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Blackwater Cozumel
By Matthew Sullivan, January 14, 2024 @ 09:00 AM (EST)

A diver inspects a beautiful squid during a blackwater dive off Cozumel: Scale can be important in blackwater images, as these critters are often significantly smaller than people think
 

Usually when the topic of blackwater diving comes up among photographers, destinations like Hawaii or Anilao in the Philippines first come to mind. If you are a really hardcore blackwater diver, perhaps Lembeh or Palm Beach, Florida would be on the list too. Until recently, Mexico likely would not have even been on the radar. In part, this may be due to the lack of any regularly scheduled, commercially available blackwater charters. 

However, over the last few years, Robert Stansfield and the team at Blackwater Cozumel have been working tirelessly, pioneering blackwater diving in the current-swept waters around the island. They have begun showcasing a stunning array and diversity of life in its waters.

Now, a few short years later, Cozumel has been definitively put on the map as a go-to location to enjoy blackwater diving and all the fantastical critters that make it so much fun. Cozumel’s warm, clear waters and strong currents make this Mexican dive paradise an ideal destination to spot the weird and the wacky—from cusk eels and cephalopods to the elusive and bizarre gibberfish! Blackwater Cozumel team leader Robert Stansfield has put together an amazing portfolio to whet your appetite for a Mexican blackwater adventure.
 

An itty-bitty male paper nautilus riding a salp chain: Quite often these cephalopods catch rides on other blackwater critters or even on debris or trash
 

One of the holy grails of blackwater diving, an adult female blanket octopus: Female paper nautiluses build their shells as they age and use them to store and protect their precious eggs. Often they can be found hitching a ride on jellyfish, debris, or even forming nautilus chains where a few of them will gather and stick to each other in a group
 

A weird, wonderful larval deepwater cusk eel: There seems to be an endless variety of cusk eels. Almost every single one that is seen seems to be slightly different than the next
 

While Cozumel can be dived year round, including blackwater dives, the peak season is April to September. During these months the winds and seas calm and begin to lay flat, so the opportunity to get out on the ocean is great. Blackwater diving can be done in the fall and winter months, but the conditions are far more hit and miss, so there is no guarantee you’ll be able to get out on the water to spot that paper nautilus or gibberfish!

Unlike the winds, the same currents that make Cozumel famous for drift diving do not die down during the spring and summer. That means the island is still being constantly bathed by strong water flow and where there is moving water, there is an endless variety of pelagic life being carried along on those currents, helping bring in the freaky and wacky blackwater critters.
 

A stunningly adorned and colored deepwater tripodfish, a popular subject on blackwater dives whether it be Cozumel, Florida or Anilao: Their oversized fins turn an otherwise ordinary-looking fish into a stunning blackwater jewel
 

Another wondrous cusk eel with all its organs outside the body cavity. Indeed, the entire body cavity appears to be empty except for the skeletal structure: All the parts keeping the fish alive are outside its body!
 

A young female paper nautilus riding a salp chain: There is a theory that paper nautiluses ride salp chains not only for the protection of being around a larger structure but also because they seem to mimic the salps’ internal organs
 

Robert has become one of the underwater imaging community’s preeminent blackwater photographers, and his portfolio of wonderful subjects is enviable—as is his skill with regards to capturing them on camera. Until recently, he chose the Nikon D500 and Nikon D850 as his weapons of choice for blackwater diving and all of the images featured here were made with those cameras. Both feature fast autofocus and of course work with the Nikon 60mm macro lens—arguably the most popular lens for blackwater diving among Nikon shooters, as it is quick and provides a wider perspective to be able to more easily find and follow subjects in the viewfinder.

Robert recently migrated to the mirrorless realm and chose the Z8. A true speed demon that works flawlessly with the Nikon 60mm, the Z8 will likely be a blackwater beast. All three of the aforementioned cameras feature Nikon’s excellent 3D tracking. Effective tracking systems can be indispensable for keeping up with the atypical and erratic movements that characterize many blackwater animals.
 

Well hidden in a small clump of sargassum, a sargassumfish waits in ambush: While most frogfish are found on reefs or in the muck, the sargassumfish is a pelagic species that spends its life floating around the open ocean in sargassum mats. Evolution is a wonderful thing!
 

A gorgeous diamond squid striking a pose for the camera: Glass squid are a phenomenal blackwater subject as they often pose for photographers in incredible photogenic ways, flaring out all their fins and hanging vertically
 

A less colorful but no less spectacular deepwater tripodfish: Normally, the tripodfish fins remain folded alongside its body, but when they flare them out, they become far more photogenic
 

One of the ultimate blackwater superstars: the fantastically named gibberfish. An awesome name for an awesome fish. Very little is known about these wacky blackwater critters beyond the fact they are incredibly cool!
 

As is standard with blackwater operators around the globe, a downline with high-powered lights is key to bringing in the deepwater freaks. The lights attract the smallest of the small, which then attracts beings slightly higher on the food chain. Blackwater Cozumel uses a Kraken Sports powered downline, using 10,000-, 12,000- and 15,000-lumen lights to shine as brightly as possible. A rule in blackwater diving: You can never have too much light!
 

Powered by an ever-increasing number of Kraken Sports video lights, the Blackwater Cozumel downline array shines bright and far in the crystal-clear Caribbean waters to attract some very interesting deep sea critters rarely seen by divers
 

To see more of Robert’s work, please give him a follow on Instagram. Alternatively, head to Cozumel and take the blackwater plunge with Robert and his Blackwater Cozumel team.

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