The Ocean is Full of Wonder — Blackwater Photos in the Sargasso Sea

The ocean is so full of wonder, there is so much to explore and discover.

by Guest Blogger

August 29, 2019

We tend to think of the open ocean as a vast watery desert, devoid of life. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially here in the Sargasso Sea, an area in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean which hosts a type of seaweed called sargassum.

A blackwater image of a jellyfish in the Sargasso Sea during Greenpeace's expedition on the Esperanza.

Everyone loves a sunset, but this one felt different, it felt exciting, it felt like a beginning. I lowered 100 feet of rope, with 2X2000 lumen lights every 25 feet into 2.5 miles of inky ocean depth as the last of the days sun shot rays of pink and orange high into the sky. Once the rope was afloat, thanks to a large buoy, I back rolled over the side of Daisy, a satellite boat belonging to the mothership Esperanza, the Greenpeace flagship. I signalled to my dive buddy (underwater videographer extraordinaire Tavish Campbell) that I was ready and we dropped 100 feet down to the bottom of the rope and into another world, one filled with aliens. 

We tend to think of the open ocean as a vast watery desert, devoid of life. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially here in the Sargasso Sea, an area in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean which hosts a type of seaweed called sargassum. Here, the weed grows on the surface which provides much-needed habitat for baby sea turtles, and hundreds of fish and invertebrate species. Every night the world’s largest migration happens where many deep-water species come to the surface under the cover of darkness. Who knows what we might find?

As we slowly finned through inner space, marine snow surrounding us, I would scan the narrow beam of my torch in every direction and life was ubiquitous. The ocean is more a soup than a body of water. “Pelagic tunicates over there, Ctenophores over here, ooo a larval eel – I must try to shoot that” was how my mind made sense of this foreign environment. Freshwater eels from the coasts of both North America and Europe switch to salt water and migrate to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. The resulting tiny, transparent, larval eels then call this place home, drifting with the currents, until they are large enough to head to fresh water. 

Glass eel in the Sargasso Sea.

Keeping an eye on the lights from our down line we search the black water for creatures that pique our interest as we, over the course of an hour, make our way back to the surface. I run in to a gold-colored octopus the size of a quarter. You would think I had found real gold based on my reaction. A tiny dime-sized larval flounder is seen slowly spinning in open water, with her transparent body and eyes still on different sides of her head, I try my best to capture her beauty. She disappears quickly and I don’t think I got the shot, but let’s keep looking, there could be anything down here. A larval lobster! Surprisingly large at over 6 inches in length. A fish I cannot identify on sight and learn back on the boat is called a swallower, a rare deep-water fish that can eat prey larger than itself thanks to an expandable belly. 

Blackwater image of an octopus in the Sargasso Sea.

As we reach 15 feet of depth, we notice something just beneath the surface. We will have to be patient and wait a few minutes as a precaution against decompression illness. Finally, the safety stop is over and we can slowly, cautiously approach one of the most amazing and beautiful fish in the sea – a fish that can fly. Flying fish are flamboyantly outfitted with fins that double as wings and if threatened they can fly out of the water for hundreds of meters. During the day they are almost impossible to approach, but at night they are attracted to our lights and model for us. 

Flying fish at night in the Sargasso Sea.

In the middle of the ocean there is no light pollution so once back on Daisy we look up to a starry display that takes our breath away. We are lucky enough to do these blackwater dives several more times during our two weeks at sea and each one reveals just how much life is in every drop of water.

A Sargassum crab at 30 feet at night in the Sargasso Sea.

As we admire the beauty, we are shocked and saddened by something else. Something that is just as omni-present as the life and one that only causes harm. It doesn’t matter if it’s day or night we cannot escape. One word – plastic. 

From large barrels and tangles of fishing nets to tiny fragments, every color of the rainbow, the closer we looked the more baffled we became. We knew going in that we would find a lot of plastic, but this is staggering. Think of how big the ocean is. We could pick any random spot, jump in and find plastic within 30 seconds. The amount of plastic in the ocean is unimaginable. Fish, turtles and other creatures consume the plastic which carries toxins. Those toxins are amplified as they move up the food chain…all the way to us. 

Trigger fish with plastic debris among Sargassum in the Sargasso Sea.

The ocean is so full of wonder, there is so much to explore and discover. What an enormous shame it is that we are systematically ruining it. Doing the blackwater dives, seeing the beauty and fragility of this sea, reinforced our commitment to doing everything we can to help protect the oceans. Each night, as we watched the sun set over the Sargasso Sea, we realized this cannot be the end of the ocean. We must act. Now. Start by going to greenpeace.org/protecttheoceans and sign the petition. 

 

Written by Shane Gross

Shane Gross is a Canadian photojournalist specializing in underwater, wildlife and conservation imagery. He joined us aboard the Greenpeace Esperanza journey through the Sargasso Sea to document its wildlife and the plastic pollution threatening it.

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