anilao is a hotbed for blackwater-diving and, having only ever attempted a couple of DIY blackwater dives, we were very keen to give it a go with the experts.
A juvenile ornate ghost pipefish – an incredible creation of Mother Nature.
The basic premise is to witness what David Attenborough once famously described as “the greatest migration on earth”. Almost every fish and creature on the reef, in its larval stages, starts life in the pelagic sea.
Taking shelter in the deep water by day, all these organisms drift up at night to feed – a huge mass of planktonic animals, each minutely formed.
Blackwater-diving is believed to have originated in Hawaii as far back as the 1970s, but until recently was the preserve of only a few radical pioneers. Today, it’s one of the most fashionable styles of diving, especially loved by photographers, for whom it represents a whole new array of mindblowing subjects.
We headed out at night and threw in a lighted buoy, with a line descending to 20m, equipped with powerful lights every few metres. Several other boats were also engaged in this curious mission.
We jumped in with no point of reference but the lights on the rope, a disconcerting, dark and gloomy environment.
As we followed Glenn and our eyes adjusted, tiny apparitions glided by. At first we noticed the small jellyfish and tunicates – beautiful, but soon overlooked once we started spotting larval mantis shrimps and pelagic squid!
The cephalopods are the rock stars of blackwater-diving, their lack of skin pigmentation giving them a truly alien appearance. The words “settling wunderpus” seemed to be on everyone’s lips pre-dive, with the experienced guests hoping to see one, and the dive-guides carefully tried to manage expectations.
Call it beginner’s luck, but halfway through our first proper blackwater dive excitement rippled through the sea as we all rushed to a guide’s flashing torch to find – a settling wunderpus!
I had only ever seen them in photos, usually the kind that win awards, and it truly was a magnificent creature. Intelligent eyes gazed back at us from a palm-sized body, its brain visible through the translucent head.
We would later find out that this octopus will spend up to a quarter of its life in the open ocean, building up strength before settling on a reef.
The atmosphere in the water was electric, with this tiny organism commanding the attention of every diver, and as we surfaced we were screaming with joy. Blackwater-diving is amazing, we are totally converted and would seriously recommend that you give it a go (with a well-organised operator, of course).
Blackwater-diving has gained such a following that some divers will now flip the schedule upside-down, diving all night and resting during the day – hungry for that next, incredible larval creature that crosses their path.
The beautiful relationship between snake-eel and cleaner shrimp.
Blackwater was now a staple part of our daily diving diet, but in between we visited the muck-diving spot Coconut, and came across a highly co-operative and engaging subject. The black saddle snake eel is over a metre long but conceals its size by burying in the sand, with only its head protruding.
These eels have struck up a particular bond with cleaner shrimp and, as we ventured down the sandy slope, we came across a shrimp and eel engaged in a beautiful relationship.
While the eel lay prone, silently hoping that something tasty would swim by, the shrimp was busily bobbing around, cleaning it of parasites and getting a free meal in the process.
These eels look like a cross between a snake and a dinosaur, but this appearance belies their placid nature.
The shrimp could comfortably climb all over the eel’s nose, mouth and eyes like an over-affectionate puppy, without ever getting the slightest reaction from its much larger companion.