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Neha Acharya -Patel's December Photo Journal: An Our World Underwater Rolex Scholar Journey

For the past month or so I have been in Kona, Hawaii for a freediving training course.

Kona is known as one of the best places to free dive in the United States because the waters get quite deep pretty close to shore and the temperature and visibility remain favorable year-round. These factors also make Kona an amazing place for blackwater diving.

This type of diving is relatively obscure and has been growing in popularity as photographs of life from the deep have made it on our social media platforms sparking awe and curiosity. Blackwater diving is so named because it consists of going out over deep waters at night and hanging down in the black water waiting for deep-sea or pelagic animals, or planktonic larvae. Many pelagic organisms have daily vertical migrations following food, so oftentimes they can only be seen at night. Also, a lot of plankton is attracted to light, the divers' camera lights and the lights hanging off the boats become aggregating devices for some wild creatures. 

Doug Perrine, a friend of mine, as well as an accomplished underwater photographer, hosted me while I was in Kona, and on my first night invited me out with his friends to try it out. We went out on a boat called “Tanks- A –Lot” with a group of hilarious, and experienced divers who probably know more about the life one can see in black water than anyone else.

Photographing these creatures successfully is extremely difficult. First of all, the absence of light dictates that you need to know how to use your strobes and lights well enough to focus on and properly illuminate your subject. My Inon S-2000 strobe and Light and Motion dive lights were great for this.  Secondly, these animals are generally between 1 and 10 cm long, and a lot of them are gelatinous, and thus transparent. They are also pelagic, so they are constantly moving in the water column, either towards or away from your dive light depending on their preference. Because of their size, I was using my Compact Macro Converter-1. However, in conjunction with their constant motion, I had a very difficult time focusing on them. For maybe one picture in focus, I had twenty not so much in focus. Over the duration of the dive, I played around with my focal distance and settings to optimize my success. This was a great learning process, and I am really looking forward to the next time I have an opportunity to practice.

As it was my first time doing a blackwater dive, I opted to stay tethered to the boat. Though this limited my depth and made me envious of the other divers below me, it also kept me in the same spot. This turned out to be advantageous to a school of squid who were fleeing some hungry dolphins. I was the perfect shelter. This was nice for me too, as the usually skittish squid hung around me for a while allowing me to get some cool closeups! It was also fun watching dolphins hunt at night, a sight I had not previously been privy to.

Blackwater diving is a very unique type of diving, and it really changes your perspective. You spend most of your time focused on the water column a couple of centimeters in front of your face. It takes a special kind of person to focus on and encapture the beauty of the small stuff. After the dive, I was so shocked to find out about all of the diversity I had missed. The rest of the group, who have been doing this for years, knew what to look for and what was unusual, and they saw and photographed things that blew my mind!

Thank you to Jeff Molder, Jeff Milisen, and Doug Perrine for inviting me along and teaching me about this whole new world! The ocean never ceases to amaze.