Blackwater illuminations

Words and photography by Brook Peterson

As I slipped into the tar-black water, the ocean stretching for hundreds of metres below me, I felt a pang of apprehension.

I am an experienced scuba diver and underwater photographer but, with the nearest landfall several miles away, there was an isolation to this experience that I had never experienced before in years of descending below the waterline.

To some, scuba diving is an extreme sport. To others it is a relaxing hobby. For those of us who have been diving for years, it is almost a form of meditation. But a new adrenaline rush is emerging within the scuba community. It is rapidly becoming  one of the dives within the sport, especially among underwater photographers.

I am, of course, talking about blackwater diving.

Even for a seasoned diver like myself, I was unnerved by the sense of abyss felt at the start of the dive. I have dived in deep water many times, but never so far out to sea at night. Good buoyancy skills and the ability to handle changing currents are essential skills. I have them – but that didn’t stop the nerves, or those ‘first-timer’ thoughts: What if I can’t control my buoyancy in the darkness and descend too deep? What if there is a sudden current that sweeps me away from the lights and boat? And don’t I look like bait dangling off a rope in the middle of the ocean at night? These are all valid concerns – there is certainly some danger involved. However, with careful planning, risks are minimised.

Prior to entering the water, our captain had dropped a rope over the side of the boat. Weighted at the bottom and lined with a string of bright lights, it hung vividly in the darkness, a string of giant discarded fairy lights floating in the open ocean. Reaching to a depth of 30m, the rope has two functions: to attract planktonic lifeforms and act as a point of reference for divers.

Bobbing the water waiting for my buddy to join me, I dipped my head below the waterline and looked at the shaft of light that struck down into the deep, a lightning bolt from above. There’s a calm felt when the upcoming becomes the present. I was in it now, and I knew the dive was going to be spectacular.

Larval shrimp, blackwater
Planktonic coral polyp, blackwater
Plankton, blackwater
Planktonic jelly, blackwater

The draw of blackwater diving is the opportunity to see animals not normally encountered on a typical night dive. When the sun sets, larval and planktonic animals rise from the deep to feed in the water column. These animals are tiny, ranging in size from a few millimetres to several centimetres. They are mostly translucent, developing and strikingly different to what they will look like when they are fully formed. They often have an otherworldly look about them, particular parts growing outside of their bodies or observable through a thin membrane. Encountering them is like no other experience found in the sport.

As we hovered in the dark, cameras at the ready, larval and planktonic creatures appeared from the black and drifted past, ethereal beings illuminated by our heavenly lights. We saw squid and shrimps, octopus and jellyfish, pyrosomes and nautilus, crabs and lobsters.

A lot of ocean creatures start life as plankton. Eggs are swept out into the open ocean where they can develop away from the hungry mouths of reef fish and other predators. As they grow, some return to shallower waters, while others spend their entire lives floating in the open ocean, at home in the black.