Dipping Oahu's Toes into Black Water

Posted by Jeffrey Milisen on Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Originally posted Feb. 17th, 2012 

From big animals on picturesque reefs to the world-famous manta dive and now the mind-boggling blackwater dive, Kona maintains a monopoly on Hawaiian style diving.  Taking a cue from the alien pelagic environment, I've recently been working with Gabe and Drew at Kaimana Divers to bring the alien world of Blackwater to Oahu.  I pitched the idea and they picked up the torch on just about everything else.  Come Sunday night, we'd be headed out of Waianae to embark on the South Seas II for a dark world with no bottom.  

I was the first to splash. The first blackwater dive I had done was more of an afterthought from a failed expedition to South Kona to locate scalloped hammerheads.  Thus, my morale was low going into the dive, but quickly picked up when Josh Lambus, the divemaster, signaled "shark" as I watched a curious foot-long fish swim off.  I soon put two and two together and realized the "fish" was a cookie cutter shark. Cookie cutter sharks are known for removing golfball-sized chunks of flesh from tuna, dolphins, whales and other megafauna.  When the shark appeared again, it was swimming right at the back of my buddy who was studying a ctenophore 20 feet away.  There was no way I could signal him in time, so I looked to his mom who was watching the action from behind her camera, ready to capture every detail of her son's impending "attack."  Thankfully for my friend, the shark changed its mind before it got to its target and we all walked away with pictures and video of the exceedingly rare creature.  

The cookie cutter shark is just one of a whole suite of indescribably strange creatures you might run into off Kona.  We were hoping the offshore waters of Oahu would be similar. When you first jump into a blackwater dive, you have to give your eyes some time to adjust.  Not only is the world around you very, very dark, but the creatures are either very small or very transparent.  Therefore, it can take a moment to find your first few critters.  After a few moments, however, you realize you are swimming in a soup of tiny but intriguing animals, all of them glowing with bioluminescence.  The first thing I saw was a box jelly (cubazoan) swimming down into the abyss.  I managed to snap a few shots of it, but the jelly was so transparent, all that came out was black.  I adjusted my strobes and quickly found a ctenophore and some salps to focus on.  Finally, the pics started flowing. Salps, Ctenophores, chaetognaths, and other less identifiable critters started drifting into focus on the LCD screen of my camera.  I could have stayed down a lot longer, except my air was up after about an hour. The roaring success of this trial run means that blackwater dives from Oahu are an inevitability.  The highly experienced dive masters all came up from the dive asking excitedly, "what the heck was that??"  The animals you'll encounter underwater at night in the pelagic environment are truly unbelievably beautiful.  It is only a matter of time before something new gets discovered out here.

Cookie Cutter Shark (Isistius brasiliensis)

Leucothea ctenophore

Bolinopsis ctenophore


Originally posted on Feb. 27th, 2012

Saturday was the first successful recreational blackwater dive from Oahu.  This joint effort between Kaimana Divers and Pearl Harbor Divers exposed 12 guinea pigs...er...customers to the strange black world of the abyss.  They all came up howling with excitement and interestingly, we saw a completely different assortment of strange creatures this dive versus two weeks ago including lots of larval fish.


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