midnight snacker photo by Michael Patrick ONeill 1156x650

Midnight Snackers

By Michael Patrick O'Neill

Nighttime is the right time to photograph these hungry creatures from the deep.

Midnight Snackers Oct 2018 RR
Click image for a closer view.

Drifting in the dark ocean at night are some of the most amazing creatures in the world. Lucky for me, I don’t mind losing sleep to drift along with them! I’m a photographer, and I took the photos in this story. Read on to see how I did it.

It’s the middle of the night, and I’m in a boat miles off the Florida coast. “Here goes,” I think to myself. I roll backward off the side of the boat and, immediately, I am surrounded by darkness. The only light is from my flashlight, as it slices a path through the inky water.

What am I doing in the dark ocean when most people are sleeping in their nice, dry beds? This is one of my favorite ways to photograph tiny deep sea creatures. It’s called “blackwater photography” because it’s done at night.

That’s when the creatures move up from the deep to find food near the ocean surface. Most of these midnight snackers are babies: the larvas of fish, squid, and other creatures.

For a long time, these animals were only photographed lifeless and colorless in labs. But now blackwater photography is showing how spectacular they are in real life!

Midnight Snackers Oct 2018 RR
Click image for a closer view.

After I’ve plunged into the pitch-black ocean, I recheck my air supply and wait for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Then I go on the hunt for some of the most challenging subjects in underwater photography. These tiny, often see-through creatures are very tricky to photograph. For every good blackwater photo, there may be hundreds of rejects. And making sure I don’t go too deep or too far from the boat is a challenge, too!

  • This nickel-sized lionfish swam a little like a jellyfish, pulsing its “wings” open and closed.
  • When I shined my light on this eel, it stopped wiggling, curled up, and stayed very still.
  • This nudibranch often stopped moving for a few seconds at a time, giving me a chance to “warm up” and practice on an easy subject before moving on to more difficult ones.
  • Though this African pompano moved slowly, it was very shiny, making it hard to photograph.
Midnight Snackers Oct 2018 RR
Click image for a closer view.

It can be spooky to be surrounded by the dark water. But over the last few years, I’ve overcome my nervousness. And now I go night diving with a small group of divers nearly every week.

After two hours of diving, our driver takes us back to the dock. And already I’m looking forward to my next blackwater adventure— and what I might discover!

  • This flounder, the size of a potato chip, was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in the ocean. It moved through the water like a silk handkerchief drifting in the wind.
  • I was so absorbed while photographing this tiny long arm octopus that I found myself alone and much deeper than I meant to go. Not wanting to get lost, I quickly swam toward the surface and rejoined the other divers.
  • Only the size of a quarter now, this diamond squid may be as long as a couch when it grows up.
  • Flying fish are my absolute favorites. They come in different colors, and their fins look just like insect wings.
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