A unique night dive on the Big Island, the Blackwater Dive is not for those who fear the dark... or the unknown. However, if you choose to take the plunge, you will get an experience most can only dream (or nightmare) of.
I first heard about the Blackwater Dive during my previous trip to the Big Island when I did the Manta Ray Night Dive with Big Island Divers. One of the dive masters could not stop talking about how much he loved this dive. He said he'd done the dive close to 600 times and swears he has seen something new and unique every time. I knew if I returned to Kona, this would have to be on my activity list. When I found the chance to hop over from Oahu for Labor Day, I made sure I signed up. It was an experience I won't forget.
What is the Blackwater/Pelagic Dive?
The Blackwater Dive is a night/drift dive off the coast of Kona on the Big Island. The dive takes place between 10-11pm 2-3 miles offshore. At night, many of the unevolved and often bioluminescent marine species come up to feed. Many of the species you will see are incredibly small, only a few inches in size. However, there is always the opportunity for much larger predators (sharks etc.) to come and investigate what you're up to. For divers, it offers an incredibly unique experience, unlike anything you can see during a day dive.
How it Works
While companies may vary on their procedure, I dove with Big Island Divers, so I will explain how it worked with them. You will be taken 2-3 miles offshore in roughly 5-8,000 feet of water. The boat will then slow to an idle and drop 6 weighted lines off the boat (3 on each side, forward, midship, and aft). In the event of a strong current, the boat will drop a "parachute" off the bow to help minimize the current underneath and behind the boat. The weights at the bottom of the dive lines will be dangling at a depth of roughly 50 feet. After you gear up and get ready to stride in, you will be tethered to one of these lines with a ten foot rope. This will allow you to swim 360 degrees in any direction from your weighted line. It will also allow you to swim up and down the water column with ease. From there, the rest of the experience is up to you. You are armed with a powerful flashlight that will allow you to illuminate a small area in front of you, enough to see some of the exotic species.
I got to the docks around 9:15 pm to meet the boat. I assumed I would be the new kid on the block since most people doing this dive had done Big Island Divers' Manta Ray/Blackwater Dive combo. It's quite the expense, but if you've never done the Kona Manta Ray dive I HIGHLY recommend it. Additionally, Big Island Divers will only let you do the Blackwater Dive if you've done a night dive with them before. Luckily, I had done the Manta Ray Dive with them back in December, so I was good to go. I'm pretty sure the fact that I did a dive with Big Island Divers again should show you what I think of that company (they're awesome!!!).
After meeting the two dive masters and the Captain, we sat down on the dock for a quick brief before we set sail. They explained the details of the dive. He gave us a lot of information on what species (sorry I really can't remember) we could encounter and what to expect. With that, we loaded up and were off.
After a 15-20 minute boat ride, we had reached the dive point. The crew had to test the current to see if it was necessary to employ the "parachute", basically a large contraption in front of the boat that would ease the current underneath and behind the boat, making it easier for us to dive. We got in the water one by one and as soon as we were in, we were good to descend. I happened to be the last one in the water, which was unfortunate because my stomach was getting a bit queasy from the rocking of the boat. Since there's no point of reference at night, seasickness is actually way more common at night. I was experiencing this first hand. Luckily, not sick enough to create some extra fish food and the sickness went away almost immediately after I descended. Finally, it was my turn to the enter the water. With one giant stride, I entered the blackwater.
The captain gave me the OK and I started to descend. I was able to see the faint glow of the divers below me but otherwise was surrounded by complete darkness. Some people experience some disorientation during this dive, not knowing which way is up. I sometimes lost where the dive line was (thankfully there's a tether), but I never lost track of which way was up or down. I'm sure it's a very uncomfortable feeling. Luckily the descent is easy, as long as you have to keep equalizing, it means you're going down!
I reached the bottom of my line where the weight was attached. This weight actually bounces up and down quite a bit from the current, so don't dive directly underneath it or you might get whacked in the head.
Once I established neutral buoyancy, I checked my depth gauge and read...191 Feet! What?! They told me the line only went to about 50!! It took me a few seconds to realize the dive computer was reading in meters (you silly American). I guess that's the downside of rental gear.
Alright it's go time! One last selfie in case this is the last time anyone sees me. I shined my flashlight into the surrounding dark. I saw some speckles pass me... but nothing that looked like life. I was beginning to get disappointed. Then I remembered one of the dive masters had said much of what we would see was merely a few inches in length. I recalibrated my focus to much closer to my face. Then the show began.
I began seeing a variety of small and colorful animals drifting past. Here we have what looked a tiny jellyfish, probably the size of my thumb nail. I honestly can't tell you what any of this stuff is, so I'm making up my names. I recommend constantly shifting your point of focus to find some new and interesting creatures.
Now that I had figured out how to see this stuff I began to explore the surrounding blackness. All of a sudden OUCH. My face and mouth began to burn. One of these little critters stung me! Apparently a lot of these things can sting, although somehow I was the only diver that got to experience that lovely sensation. Lucky me! Oh well, it's part of the Blackwater experience!
I soon forgot about my burning face as I started seeing some larger and more interesting creatures. This cylindrical looking creature caught my eye. I could see the circle in front opening and closing rapidly, clearly feeding. However, its translucent nature and perceived lack of internal organs really captivated me. These creatures really are otherworldly!
Another shot that kind of looks like an X-ray at a doctor's office.
Filming/photographing this dive is extremely difficult. First, your subjects are very small so you need to be very close and/or have a solid macro lens. Second they are moving rapidly by you while you are also battling the current which makes it very hard to stay next to them and keep your camera stable. There are some awesome pictures out there, but I'm sure these people have had some practice. Here's a great reference for how to capture these moments.
Now this thing looks like some sort of clam.
This was definitely one of the cooler things I saw. It looks kind of like crappy Christmas Lights in this photo, but it was actually a worm!
And a pretty big one too! I'd say it was probably about 20 feet in length, hence why I couldn't capture it in my frame. I actually danced around this thing for awhile trying to get some good shot (clearly failing) while also not trying to run into it. I wasn't trying to get another sting!
This was by far the coolest thing I saw during the dive. It was some translucent sting ray looking thing. Those lights on it moved back in forth, almost like some lights you would see at a club. It was pretty big too, probably 3 feet in length. A pretty impressive thing to see.
What an incredible experience diving into the Blackwater! Not only was it a rush simply being surrounded by darkness out in the open ocean, but it was eye opening as well. There's so much out in this world that we don't know or couldn't imagine exists until we put our own eyes on it. It's experiences like this that really make you appreciated the variety of life on our earth and how fortunate we are as humans to able to witness and comprehend it. Mahalo Big Island Divers, for such an incredible night!
Check out my video of this awesome night!
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Also Check Out:
- This article about photographing Blackwater Dives
- This great video of the Blackwater Dive