SSI x Edges of Earth: Welcome to Blackwater Diving

The pursuit of improving our diving skills challenges us to push boundaries and venture into realms few have explored. Going further often means training for specialty diving, such as wreck divingcave diving, and exploring in icy waters — each an exhilarating experience in different ways. For me, it was the emerging realm of blackwater diving that caught my attention more than anything else. 

Once introduced to it, my team and I were irresistibly drawn to this unique dive niche that brings some of the most exciting ocean action that rises to the surface! Join us as we delve into this unique and addictive form of diving. It was a life-changing experience, and we hope this article will inspire you to try blackwater diving too.

Read more: Your Guide to Ice Diving: Why it is Worth Getting Cold for.

What is blackwater diving?

Blackwater diving stands as a pinnacle in specialized diving — an endeavor not suited for those wary of the ocean’s mysteries. In this practice, divers submerge into the deep ocean at night, tethered only to a buoy adorned with a luminous string of lights marked every five meters. 

Divers behold the nightly vertical migration during which myriad deep-sea creatures ascend, presenting one of the most incredible visual spectacles imaginable.

Intrigued by the potential of blackwater diving, we studied where in the world this happens regularly and where we could engage in this enigmatic practice safely, under the most expert-level guidance. 

While it is theoretically possible in any deep-water location, certain sites stand out as premier blackwater diving destinations. Yet, even there, humans have barely scratched the surface of the captivating mysteries blackwater diving offers.

Where can you go blackwater diving?

Originating in Hawaii, this niche was conceived by underwater photographers and researchers eager to document and study the elusive pelagic marine life that rises from the depths at night. In Kona on the Big Island, the legends of blackwater call it "Pelagic Magic."

Hawaii’s proximity to deep oceanic waters made it an ideal starting point for this specialized diving. Other renowned locations have since emerged, such as the MaldivesTahitiFloridaPalau, and notably, Anilao in the Philippines.

Fascinated by the idea of observing the twice-daily vertical migrations from anywhere between 5 to 30 meters, we were eager to connect with the pioneers who brought this remarkable phenomenon into the spotlight.

Keen to try night diving? Here are our 6 Best Nights Dives

In 2021, we stumbled upon the world of blackwater diving while in Hawaii hiding out during the pandemic. Diving in Kona, the sparse tourism provided a unique opportunity to chat with local dive professionals. In a quest to find genuine adventure on the island, this is when we were first introduced to the concept of blackwater. 

Though inclement weather upended our diving plans, blackwater’s enchantment lingered on our minds. Determined to experience it firsthand, blackwater soon became a bit of an obsession, even though we had never experienced it ourselves. 

The obsession extended beyond diving in light-deprived conditions; the marine encounters were unlike anything we had seen on a regular night dive. 

"Venturing into the open ocean at night — in water that goes as deep, if not deeper, than 2,000 meters — one enters a realm of unpredictability."

Here, the waters are filled with life, from minuscule planktonic organisms foundational to the marine food chain to gelatinous creatures like jellyfish and siphonophores. Cephalopods, including bioluminescent squid, dart in the darkness, while many species, ranging from fish to crabs, present themselves in their often transparent and seldom-witnessed larval stages.

Every dive offers a special or rare sighting, making each descent a chance to truly discover something new. For both photographers and recreational divers, blackwater unveils the concealed marvels of the deep without the need to plunge into abyssal realms.

Feeding the obsession – Blackwater diving in the Philippines

In planning the Philippines chapter of our expedition, we were on a mission to connect with Scott "Gutsy" Tuason — a pioneering figure of blackwater in the Eastern Hemisphere. After having his own transformative experience in Hawaii, Gutsy brought blackwater to the Philippines, and the speciality took off from there. One could argue that Gutsy put this blackwater destination on the map. 

A few months before heading to the Philippines, we found ourselves on a 10-day liveaboard with none other than Gutsy himself during our tour in South Australia. Amazed by this serendipity, we seized the opportunity to glean insights from the blackwater master himself and planned to meet up in Anilao to experience pelagic magic for ourselves.

RELATED: SSI x Edges of Earth: Exploring the Darkness with Australia’s Cave Divers.

Visiting Anilao during the unpredictable monsoon season in August, outside the prime diving months of November-December and April-May, we were aware that the weather risks were much like the ones we faced in Hawaii. However, the prospect of an undisturbed ocean experience with pro locals fortified our determination to pursue our blackwater dreams.

Luck was yet again on our side, as the weather ended up resembling conditions more typical of peak season. Before we got stuck into blackwater, Gutsy wanted us to get a sense of what day diving was like in Anilao. According to him, this was going to be some of the most incredible macro diving we would do on our expedition. 

Notorious for being the "nudibranch capital of the world," diving in Anilao boasts over 600 of the planet’s 800+ nudibranch species, each with their own special colors, patterns and unique features.

It was not just the nudibranchs that we were seeing on every day dive. We encountered captivating juvenile sweetlips, diverse cuttlefish, lively octopuses, and an abundance of mantis shrimp.

Love critters? Then check out these 8 Best Spots for Muck Diving.

At standout sites like Arthur’s Rock and Layag-Layag, Gutsy guided us to his prime photo subjects, leaving us at a loss for words after every single stop. He was not wrong: This place was truly a macro paradise; unlike anything we had ever seen.

We came back from day dives, rested for a few hours, had an early dinner, and as the sun set, prepared for blackwater. Gutsy briefed us comprehensively, highlighting the initial disorientation we might experience given the absence of a visible seabed and the sole reliance on the light line. 

"He emphasized the importance of buddy proximity and constant torch use, assuring us that with these measures, the dive would not just be manageable, but incredible."

Gutsy struck a curious balance: his daring underwater experiences contrasted starkly with his land-bound serenity. Surprisingly, the name "Gutsy" did not come from his appetite for adventure, but instead due to his appetite as a child, said by his mother to be greedy when it came to food. 

As we adrenaline-charged novices readied ourselves, Gutsy’s composed demeanor provided a calming anchor, especially as we faced choppy surface waters before descending into what felt like an otherworldly void.

Even though Gutsy said the marine sightings were nothing out of the normal, we were completely in awe with Anilao on a basic night. One highlight was encountering a transparent larval fish, its internal organs visible and illuminating like a living x-ray against the black canvas.

Equally mesmerizing was the abundance of jelly-like animals, especially the salps. These salps not only housed other beings within them but also served as transport for creatures that needed to hitch a ride during vertical migration.

"To us, the sheer variety of life was astounding. Creatures we had never seen, or even heard of, made appearances. Every minute became a lesson in marine biology and the circle of life." 

For underwater photography, blackwater diving presents unparalleled opportunities. The vibrant and often translucent life forms, set against the void of open water, make for dramatic and surreal imagery.

Armed with our cameras, we tried to capture this hauntingly beautiful universe, though pictures could never truly convey the enchantment of being amidst this deep-sea migration. This art form is what Gutsy specializes in. 

Blackwater photography demands specialized gear and an exceptional skill set, reserved for those committed to its mastery over time. Gutsy introduced us to his intricate equipment, complete with powerful strobes, elucidating their function in the light-deprived depths. His years of dedication culminated in his book, Blackwater Open Blue, a testament to the wonders captured when one ventures to uncover the ocean’s dark secrets.

Up your dive skills and explore further than ever. Become an SSI Extended Range diver.

Our inaugural blackwater dive met every expectation. After five days of consecutive dives, our appetite for nocturnal pelagic adventures deeply intensified. Since those eye-opening, game-changing, life-altering experiences in Anilao with Gutsy, we now have subsequent blackwater expedition chapters planned — from diving in Kona, Big Island Hawaii to Laamu Atoll, Maldives. These seminal experiences broadened our horizons, revealing a world of boundless potential, and further fueling our deep, dark water obsession. 

So, are you ready to try blackwater diving?

To truly master blackwater diving, one must engage in it consistently and be guided by those wildly committed to the craft. Even seasoned night divers will find this experience incredibly distinct and unrivaled.

Yet, no matter your day and night diving skill level, if it is your first time diving blackwater, it is imperative to approach with caution and under the mentorship of a team of seasoned pros. Having the chance to learn from someone skilled and knowledgeable will ensure you ascend just as obsessed with blackwater diving as we are. 

Embarking on a blackwater journey is not just an adventure—it is a transformative experience that broadens your perspective on the wonders of the deep. In waters largely uncharted by the average person, every dive offers a revelation.

Trust in the expertise of seasoned professionals to guide you through this version of the underwater world. Do not merely ponder the possibilities, dive in!

Whether you choose to experience blackwater in Hawaii, Anilao, or the other blackwater diving spots we mentioned in this article, the experience will reshape your understanding of the ocean’s vast mysteries.

Experience it firsthand so your view of the ocean is forever changed for the better. 

Check out SSI’s MyDiveGuide to find your perfect blackwater destination today.

Andi Cross is an SSI Ambassador and lead of the Edges of Earth expedition, highlighting stories of remote ocean conservation communities and organizations in 50 destinations worldwide. 

To keep up with the expedition and see where the team is going next, follow the team on InstagramLinkedInTikTokYouTube and their website.