There are subjects that even veteran underwater photographers fear. No, not sharks. Think smaller. Much smaller. And darker.
Black water diving is unlike any other—diving in sheer darkness hovering over an unfathomable abyss. With your focus light as the sole source of illumination, the magic unfolds. Millions of otherworldly, planktonic creatures begin the largest daily migration on Earth. This so-called “diel vertical migration” begins right after sunset when small zooplankton rise close to the surface to feed on algae. Who wouldn’t want to photograph this incredible event? As it turns out, a lot of photographers and divers shy away from the dark.
Despite diving for around 25 years, seasoned underwater photographer Saeed Rashid had never taken part in a black water dive. Then, earlier this year, he stopped off at one of his favorite locations—Siladen in North Sulawesi, Indonesia—to do some relaxed wall and reef dives for which the area is known. As it turned out, Siladen was in the middle of developing a new dive program: Those beautiful walls plunge to incredible depths, the perfect setting for black water diving. “Although my love for night dives faded some years ago,” says Saeed, “this was an exciting opportunity to be wowed by strange and wonderful critters from the deep.”
Juvenile barracuda hunting in the lights
Juvenile cleaner shrimp
Back to School
When Siladen Resort decided to put together its new black water program, it turned to a black water veteran for help: Norwegian marine biologist and underwater photographer Dr Galice Hoarau. “I was fascinated when I saw the first black water photos being taken in Kona, Hawaii. It’s a whole new world that’s just starting to be revealed,” enthuses Galice. “I did my first black water dive off of the Big Island six years ago and got hooked immediately! Since then, I’ve done hundreds of dives in Hawaii, Florida and even Norway.”
Siladen is at the heart of Bunaken National Park with about 50 dive sites close by. Diving is very diverse, with a good combination of wall, reef, and muck dives. But it is the sheer depths of the drop-offs that make this destination a must for black water, as you need not travel far to find the abyss. “It’s also easy to find suitable spots protected from the wind and big current so you can have comfortable diving conditions,” Galice points out. “Sulawesi is in the middle of the Coral Triangle, so this is a region of high biodiversity.”
Snaggletooth (stareater) larva. The adults are deep-sea dwellers. They are considered a rare encounter, but the photographers found them on almost every dive
There are different ways you can do a black water dive. The original approach, still used in Hawaii and elsewhere, is to be tethered to a boat drifting above deep water. Another possibility is using a downline—a weighted line with a float at the surface and lights at regular depths. This method, which was used at Siladen, means you’re not tethered to anything, you have a good visual reference, and the powerful lights help attract interesting critters. “On most dives, the usual suspects are squid, larval fish, and planktonic animals such as jellyfish, comb jellies, pteropods (pelagic mollusks), arrow worms, and shrimps,” says Galice.
Much of the preparation work had already been done when Galice touched down in Siladen for his week of exploratory dives: The divemasters had already set up a good downline and had started scouting potential dive sites. “One of the biggest challenges was to get beyond the initial circumspection of the local dive guides,” admits Galice. “However, they got excited very quickly and we were finding amazing critters for the whole week.”
A 65-foot downline was left in the water for about an hour before the dives
A New Classroom
By the time Saeed arrived, Siladen’s new black water program was already looking like a slick operation, and the accomplished photographer—with zero black water experience—was soon drafted as the first “pupil.” “I chatted with the dive team and Galice about best practice and how to set up your photographic kit for this kind of unique diving,” remembers Saeed. “He made it clear that it wasn’t easy, but with practice the results can be very rewarding.”
As the Siladen staff continued to experiment with different sites, the duo ventured out shortly after sunset for an exploratory dive. The crew opted for an area off the south side of the island and lowered a 60-foot line peppered with dive lights. Galice advised that it’s best to leave the line in as long as possible to allow it to attract the critters.
The size of a large pea, this juvenile triggerfish darted in for only a second, allowing Saeed to capture only two shots
Moving around a lot and being slightly bigger than other subjects, this pearlfish larva is an especially challenging subject
These pelagic shrimp are a delight to see—but with a flick of their tail they’re gone like a flash
Saeed admits feeling a little bit of unease as he hovered above thousands of feet of black water, making it all the more important to double check gear before entering the water. Soon, however, his experience gained from thousands of dives kicked in—as did the challenges. “I’m really not sure what I had expected but the water was full of tiny planktonic life, with the lights really doing their job,” says Saeed. “I soon realized that it was nigh on impossible to single anything out with all this life in the water and it made getting a backscatter-free image hopeless!”
Soon, hundreds of small squid had also been attracted, bumping into the lights, each other and the divers. Their panicked ink clouds only added more madness to the crazy scene. The team quickly realized that the area was too much of a challenge for the novice—albeit an amazing spectacle to watch.
Like jellyfish, anemone larva can be hard to light so a quick adjustment of the strobes is often needed
With its paddle-like arms, Lysmatidae shrimps were the most recognizable shrimps on the dives
Pelagic nudibranch: These mollusks were found very frequently during the exploratory dives
After just a handful of black water dives, Saeed was blown away. “Everything I was seeing was new and exciting. I was like a kid in a sweetshop. The subjects kept coming,” recalls the British shooter of the myriad amphipods, jellyfish, and juvenile subjects on the dives. “Even looking at the photographs later on, it’s impossible to tell what some of the critters will grow up to become. Juvenile triggerfish, barracuda and moray eels could be seen as well as more exotic animals such as stareaters that live their adult lives thousands of feet below the surface, which you would never normally see on scuba.”
Saeed had to admit that black water photography, by its nature, takes some getting used to: Many images come back out of focus, poorly composed, and full of backscatter. “My hit rate was probably the lowest it has been in 20 years, but in amongst the duds, and with the help of Photoshop, there were a few keepers. I have since learned that many black water images take hours of post-processing, far more than I’m used to with my normal style of photography.”
For his part, Galice was very impressed with the two locations he tested over his week of black water dives. “The exploratory locations were very reliable both for current conditions and abundance of critters, but there are several nearby spots that could be very interesting. All the dives we did were action packed. I was literally shooting from the first minute until I got back on the boat! The highlights for me were the juvenile marlin, the diamond squid, and the cardinalfish with eggs.”
Pelagic cardinalfish carrying eggs in its mouth: This is very rarely observed, but during one dive the shooters had several staying around the lights
Diamond squid flashing its colors
Pearlfish larvae were very abundant. They are challenging to photograph as they move quite fast and are difficult to frame
Galice also discovered some apparent differences between Siladen and nearby Lembeh: “In both places, you find jellyfish with juvenile jackfish and trevallies, salps, squid, paper nautiluses, and a wide range of larval fish such as lionfish and flounders,” he says. “But from my limited experience, it looks like we found more deep-sea and purely pelagic species around Siladen, including cusk eel, billfish and pearlfish larvae, glass squid, and diamond squid. Pelagic nudibranchs were also particularly abundant. However, the difference could also be seasonal, so as a marine biologist, I would want to do more diving before we can get a clear picture of the differences between the two locations.”
For both pupil and pro, there’s little doubt that the deep waters around Siladen hold the promise of many more thrilling encounters with the ocean’s strangest and most beautiful organisms—as well as the uniquely satisfying experience of nailing a compelling black water portrait. “These dives really opened my eyes to this new form of underwater photography that seems to be sweeping the globe,” Saeed says. “And I cannot wait to get back to explore more of the incredibly rich and deep waters there.”
Juvenile African pompano
Flatfish larva: The eyes are still on each side of the body, but one will migrate so the adults have both eyes on one side
Galice Hoarau is an evolutionary biologist and an internationally awarded underwater photographer based in Bodø, in the Norwegian Arctic. He uses his photos to share his lifelong fascination for marine creatures and raise awareness about marine biodiversity. His favorite subjects are black water, big animals and Arctic critters.
Saeed Rashid has diving for just over 21 years. He is a professor at Bournemouth University in England, where he teaches design and photojournalism, a popular speaker at dive shows worldwide, an international travel journalist in his own right as well an editorial consultant for Diver magazine. Saeed also runs underwater photography workshops to help others capture some of the amazing sights he witnesses.
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