By night, a menagerie of species rises to the surface of the ocean—rarely glimpsed, and in some cases never photographed.
It’s 11 o’clock on a midsummer night, and Darryl Torckler is about to start work. He is in the Hauraki Gulf, between Great Barrier and the Mokohinau Islands, in his 17-metre steel-hulled motorsailer. The sea is glassy, the stars are brilliant. His son helps him rig LED lights to the stern and sides of his vessel, and they lower still more lights into the water, until the sea surrounding them is suffused with a blue glow.
Then he waits. And waits. Sometimes he waits for hours, and nothing happens. Sometimes all heaven breaks loose. Flying fish arrive and start colliding with the sides of the boat or flying onto the deck. Swarms of krill amass to form a seething orange soup. A school of blue maomao materialises from nowhere. A trio of kingfish swim slowly through the light’s loom.
Torckler, dressed head to toe in dive gear, descends a ladder into the water and steers his camera rig into the thick of the action. Another blackwater photography session has begun.
Ever since Jacques Cousteau led his aquanauts into the silent world in the 1950s, magnesium torches held aloft like the lightning bolts of the gods, the ocean depths have held the allure of outer space. But this marine frontier needs no rocket ship to reach, only a tank of air.
It didn’t take long for divers to discover that the ocean after dark is a very different place from in daylight. In recent years, Torckler and other night photographers have been taking their boats, cameras and lights increasingly further offshore—from the reefs and kelp forests of the coast to the pelagic depths beyond. And so has emerged a new niche of night photography, known as blackwater.
Blackwater photographers work in an entirely liquid world. There are no physical features of any kind. Their focus is the water column itself, and the creatures that come to their lights.
During the day, the open ocean can seem a marine desert, but at night, a marvellous transition occurs. Creatures of the deep rise to the surface. The phenomenon is called the diel vertical migration—diel for day, because the ascent and descent of the migrants happens every 24 hours. In numbers and biomass, it is the largest migration on Earth.
What draws life to the ocean surface at night? Food, primarily. The foundation of marine food webs is the photosynthesis that occurs in plankton in the sunlit surface layers of the sea. While creatures could partake of this phyto-banquet during the day, they would be an easy target for predators—especially if they are smaller or more vulnerable organisms. So it is under cover of darkness that most of the guests arrive, travelling vertical distances of up to a kilometre.
Their arrival is never predictable, but the guests themselves are a panoply of marvels—part of the mind-boggling diversity of the deep. For Irene and Crispin Middleton, this is the great attraction.
The Middletons are relative newcomers to blackwater diving, but they’ve embraced it with a passion. At a North Shore cafe one Saturday morning, they show me some of their portfolio—a couple of hundred pictures made during fewer than a dozen blackwater dives off the coast of Northland.
It took a while to talk themselves into blackwater diving—to take the plunge, so to speak. Sharks and billfish feed at night and can be nosy and aggressive—but it’s more than that. The work itself is daunting.
“It can get very confusing out there,” says Irene. “You’re in three-dimensional space with no reference points. If it’s a very dark night, you’re not even sure if you’re swimming up or down. You rely on the feeling of pressure on your eardrums to know if you’re going too deep.”
Sea sickness can be a problem, too. Crispin, a NIWA biosecurity diver, spends much of his life underwater, but the combination of focusing intently on objects in the disorienting darkness with even a little sea swell can bring on a bout of nausea.
But luring the Middletons on—and eventually overwhelming any hesitation—was the sense of discovery, the near-certainty that whatever they find on their dives will have been seen by few, if any, eyes before: opal fish, juvenile argonauts, colourful medusas, deep-sea squid.
When the Middletons send photographs of their subjects to the handful of specialists who may be able to identify them, they usually get exclamation marks (and occasional expletives) with replies along the lines of: “You saw that? Incredible!”
“Who could resist the chance to make new discoveries every time you dive?” asks Irene.
To find the creatures they’re interested in, they have to drive their runabout a long way out to sea. New Zealand’s large, gently sloping continental shelf means that the sea stays shallow for long distances offshore around much of the country. On the Northland coast, where the Middletons live, they have to travel 50 kilometres to reach their target water depth of around 150 metres.
They envy blackwater divers in Hawaii and the Philippines who need to travel only a few kilometres offshore to be in depths of 1000 metres or more. “For us it’s a long, cold, exhausting slog,” says Irene. “But we’re finding the same things they are, despite the much-shallower depths.”
For a blackwater dive to be successful, the weather and sea conditions have to be just right. The wind has to be not much more than five knots, with negligible sea swell, or the photographers can’t hold themselves or their camera rigs still enough to shoot the often-tiny creatures they’re interested in.
“And they’re moving, too, and they’re often intentionally difficult to see—it’s how they avoid getting eaten,” says Crispin. Often one or other of the pair acts as a spotter, keeping tabs on the creature while the other person adjusts lights, checks focus–all the myriad details of getting a shot.
Crispin’s day job involves monitoring ports and harbours for invasive species. That work calls for diving in murky, shallow water where the visibility is often less than half a metre—a far cry from the oceanic depths of a blackwater dive, where visibility is tens of metres. There’s a parallel, though. In both places he is looking for species that may never have been seen before. In the case of ports, potential invasives that pose ecological and economic threats; offshore, species that have found their way into his viewfinder of their own accord, mixing, moving and mingling through the vastness of oceanic space and time.
And how about sharks—have they been a problem? The Middletons haven’t seen any yet, but they do use a home-built cage, made from aluminium screen doors, which they suspend several metres below the surface. It’s more for comfort than security, they say.
“As soon as we see something cool, we leave the cage and swim after it,” says Crispin. It’s more of a waiting room—a place to hang out while you watch for something to come to the lights.
Like Torckler, they have built their own LED lighting arrays, which they position above and below water, hooked up to a couple of car starter batteries. This blaze of light can make their boat a curious sight. They know this because on one occasion someone called the Coastguard about mysterious lights near the Poor Knights Islands—concerned that perhaps an aircraft had gone down.
“We checked the location and realised we were probably the only vessel that had been in that area,” says Crispin, “so we called the Coastguard and said, ‘Ah, we’re pretty sure that was us.’ The Coastguard operator laughed and said, ‘Next time you’re doing crazy things, can you let us know?’”
While the Middletons haven’t encountered sharks or broadbills at night, they have had a few encounters with stinging jellyfish, and a bizarre interaction with a creature known as the blanket octopus.
So named because the female has extensive webbing between four of its arms, the blanket octopus is impervious to the stinging tentacles of the Portuguese man o’ war, and juvenile females rip the tentacles from these jellyfish and use them as whips to defend themselves.
On one occasion, a colleague who was photographing with the Middletons got too close to one of these whip-wielding octopods and was stung on the face.
“We’re coming in to jellyfish season right now,” says Crispin, enthusiastically.
Adds Irene: “We’re happy to put up with a few stings in order to get photographs of the animals that live in association with jellyfish.”
It turns out there are many such creatures, and the Middletons have many photographs that show small fish peeking out from among the frilly curtains of jellyfish arms.
“The more we look, the more we see,” says Irene. As well as fish sheltering among tentacles, they have seen small crustaceans ‘riding’ jellyfish bells.
Another curious species association they have witnessed is that of the cart shrimp, which eats the internal tissues of a salp, then deposits its eggs inside the gelatinous outer tube. When the eggs hatch, the salp tube becomes their nursery. The shrimp pushes the structure around like a pram, hence the name.
Like Torckler, the Middletons tend to find things once, then often never see them again. One such was a see-through pelagic nudibranch—a sea slug with translucent tissues through which the gut and other organs show up as pink and orange blobs. A spattering of luminescent spots add to the alien effect.
Another was the ‘immortal jellyfish’. Like most coelenterates, this jellyfish starts life as a polyp, then metamorphoses into a free-swimming medusa. But under certain conditions it can revert back to the polyp stage.
“In theory it can keep doing that forever,” says Irene, “hence the name.”
What’s their holy grail? Juvenile billfish, says Crispin. “It’s surely only a matter of time.”
They have seen juveniles of many other fish species—mahimahi, oarfish, boarfish, leatherjackets, scorpionfish. The oarfish was a challenge to photograph. Crispin shows me some pictures. Side-on, it looks like a wedge with long streamers growing from its head and tail.
“But when it turns front on, it’s only 1.5 millimetres thick—it becomes invisible,” he says. “We took hundreds of shots of this fish, of which maybe half a dozen are usable.”
This delicately proportioned juvenile grows into an 11-metre giant, one of the strangest fish in the sea. “If I could see anything again it would be this,” he says. But, like most of their nocturnal visitors, they have spotted it only once.
There was no need to ask Irene her favourite subject. She turned over her forearm to show me the tattoo she had just acquired: a flying fish, its wings spread. “You forgot to include the scientific name,” I tease. “And where’s the photo credit?” asks Crispin. “That’s one of my images.”
There are more than 60 species of flying fish, which belong to the evocatively named family Exocoetidae, from which the missile gets its name. The longest recorded flight is 45 seconds, and with the assistance of updrafts, some flying fish have covered distances of 400 metres at up to 70 kilometres per hour.
Irene has seen and photographed several species, including a juvenile just a few centimetres in length, which has what looks like a soup-strainer moustache on its lower lip. Adults lose the Lorax-like appearance, but retain small chin barbels, which give them their common name of barbel flying fish.
Adult flying fish can be exciting. “They smack into you, they fly into the side of the boat, they get tangled up in your camera equipment,” says Irene. Something about the lights seems to both mesmerise them and make them hyperactive.
With other species, the lights have the opposite effect. They show me a photo of a black-and-white spotted pelagic pufferfish.
“You sometimes glimpse them in the distance during the day, but you can never get close,” says Crispin. “At night, they come right up and stare at you.”
Immortal jellies, weapon-wielding octopuses, moustachioed flying fish, pram-pushing shrimps—if these are just a smattering of the creatures of the night, then blackwater diving is surely one of the next frontiers of discovery, a waka huia of wonders.