A spectacularly winged and fu-manchu’d flying fish cruising just below the inky surface. Flying fish of all shapes and sizes are a common sight on Florida’s blackwater dives. Hang out near the surface and you are sure to see a couple!
Blackwater diving sends scuba right back to where life begins in the open ocean. From deep-water tripod fish and anglerfish, reef creatures like sea anemones and spiny lobsters, to pelagics such as sailfish and mahi mahi—all around an inch long—hundreds of larval species can be encountered while drifting through the abyss in a single evening. On rare occasions, marine megafauna will pass on through, taking the formd of an adult swordfish or a thresher shark.
Off the coast of South Florida, the ideal Gulf Stream depth is 700 to 800 feet deep, promptly following sunset. Divers kick through the darkness guided by a 50-foot light rig comprised of a large illuminated buoy with a weighted line connecting triangular aluminum frames of decreasing size decorated with dive lights. The thousands of lumens act as a floating lighthouse, submerged to attract larval organisms during their nightly routine.
Every spring in Florida is ribbonfish season and several different varieties are possible. They range in size from the size of a dime up to the size of your hand
Voracious predators as adults, larval mahi mahi are no different! You can often find them hunting other blackwater critters attracted by the lights
A larval octopus, the size of a pea, curling its tentacles up over itself for protection
The true allure of blackwater is the opportunity to capture marine life behavior. These larval critters are in the process of learning how to be the adult version of whatever you are observing. Hunting and feeding habits, defensive posturing, camouflage and other aquatic animals carefully being discerned as friend or foe; all can be witnessed on each and every dive. Each depth level of the water column offers the chance to photograph a variety of marine life forms. The bottom of the rig and deeper can hold cusk eels, whalefish and gibberfish as they ascend from the depths to investigate the new source of light that just hit the waves.
Just below the surface, one can bump into flying fish, swimming crabs and tripletail amongst the sargassum mats. Those with a keen eye and a healthy supply of patience can even find sargassumfish and seahorses. Every depth increment in-between is a prime location to observe ctenophores, true jellyfish, amphipods, larval reef and game fish, plus any of the multiple larval life cycle stages of shrimp, crabs, lobsters and other crustaceans. Cephalopods such as diamond squid and blanket octopuses are considered some of the most desirable encounters in the darkness.
A young fish and a nearly invisible shrimp hitch a ride on a pelagic siphonophore. Take a good look at any larger bits of sargassum or planks of wood or even large animals, as smaller ones may be using them for cover
A squid genre well known to blackwater divers all over the world are diamond squid—fantastical little beasts with intricate fins
In my opinion, blackwater photography is one of the most challenging situations under which to shoot. Larval marine life after dark seem to have no regard for orientation in the water, sometimes traveling in all three dimensions, while upside-down and continuously spiraling through the water—all in just a few minutes! Many larval creatures are also built for speed to help evade predators. Juvenile squid and octopuses often react to bright lights and propel away, so a calm approach with red lights is recommended. Snapping a sharp photo makes it all worth it, and we live for the little post-dive celebrations back on board with the other divers as we discuss what we swam with for the past two hours.
It isn’t all weird and wacky critters on blackwater dives: Sometimes hatchling sea turtles like this fresh green turtle make an appearance. This one is just surfacing to catch a breath
A stunningly adorned ribbonfish strikes a pose for the camera. Larger subjects like this are well suited to wider macro lenses like a 50mm or 60mm
Gear wise, most blackwater shooters opt for short focal length macro lenses in the 50–60mm range. I use the Canon 50mm f/2.5 macro lens on a Canon EOS R5. The wider macro lens makes it much easier to follow flighty subjects around in the water, and these lenses tend to be faster focusing than longer focal length macro lenses.
As with all night diving, but especially blackwater, good continuous lights are a must, preferrably ones that have both white and red light features. Certain creatures react positively or negatively depending on the color of the light, so having the option to switch between white and red can be crucial. I have dual Kraken Hydra 8000s on my rig for all blackwater dives as the wide and powerful white flood makes it easier to spot and attract certain subjects, and I can quickly switch to red light mode for more skittish critters. Many blackwater creatures are incredibly reflective, so strobe diffusers are a must to avoid blowing out highlights. A strobe that can recycle quickly will be a huge bonus, so you can fire off as many frames as possible to maximize your chances for an in-focus image or the perfect pose. I use a pair of Inon Z-330s, which, while not the strongest or fastest strobe on the market, will recycle extremely quickly at lower power settings.
A much sought after subject, the sargassumfish: Usually they are found extremely well camouflaged in mats of sargassum but once in a while on blackwater dives these ungainly anglers will go for a swim and hunt by the lights of the downline
Another sargassum denizen, these seahorses have found a minsicule bit of sargassum to cling to in the night
One caveat: blackwater diving is addictive. Soon enough you may find yourself added to a group chat named “Blackwater Addicts” with the local dive operation! You might be rubbing the sleep out of your eyes at work the next morning, but being able to share your dive adventure stories and pictures the next day will never get old. At the very least, it will be enough to hold you over until your next dive trip. Thankfully, this will always be enough for blackwater divers. Will you be joining us for the next one?
Pelagic salps provide cover and protection for all sorts of small marine animals like this young jack
Sometimes blackwater critters make friends with each other in the night. This little nondescript fish looks like its envying the huge, beautiful, filamentous fins of the ribbonfish
To see more of Josh’s amazing blackwater work, or his beautiful underwater photography in general, head on over to his Instagram page.
Plan Your Adventure >