Night Drifters

I’m not sure how far off Palm Beach, Fla., we are when the engines slip into neutral and a big inflatable ball dangling 40 feet of line trimmed with lights disappears into the night. I guess it’s about four or five miles, and if Captain Dean’s calculations are right, we’re positioned near the ever-shifting edge of the Gulf Stream where marine life congregates. While the idling boat gently bobs, a dozen fidgety divers sit lined along benches in full gear, waiting for the signal to bail out of the back like paratroopers. 

First off the deck, Anna and I make a beeline for the glowing down line — our mother ship for the next hour and a half as we drift in the little-known universe of larval sea life, the great oceanic diaspora of the externally fertilized offspring of reef fishes and invertebrates. The few survivors of the multiweek metamorphosis eventually settle to the seafloor, where they develop into their final adult forms.

A young larvae fish
Larval lookdown

Within minutes everyone is underwater and caught in the imperceptible grip of a three- to four-knot current that will carry us eight miles north by dive’s end. In the interim we’re adjusting lights and acclimating our eyes to a hazy ocean liberally flecked with organic detritus known as marine snow. This is no game for slackers; larval fish are small, fast, erratic and tricky to track down in a featureless ocean. But when you find a jaw-dropping and possibly never-before-photographed animal, the thrill is as exhilarating as hooking a giant sailfish — although the “sailfish” we find in our watery fairyland can fit in the palm of your hand.

In less than 10 minutes Anna is spotlighting a larval flounder that was drawn to her handlight like a moth to a flame. Not knowing its behavior, I hold back and watch one of the fanciest fish I’ve ever seen flutter in her beam before flopping onto its side like a dead leaf. As I inch closer, the fish rights itself and sails away. I’m close behind, attempting to work my way alongside, focusing, framing and hoping it will slow or turn back on itself. Unsure how far I’ve traveled, I glance around, locate the down line and turn back. The fish is gone.

Larval flounder
Larval flounder

I spiral, sweeping my light in a circle. Somehow the beam catches a flicker of fins heading toward the surface. I’m after it and only catch up when the fish comes to a halt indignantly facing in the opposite direction. I slip to its left, but the fish slips right. I pivot right, it tacks left, flashing its tail in my face as it speeds away. In fits and starts the chase continues until the larva slows, makes an about face and swims toward me at a leisurely pace. “Steady, steady,” I coach myself as the flounder passes within a hand’s width, fins flying.

All it took was that one outrageous larval fish, and Anna and I are hooked just like our South Florida colleagues, who seldom, if ever, miss a scheduled night drift. The majority are veteran Blue Heron Bridge shooters — naturalists to the core and well-versed in the trials and rewards of wildlife photography. As a group they have taken to night drifts like ducks to water, but they were not the first to fall under the spell of offshore larvae. By the time the Florida folks made their first drift two years ago, divers in Hawaii had been photographing larval fish at night for 20 years. Inspired by legendary underwater photographer Chris Newbert, their night drifts, known in the islands as blackwater diving, introduced larval art to the world. Our Florida friends are happily carrying on the tradition 5,000 miles away.

Larval pancake batfish
Larval pancake batfish

Back on board, the boat is buzzing. Images of unfamiliar animals attract the biggest crowds around glowing camera screens. As you might expect, “What is it?” is the most frequently asked question in a world where crabs don’t look like crabs, and fish appear as illusions. Photos of unidentified animals are forwarded to two gentlemen half a world away who acquired their taxonomic expertise cataloguing morphological sketches of specimens swept up in plankton tows.

Scientific understanding of the oceanic orphanage has been transformed in the past 15 years. It is no longer thought to be an exclusively open system, randomly transporting passive larvae to distant shores. Recent studies have shown larval fishes to be strong swimmers with sophisticated instincts for remaining in local waters. But exactly where they go between spawning and settlement remains a mystery. Meanwhile, underwater photographers from Florida, Hawaii and beyond are adding bits of understanding to the sea of knowledge whose currents sweep us all along like night drifters, having the time of our lives.

© Alert Diver — Q1 2017