Aliens from the deep Experience black water diving

Starting the black water divingWelcome to my little world. There’s a new diving craze in town. This is for Macro enthusiasts, for those of you who are constantly seeking the wild, the unusual, the unique, and the never before seen creatures. If you ever find yourself bored with all the ridiculously amazing creatures we continue to find in the ocean already…hands down, this is it. Black Water Diving.
Oh no, this is no normal night dive. This is not diving in the dark without lights. This is diving over 400 foot deep chasms (57+ meters), drifting in the top of the epipelagic zone “in” the Gulf Stream Current, late at night, with lots of lights…camera…Action!

As we submerge, the water is ink black. So black, you cannot see your own hands in front of your face. On the surface we set our marker. An enormous white glowing ball illuminates the ocean water surface. Hanging straight down into the depths, cylumes of various colors mark off every ten feet, so we can easily gauge our depth by sight. Swimming to the ball, I feel the current drafting my body towards the ball. I feel heavy pressure against my leg. Something long, heavily weighted. I turn expecting it to be another diver who has backed in to me. But there is no one nearby. I look down and cannot see a thing. Whatever it is, it comes back and brushes my leg again, going in the other direction. It’s at least 2 meters long. I still can’t see a thing. Praying that my foot is still there, we begin turning on our focus lights and it hits me again, then bolts away with an audible kerplunk!

We dive down towards the colored glow sticks/cylumes. It takes a few minutes to adjust your vision. At first it appears to be snowing, and of course everyone’s first thoughts take hold. “…Oh man! Look at all this backscatter!” Everyone cringes dreading the hours of Photoshop editing to clean up any lucky shots. Then something whizzes by. “Whoa, what was that?” The music theme from the cartoon, the Jetson’s plays in my head. Then something else is doing whirligigs. And as our eyes adjust, suddenly the Gates of Oz have just opened up. The three-ring circus of wild-ass creatures begins. Everything is moving, and almost everything is alive. From the size of a pin head to the size of your hand. It is so bizarre. It’s like being in a black and white Alien film –with an occasional splash of color, spectacular formations, all alive and well and living within this nightly vertical migration that occurs, every blinking night!! All the while, we are coasting along at a couple of knots per hour, which is hardly noticeable…We have traveled up to five miles in an hour.

What are we seeing? Well every single dive has presented different creatures de jour. And there seems to be different concentrations of like-critters in certain areas. One night, everyone saw larval mantis shrimps. Another night there was an entire collection of various syphonophores and larval jellyfish. The prize shot is the glass eel I am told. Having no idea what to look for, I figure with a name like that, I should know it when I see it. Finally have seen one, got some shots- but not “the” shot, so you will have to wait for that one. Last week we were pelted by hundreds, perhaps thousands of tiny tiny juvenile squid. So many it was impossible to take a photograph due to their speed and agility. Then some larger fish perhaps the size of baseballs were dive bombing the squid. There was so much activity, it was just much more interesting to stare at the show. At times like this, I wish I could video my mind’s eye.

Black water diving critters

The money shots are the larval stages of – well – of anything! Your job- get it in focus! Perfect buoyancy is definitely key. Controlled breathing helps too, because you can’t blow bubbles heavily or you blast all your subjects to smithereens. Your whisper is their category 6 typhoon. It is definitely one of the most challenging types of underwater macro photography one can encounter. Especially since most the cool stuff is translucent- so your strobes just shoot through the animals and into the blackness. I swear the light stunts just a foot away from me and darkness just eats it. Boom. Gone. Just like that. Hence focus on what’s right in front of you, and don’t lose it. Keep it in your sights until you get your shot.

After a while, we no longer notice the white snowy flecks of particulate matter raining down everywhere, but we now can see subjects with specific movement or a flick of color. This is the planktonic world of the beginning. Yes, the beginning of life in the ocean, blooming and doing cartoon animations before our very eyes. Translucent subjects opening and closing, then dangling nearly motionless, then splaying into spectacular formations. This of course has been one of my favorite creatures so far, a siphonophore. One soon realizes that you must keep your eyes affixed on your subject, be trigger ready, and of course, wait for it.
What do you need to do this? Well I suggest starting with a 60mm comparible lens, and you absolutely must have a strong focus light or two. A 105mm takes too long to nail the focus. Also, realize that light travels through translucence- so you need to ramp up the light just in order to get a focus lock. Should you shoot at 800 ISO? Nah. Not necessary. Perhaps 200-400 ISO depending on your camera. You do need a DSLR or a camera that can focus and shoot quickly. Things are buzzing about and hardly stay still long enough to get the focus to land. As I said, it’s very challenging, but well worth it once you get the hang of it. It’s all about where your strobes are pointing- and I’ve been experimenting using wide angle arrangements but on a macro set up. It works wonderfully. For focus lights, I’ve used a Sola 500, plus my latest addition is a second focus light- a Fix Neo Mini with 1000 lumen. Woo- love this light!

Black water diving critters

Many uw photographers have asked me if the creatures shy away from the lights or do you need a red filter. In my mind I hear a Mickey Mouse voice saying, “mmm Don’t go into the light!” And as I hear the melody from, “here comes George Jetson…” I flick on the red light filter- and I can’t take it. It is too difficult to distinguish the live creatures from the particulate matter raining because now everything that was white is pink. Most larval critters seem to be incoherent that there is any light, while some of the more advanced larval stages of creatures that resemble somewhat familiar marine life are definitely attracted to the light. Like night worms, if there are too many- of course you will have to turn off the lights to thin the herd or be consumed by aliens of the deep. And for Pete’s sake, who knows what half this stuff is, I know I certainly don’t want it in my hair!

I recommend doing this with a reputable boat captain, a trusty boat, you need deep water below you, and an excellent dive crew. I am fortunate to live in South Florida with great diving opportunities just a stone’s throw away. For Black Water diving here in West Palm Beach, Florida, I recommend diving with Pura Vida Divers out of Riviera Beach on their boat, the Sirena. Awesome people, and they have this down to a science. I know I can’t get enough of it. Check them out on Facebook here if you are going to be in town.

WORDS and PICTURES by Suzan Meldonian

Black water diving: jellyfish


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