Sea butterfly (Corolla spectabilis)
There’s a new diving craze for macro enthusiasts in the Sunshine State. If you’re constantly seeking the wild, the unusual, the unique, and the never-before-seen, this is it: black-water diving. No, this is no normal night dive—this is not diving in the dark without lights. This is diving in the open ocean at night, drifting in the top of the epipelagic zone “in” the current of the Gulf Stream, over depths of 400 to 4,000 feet.
We plunge into the inky water, so black, you cannot see your own hands in front of your face. On the surface, we set out for an enormous white glowing ball that illuminates the ocean water surface. From it, hanging straight down into the depths, various colored Cyalumes mark off every 10 feet, so we can easily gauge our depth by sight. Photographers will space themselves apart so as to avoid getting accidently blinded by another’s lights.
Is it scary? You betcha. We’ve been visited by sharks and even full-grown sailfish.
Larval spotfin flounder
We dive down towards the colored Cyalumes. It takes a few minutes to adjust your vision. At first, it appears to be snowing, and of course, everyone’s first thoughts are, “Man, this is going to need a lot of editing!” and “Look at all this backscatter!” Then something whizzes by. Then something else bursts and displays what looks like—no kidding—a mouth full of teeth. Then something else is doing whirligigs. And as our eyes adjust, suddenly it is apparent that the Gates of Oz have just opened up. The three-ring circus of wild-ass creatures begins.
That’s not particulate matter. Everything is moving, and almost everything is alive. It’s like being in a black and white Alien film—only you’re the alien. It is so bizarre: with an occasional splash of color, spectacular formations, all alive and well and living within this nightly occurring vertical migration. Where have I been all my life? I’ve been let loose in a candy store. And all the while, we have been coasting along at a couple of knots per hour—which is hardly noticeable—and have traveled around five miles in an hour.
Aequorea forskalea with fish
“What are we seeing?” you might ask. Well, every single dive presents different creatures. There seems to be different concentrations of similar critters in certain areas. One night, everyone sees larval mantis shrimps on the north side of the glow ball. Another night, there is an entire collection of various siphonophores and larval jellyfish. But the prize shot is the glass eel or the larval octopus. One week, we are pelted by a swarm of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miniscule juvenile squid—so many it’s impossible to take a photograph due to their speed and agility. Then some larger fish, perhaps the size of baseballs, begin dive-bombing the squid. There is so much activity, it is just much more interesting to watch the show. At times like this, I wish I could video my mind’s eye. Video?! Mmm.
The money shots are the larval stages of, well, anything! Your job: Get the thing in focus. Perfect buoyancy is definitely key. Every time you kick, it sends a shock wave through the water column, making subjects suddenly spin. Controlled breathing helps, too, because you can’t blow bubbles heavily or you’ll blast all your gelatinous subjects to smithereens. Your whisper is their Category 6 hurricane! Don’t dive underneath your buddies either, as your bubbles might blow one of their subjects out of sight. Stay calm and relaxed and focused—and don’t lose the ball.
Pegantha sp. narcomedusa
Mantis shrimp larva showing a snake-like eye
Aliens in Your Viewfinder
Black-water pelagic macro photography is definitely one of the most challenging types of underwater photography one can encounter. Especially since most of the cool stuff is translucent, your strobes just shoot through the animals and into the blackness. The light stunts just a foot away from you and is eaten by the darkness. Boom. Gone. Just like that. So you have to focus on what’s right in front of you, and don’t lose it. Keep it in your sights until you get your shot. Use back button focus and keep your finger on the trigger, constantly tap-tap-tapping your autofocus button. If your camera’s up to the task, try using the continuous autofocus mode.
How big are the subjects? They range from the size of a pinhead to a large jellyfish. This is the planktonic world of the beginning. Yes, the beginning of life in the ocean, blooming in animé before your very eyes. Luminous creatures pulse open and closed, then dangle motionless, indistinguishable from space junk, then suddenly jump to life splaying tentacles into spectacular formations as if orchestrating an underwater ballet.
Tube anemone with splaying tentacles
In terms of gear, start with a 40mm or 60mm, or a comparable macro lens. It’s possible to get great results with the Canon 100mm, though as the subjects are fast and furious, Nikon’s 105mm tends to take a little too long to nail focus. In general, the faster your camera can focus, the better. Critters are buzzing about and rarely stay still long enough to get the focus to land.
A powerful focus light or two is an absolute must. Light travels through translucence, so you’ll need to ramp up the light output in order to lock on focus. But get unlucky with your positioning and you might accidentally illuminate the water column and suddenly be engulfed by amphipods or other critters that are attracted to the light. If it gets too crowded, turn off the lights or switch to red light until they go away. Strobe placement is also critical: In general, use the 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock positions with strobes set behind the edge of the port facing forward or turned outwards a little.
High ISO isn’t necessary: Depending on your camera, you should be able to shoot at ISO 160 to 400. If you do use a higher ISO, then you can use a lower strobe power to allow faster recycle times for repetitive firing. My base settings with a Nikon D7100 are 1/250s at f/13–f/16 and ISO 160, with strobes at quarter to half power. If you want deeper black backgrounds, you can try f/22, but you’ll have to be close to your subject and increase your strobe power.
Larval tripodfish (Discoverichthys praecox)
Pelagic Phylliroe nudibranch
Warty comb jelly (Leucothea multicornis)
Photographing translucent and reflective creatures is hugely challenging. Because light passes through a subject like a transparent jellyfish, you’ll need to increase your strobe power. But if you suddenly see a silvery fish, you must have the presence of mind to reduce the light output, or you could end up with hotspots in your image. Another option is moving your strobes outwards—but only if you have the time.
You may be wondering if some creatures shy away from the white light and whether you need a red light. Well, if I flick on the red light, I can’t take it; it makes me queasy. Also, sometimes, the subject will pick up a reddish tone from the light. It can be very disorienting and can sometimes be too difficult to distinguish the live creatures from the raining backscatter because everything that was white is now pink. Most larval critters don’t seem to register 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. If there are too many, you will have to turn off the lights to thin the herd—or risk being consumed by the aliens of the deep. After all, who knows what half this stuff is? I know I certainly don’t want it in my hair!
Acorn worm (Saccoglossus kowalevskii)
Things that go bump in the night…
About the Author: Suzan Meldonian is an underwater photojournalist and public speaker whose motto is, “I Shoot Aliens for a Living.” Author of Under the Bridge and The BHB Companion, she has spent the last several years doing photo-documentary work on the marine life found at the Blue Heron Bridge in Riviera Beach, FL. Her focus has turned towards the deep recently. Her work is frequently seen in popular publications and has recently been awarded various honors in a number of international competitions. Ocean Geographic named her Underwater Photojournalist of the Year 2017 for her work in the black water environment. See more of her work at www.niteflightphoto.com and follow her on Instagram.