Magic in the Dark

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This is the largest migration on earth and it happens every single night in oceans and lakes all over the world. Surrounded by aliens, witnessing their world, one can only wonder why outer-space would be fascinating to anyone with all this going on right in our own oceans. Gently descending into the void, Mother Ocean welcomes me into her dark embrace with her body-hugging pressure. Turning on one low-focus light, at first all we see is the blackness of the night sea, sprinkled with occasional white flecks of particulate matter gently falling in slow motion.

Suddenly, something thin and gelatinous ghosts by, no more than 20 centimetres long. It freezes for a brief moment to flare into a Fandango stance, as if to say "check this out". Then, all hair-like tentacles collapse and the thin line whisks off into the darkness. Wow! What was that?

 

Mystified by this performance, and keeping one eye on the magical creature's flight, my fingers fumble in the gloom to switch on the camera and strobes. Now where did that fellow go? Oh wait, look at that. Brightening my focus light and looking up, the sea is absolutely teeming with life. It's as if all the space junk in the sky has become animated. Hundreds upon hundreds of strange little beasties, swirling and twirling and dive bombing one another, while laconic, pulsating jellyfish with long trailing tentacles drift by. The doors to the 'Big Tent' have been opened! With so much going on, it is difficult to choose what to photograph first.

This is the largest migration on Earth, known as vertical migration, and it happens every single night in oceans and lakes all over the world. Come the night, what lives way down below in the mesopelagic zones (larval and tiny pelagic) rises to the epipelagic zone on the surface to feed, or be fed upon. Merely a couple of miles offshore, we are literally in the Gulf Stream current off southeast Florida. We coast north with the flow, scuba diving to no more than 12 metres, but drifting over depths of 120-230 metres.

Armed with only a 60mm macro lens and a 10x dioptre in an underwater camera housing, it becomes evident that what was once strictly the domain of the scientific community has now presented an entirely new layer of ocean discovery through underwater photography. Being enveloped by ocean aliens, witnessing their secretive, magical world, one can only wonder why outer space would be fascinating to anyone with all this going on right in our own backyards.

 

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This demanding activity is not for the faint of heart. Is it scary? Oh yes, considerably. With a spectacular dive crew and a very special dive boat captain, for us it was feasible. However, one should not just steam out to the deepest part of the ocean and drop in to see what is happening without thorough training in correct practice and essential safety measures.

The darkness consumes your light. Have you ever driven down a road so dark that your lights could not penetrate the pitch blackness more than a few metres? So it is on a black water dive. There is no visible bottom and if you drop something, it is history. There are so many jellyfish your extremities must be covered at all times. You are moving, the ocean is moving, sometimes at a fairly decent clip. In the Gulf Stream current there are also cross currents and the base direction may even shift from north to south. We have two standing orders from our captain: "stay with the ball, and never shine your lights in the captain's eyes when you come up."

This type of macro photography is very challenging, but incredibly rewarding. It is akin to gazing at the night sky through a telescope to locate a planet, where a slight movement can cause you to quickly lose your subject. Absolute stillness is essential to achieve focus, so buoyancy control is everything. A casual flick of your fins can send hundreds of living creatures spiralling out of control and only then do you realise how very delicate this environment truly is.

 

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Most of these creatures ascend the water column at warp speed. Some, like the larval mantis shrimp, are real characters. Inquisitive, they seem to enjoy themselves taunting the strange giants with the screaming lights by dive bombing camera ports or masks and doing whirlies and other frenetic movements to entertain themselves, only to stop suddenly mid-water, putting their oversized claw on their hip and simply observing you.

Each dive delivers a different cast of characters in the unfolding circus, which changes as we drift further north or into shallower waters. We start to identify 'the regulars', creatures that can be seen on most every dive.

Besides the mantis shrimp, we are pelted by thousands of baby squid, no more than an inch long, as the flock shifts as if evading a predator. Wait, what predator? Suddenly, and quite comically, a tiny juvenile barracuda darts into frame as the flock scatters, littering the ocean in puffs of ochre ink clouds. My huge grin cracks the seal on my mask. As the weeks progress, the squid flock diminishes in numbers as they grow in size. Now, nearly fully grown, they seem to enjoy inking us. We are now the invading aliens.

A vast variety of siphonophores are ever-present and challenging to photograph with their frail structures - plus they can outstretch their nearly invisible, sticky tentacles to ten times their length, and those tentacles sting! While observing several varieties of comb jellies displaying their bioluminescent rhythms, an Aequorea forskalis suddenly drifts into focus, spinning wildly, with a larval lobster running the treadmill atop its back, clutching a Nausithoe genus jellyfish in each claw.  The experience is beyond fascinating.

It is the wild and unusual that we seek. It is the unknown and bizarre that keeps us coming back. It is a primal need within us to learn more. Then, of course, there are the Holy Grail images that we yearn for. The species that no human being has ever seen alive before. Those rare creatures that come up from very, very deep water, like the tripodfish (Bathypterois grallator) that was first discovered in the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the ocean, by submersible observations on the bathyscaphe Trieste. While this fish may be quite common to the abyssal zone, some 853-4,815 metres deep, for us to glimpse a larval version of it flitting about in just seven metres of water is really something. The dainty, butterfly wing-thin lavender ruffles cannot help but stimulate the imagination to wonder how something so fragile can thrive to grow to 1.5 metres in length and live 20,000 leagues under the sea! That is the kind of thrill that satiates our pioneering need to discover - because seeing is believing.

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The need for answers tears at the mind and soul. You photograph something that you have no clue about, total ignorance, and that leads you to research. You soon become an emerging citizen scientist. Recently, during my ascent, I happened upon some Sargassum weed, and something glossy caught my attention. To the naked eye, it resembled some type of shell. After a few shots, I was musing that it certainly would be nice to see a seahorse. And, lo and behold, clinging to this seaweed was a juvenile seahorse. I could not believe my luck. Later, upon reviewing the image up on the computer, I discover a tiny eye looking out at me from the shell with minute suction cups. Is it possible? A larval paper nautilus!?

Before the introduction of black water diving I knew nothing about plankton, nor did I ever give it much thought. However, after almost two years of photographic documentary making and boundless research, I have learned so much about the fragility of the oceans. The one note that strikes me more than anything else is this: the cause and effect of our global lifestyles upon the bodies of water on our planet. This thing called ocean acidification is real. Pollution, as a result of weather run-off into the oceans, raises acidity levels and this, in turn, has harmful effects on marine organisms. Without getting too technical, there is a huge chain of life occurring in the oceans, from about 4,570 metres upwards. If a particular life form cannot handle the acidity levels, molluscs like pterapods may not be able to form their shells, their reproduction rate reduces and the population fails to feed the demand of their predators - shrimps - which we harvest from the oceans for food. You do not need to be a genius to do the sums on this one, and figure out the kind of impact this has on all marine life and all of mankind. The smallest specks of existence of every species.

Essay by Suzan Meldonian ( OG 41)

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