This juvenile diamondback squid (Thysanoteuthis rhombus) was a particularly challenging subject. It was extremely beautiful, but only the size of a quarter. As adults, diamond squid, found in tropical and subtropical waters around the world, can grow as long as a couch.
While most photographers are tucked in bed, this sharpshooter dons dive gear and searches for his subjects at the ocean’s surface, in the black of night.
Photos and story by Michael Patrick O’Neill
Eight kilometers off the coast of Palm Beach, Florida, with the city lights a constellation on the distant horizon, I roll backward off the side of a boat and am immediately enveloped in darkness.
Only my flashlight slices a path through the inky water, and I feel like an untethered astronaut on a spacewalk. It can be spooky to be suspended in liquid night with restricted vision, especially when the water is murky after a storm.
But over the last few years, I’ve overcome my apprehension, and night diving in the raging Gulf Stream current over abyssal depths is now something I enthusiastically do with a small group of talented divers every week, weather permitting.
We embark on these nighttime excursions, known as blackwater dives, to photograph small, free-floating marine organisms that migrate up to the ocean’s surface after dark, along with their predators.
This type of extreme wildlife photography—at night and in deep water—originated in Hawaii and is now popular worldwide including off the southeast coast of Florida, where the narrow continental shelf, deep water, and powerful Gulf Stream current provide the right ingredients for an abundance of marine animals.
Traditionally, a lot of the creatures I’m drawn to, ranging in size from a dime to a saucer, have only been photographed lifeless and colorless in a lab, underneath a microscope or soaked in formaldehyde. But now they have gone mainstream, and a growing body of photography, built by many gifted photographers in the field, is finally showing how spectacular these Lilliputian species really are.
After I’ve plunged into the pitch black ocean, my eyes have adjusted to the darkness, and I’ve rechecked my air supply, I go on the hunt for some of the most challenging subjects in underwater photography: bizarre larval fish, squid, and invertebrates that are typically highly mobile and near impossible to photograph.
They hide in plain sight, in a thick soup of marine snow—particles of organic or inorganic matter that filter through the water—zooplankton, seaweed, and plastic.
Sometimes I get lucky and find more traditional fare near the surface: seahorses, sea turtle hatchlings, and flying fish. The latter are my absolute favorites, coming in several hard-to-identify species, shapes, and colors.