A recent study has paid tribute to one of the natural sciences’ most iconic duos: blackwater photographers and ocean scientists. Together, they have shed literal and figurative light on some of the alien-like ocean babies that are milling around the murky depths, by combining photographs with specimen investigations in a study recently published in the journal BioOne Complete. Their combined efforts revealed, in stunning detail, some of the bizarre morphologies and behaviors of larval fishes – including one who rides jellies like an epipelagic cowboy.
Some people find the darkest depths of the ocean a spooky concept, but for blackwater divers, scuba-ing around in epipelagic environments is a wild adventure. These divers have a unique opportunity to explore parts of our seas that are out of reach (and above budget) for some ocean scientists, so the photographs they capture can be a taxonomical treasure trove.
“Lay participants encounter animals that are difficult and expensive to observe through other methods,” wrote the study authors. “These same observations can be priceless for researchers working with these species, so an interface between the scientific communities and recreational divers would be mutually beneficial.”
In their new paper, they sought to establish such an interface using blackwater diver’s photographs, combining them with the DNA barcoding of larval (baby) fishes off the coast of Hawaii. While fish from the deep can be retrieved for lab investigations (they can even transport living deep-sea critters in this special ROV) they often look unrecognizable as lifeless specimens compared to their flamboyant and often bioluminescent living appearance. By obtaining images and videos of the fishes’ behavior in-situ, they can make more accurate observations about these animals’ adaptations and anatomy. This is clearly demonstrated in the photographs from the study, which feature the animals’ living photos next to their specimen photo.
Assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Asheville Rebecca R Helm – who has shared high praise of the research and its photographer Jeff Milisen – went one step further to line up some of the featured species and their glow-up (or glow-down, depending on your preference) to their adult form.
“The images and videos from this activity provide an exciting window into the epipelagic environment and the way larval fishes appear and swim within it,” wrote the study authors. “Blackwater diving allows us to see the often-elaborate appendages and other specializations of these larvae as they appear in situ, prior to extensive net and fixation damage."
"With the right motivation, blackwater diving could augment research in the pelagic ocean and significantly enhance natural history collections and our knowledge of the larvae of marine fishes.”