Meet the creatures of the night sea

In the darkness of the open water, rarely seen creatures dance along the ocean current.

By Amy McKeever
photographs by Jennifer Hayes And David Doubilet
Published 10 Sept 2021, 10:02 BST
A juvenile African pompano, or threadfin trevally, swims through the Verde Island Passage, a major shipping lane in the Philippines. Its streaming filaments resemble the tentacles of a jellyfish—a possible advantage for evading predators that patrol the night sea.
Photograph by David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes

In the open ocean in the dead of night, a light-studded downline silently sinks a hundred feet into the water’s inky depths.

Minutes later, there’s a splash as divers plunge in too. Equipped with scuba gear, a bevy of lights, and waterproof DSLR cameras clipped to their suits, David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes descend into a realm of the unimaginable.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Explorer David Doubilet since 2012. This is the 50th anniversary of his first assignment as a National Geographic photographer. Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes document both the beauty and the devastation in our oceans.

“When you first get in, it is a galaxy of light,” Doubilet says of black-water diving. “You see fellow divers with their shafts of focusing lights and red lights: a galaxy here and a galaxy there.”

In the dark—whether it’s the Sargasso Sea of the North Atlantic or the tropical waters off Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago—Doubilet and Hayes see things even many other marine biologists (Hayes is one) will never see. Black-water diving is “the equivalent of a marine ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’” Doubilet says. “All strange things that are dancing around at night.”

When night falls on the open sea, there’s a world to explore as zooplankton swim up from the depths to feed. Many of these small organisms are still larvae, including the mantis shrimp pictured here. Mantis shrimp are voracious predators in their larval and adult phases, and black-water diving offers a rare glimpse into their early lives. “It’s the nursery of the ocean,” says Doubilet.
Photograph by David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes

The duo capture rare images of creatures in their larval forms and observe the clever ways the animals survive the night, like a juvenile jack that hides behind a jellyfish. But as the current propels them through the sea, divers must keep an eye on their bubbles to remember which way is up—and on the downline’s lights to make sure they don’t drift too far from their boat.

“It’s all at the mercy of the current,” Hayes says. “You’re just moving with [the animals], lucky to encounter them.”

The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world. Learn more about the Society’s support of its ocean Explorers.

This story appears in the October 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.


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