Four miles off Palm Beach, south of the Breakers resort, the 36 foot dive boat Wetter the Better sits gently rolling in darkness. Her engines grumble in idle. Below the keel is 1000 feet of black water. Above, on a mast, she shows lights in a vertical configuration, red, white, red. The lights signify that she is restricted in her ability to maneuver, meaning she cannot avoid oncoming traffic. Passing vessels must avoid her location. Rain passes in waves. Dark clouds block out all ambient light. It is pitch black above and below the surface of the ocean. The warm Atlantic waters could not be more inviting.
Humans have a universal hard wired instinct to fear open water. Despite years of engaging in all manner of harrowing (or stupid depending on your perspective) adventure on and in the ocean, I can still keenly feel the knot in my stomach, that sinking feeling, when I look down and see nothing below. Indeed, monsters lurk in the deep, dark, depths of our psyche. Perhaps, though, tonight I have short circuited some crucial evolutionary instinct. That innate fear is absent as I stand on the swim platform preparing plunge into the black abyss.
Our dive is led by Lazaro Ruda, thelivingsea.com, who pioneered these “blackwater,” dives in Palm Beach. He and other dedicated macro photographers have dubbed themselves addicted to drifting along looking for the incredible, alien, planktonic organisms thats inhabit these pelagic waters at night. I’m a novice, but after a few short minutes, I too am addicted.
Underwater we we follow a float lit by powerful lights above and below the surface. The dive boat follows above. Simple and effective safety and dive protocols were established in the briefing. What beforehand sounds like the most intimidating dive of my career is in fact simple and stress free. My first instinct when below the waves is to put some space between me and the rest of the divers, to face away from the lights, and turn my own off. The is something spiritual for me about being alone and staring into the abyss, the great unknown. Below, constellations of bioluminescent sparks flash at random. It is now that I feel the first pang of unease. I endure for a moment, before switching my light on and returning to the group.
In the beam of my light, a microscopic ecosystem of unimaginable beauty and diversity flows endlessly: ctenophores, jellies, larval fish. At first everything is new. After a few minute I find myself saying, seen that, seen that, this ones new, seen that, seen that… Even as I familiarize myself with the more common members of the ecosystem, I find myself lacking the basic knowledge to classify and identify many of the organisms I see. Beyond identification, I completely lack the vocabulary to effectively describe them. After 90 short minutes, and a drift of 5.5 nautical miles, its time to exit the water. On board, the photographers compare photos of special finds. I am jittery with excitement. Lazaro recognizes that he has created another addict.
For photos of the organisms I am unable to describe here see: