or will every diver slot comfortably into his or her place on the reef, with plenty of space to enjoy and compete in this magical place together?
On reaching the seabed on the first boat-dive, the guide/spotter scratches his hood when he sees that I have come equipped only with a wide-angle lens.
I attempt to explain my aim through a few improvised hand-signals, which I think does the job.
Jun quickly scoots off with his spotter, leaving us to observe clownfish tending to thousands of teeny eggs, skeleton shrimp, yellow goby, candy crabs and a selection of other fun-sized weirdos, often incorporating the word “hairy” in their popular names.
The dives are a mix of muck and coral garden and the reef systems appear to be in good condition, teeming with fish life and with much of the coral in great nick.
The muck-dives are usually no deeper than around 15m and on sand. Small oases consisting of perhaps a single small rock on the seabed, a square foot of coral or even litter can provide a home for a diverse range of small beings, and each one brings me genuine surprises.
I might see a single seahorse hanging onto a pint-sized piece of sunken driftwood, surrounded by nothing but sand to the edges of visibility, and then, several fin-kicks away, the most striking goby holed up in a bottle. And so it
goes on.
Looking around me, I can see pairs of competitors with their spotters examining the smallest of subjects, one with a chunky camera and the other with a metal guide-stick. Comparing my own diving experiences in the area with Jun later that day, he surprises me by saying that he had very few lucky breaks with the critters found by his spotter.
Even with local knowledge, I guess there’s a fair amount of luck involved too.

I HAD BEEN UNDER the impression that before the start of the competition Jun had a particular shot in mind, yet this didn’t seem to be the case.
I do know, however, that more experienced or regular competitors not only often preplan a shot, but also enter the water with a specific subject in mind.
Litter plays its part in muck-diving and this competition is no different, with a plastic fork poking out of the sand here and a lost flip-flop there setting the theme. We found a pair of clownfish that had made a crisp-packet their artificial anemone home, the type of scene that appears common, even normalised, in muck-diving spots.
Cocktails flow during the official opening evening, with a keynote speech given by Women’s Hall of Fame diver Lynn Funkhouser. Her regular visits to the country since 1975 have made her a Philippines tourism ambassador, and she has dived and photographing some 260 of the country’s islands.
The judges are introduced and competitors mingle and inspect the dive-gear displayed by event sponsors.

LATER ROPE-OFF TIMES are scheduled for the following morning, and I’m pleased to be visiting dives-sites surrounding nearby Sombrero Island, named after its appearance.
We motor past two local fishing-boats with some 100m-plus of net stretched between them on one side of the island, and head for the lee side, far enough away from the gaping fish-trap.
The reef is rich with life, especially of tomato clownfish, a deep red variety the size of a man’s hand and a treasure-trove spot for any competitor looking for macro-genic eggs.
The competitors do by and large seem to manage to space themselves out during the week’s diving, and although there are usually several dive-boats present at each site, everyone seems to find themselves space under water.
In this kind of competition, once a photographer has found a subject he or she might spend the next 20 or so minutes there, so I guess space is less an issue than prolonged stress on the subject. Wide-angle would pose different challenges.
The penultimate evening allows me access to a judges’ briefing. They are brought up to speed on new software designed to help them begin the elimination process once all the photo submissions have been made. The semi-automated system is replacing a process
I was told had proved somewhat laborious in previous years.
Nine dives over three days have been allocated for the competition, and the
final dive proves to be the most interesting for me – and indeed for one or two competitors who happen to be in the area.

A PAIR OF ring-tailed cardinalfish have recently been seen at a site we have chosen to explore, and our spotter Dexter manages to locate them for us.
What makes these guys particularly interesting and indeed photogenic is that they’re mouth-brooders.
It’s most often the male that does the brooding, with hundreds if not thousands of eggs kept in its mouth during the incubation process.
From time to time the fish will open its mouth and partially expel the jewel-like eggs to keep them clean and aerated.
Only once they have hatched into fry will the eggs be released. It’s a sought-after shot, and patience is required to be able to see the eggs, as the male aerates them only every two or three minutes.
We spend most of our dive with this pair of fish and the find feels Blue Planet-esque. Contriving to photograph this event takes skill, but one or two divers manage to achieve some good results as we look on.
A day’s rest is enforced on participants at the competition’s close, allowing the judges to go about the task of selecting their choices from several hundred submissions, prior to the awards ceremony.
This gives me just enough time to dig out my least-creased T-shirt and shorts before being whisked off to the evening hosting event within the grounds of a palatial resort.
The event is more of a grand finale than I expected, and with the red-carpet-style entrance it feels more like an Academy Awards night than the end of a photo competition.
A lively traditional band supports troupes of dancers, and we eat and drink at our tables and take in a round of speeches.
The winners and runners-up are announced and their work flashes up on the big screen as, amid cheers, applause and whistles, they make for the stage to collect prizes that add up to tens of thousands of pounds, from computers and housings to flights to dive-destinations.
The winner of the Phone Camera / GoPro section cleans up, being the best of a bad bunch of only two entries, and winning with a bog-standard lionfish picture (he won’t mind me saying that). And so, a top tip for anyone thinking of entering the 2018 Anilao competition – enter this category for greater chances of scooping some whopping prizes!

MY PAL JUN doesn’t succeed in bagging any prizes, but then, he has told me that “sharpening his underwater photography skills” was his main aim anyway.
At the end of the day, the real winner is surely the person who has had the most fun. Isn’t it?

. Will travelled with Cathay Pacific from London Gatwick to Manila on a courtesy flight that would normally cost £1100. The four-night / nine-dive packages for entrants start at US $550pp, including transfers and equipment hire. Early-bird registration for the 2018 Anilao Photo Shoot-Out (27 Nov - 1 Dec) costs $25 or $30 thereafter,