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Into the Deep–“Pelagic Magic”

April 17, 2012

So enjoyable and comfortable and easy was this first night dive that I decided to follow it immediately with another, one that promised to be equally enchanting judging by its name, Pelagic Magic.

Diver (not me) examines underwater animal on Pelagic Magic dive

At dusk we meet under a street lamp at the pier in Kailua-Kona. A small group. Just five of us including me. We mill about uneasily like thugs waiting for the boss and our night’s orders. A white van pulls up. A short, thickset man exits the driver’s side, a tall, stocky man from the other. The driver instructs us to sit on the asphalt under the light and he begins to talk. His speech is clipped, like that of a New Yorker. His name is Matthew. He’s the dive master.

“We’re going offshore,” he says, “to where there’s a convergence of ocean currents. I don’t know where this will be; it’s different every night, could be five miles, could be ten; I’ll have to feel for it. Once there we’ll anchor into the current with a parachute. Then we’ll throw your asses over the side. You’ll be attached to 50 feet of weighted line. You’ll have a dive light. It’ll be dark and the bottom will be 5000 feet below your fins. If you drop the light, no one’s going after it. If you drop the light, you’ll be blind. So don’t drop the light. Here is what you’ll see if you don’t drop the light.”

For twenty minutes Matthew moves through a binder of slides–pictures of tiny translucent animals, alien in form and name–pyrosomes and pteropods, salps, heteropods, and siphonophores. He says there may be box jellies (get out of the way) and comb jellies and sea horses, paper nautiluses, squids of various sizes and types.

Matthew closes the binder.

“This is my dive. I’ve been out there at night four or five hundred times. These little animals are likely all you’ll see,” he says, “but know there’s other stuff. It’s the big ocean we’ll be in–this ain’t no Disney Land Manta dive. Blue marlin, sword fish, sharks will probably be hovering beyond your light. They don’t want any trouble. Your are attracting the types of animals they eat–they’re just looking for a free meal. If the squid get thick and fast, they might hit you hard as they run from the big fish. It’s dark; you’re in black; they can’t see you. I’ve been hit in the chest, in the neck. It’s like running into a bowling ball. You’ll scream. I do. Can’t help it. Focus on your regulator. It’s your friend. Keep it in your mouth. Always keep the regulator in your mouth–you can spit that thing out when you get home.

“And don’t pee in your suit. Remember, to the predator fishes humans swim with the grace of a wounded cow. Pee in your suit and suddenly you smell like a wounded cow too. That’s like chumming the water. Don’t do it.

“After a time you might think it’s all kinda too much. That’s OK. Once on this dive we dropped on top of schooling white tip sharks. The sharks weren’t all that jazzed about us. But what were we suppose to do, go somewhere else? About ten minutes into the dive one of the sharks slammed my mask. I know it was purposeful. And at that point I knew the dive was over. You’ll know when your dive is over too. Surface whenever you’re ready.”

“What’s the name of this dive?” I softly ask Matthew’s companion. He is sitting next to me. His name is Scott, also a dive master.

“We call it a black water night dive,” he says.

“I thought this was Pelagic Magic.”

He pauses, thinking, and then, “Oh yes, that’s what they call it in the office.”

“One other thing,” says Matthew. “I’m not going down with you. I’m driving the boat tonight. Scott will guide you. He’s the new guy, so try not to cause any trouble.”


We speed directly away from the pier and out into the open ocean where calm harbor waters are replaced with a small swell. The wind moves into the north. Our boat is taking spray over the bow.

When the swell achieves a certain force, rolling the boat in a particular way, we’ve gone far enough, says Matthew. The boat stops, the parachute is heaved over the side, and as it unfolds the bow slowly moves into the wind.

The mood aboard is somber. Or at least the five of us who are customers pull on our wet suits in a slow quiet contemplative manner that suggests somberness, that suggests we may soon be asked to walk the plank. Matthew rigs a weighted line for each of us, evenly spaced along the boat’s sides, as Scott gets into his gear. And without much fanfare we queue at the stern and splash. I am last. I walk off the platform into pitching nothingness and descend.

To call the first few minutes of this dive disorienting is to use a terrestrial, known and easy word for an utterly weird experience. “Orient” (east) refers to finding oneself relative to the rising sun, so, strictly speaking, I am not disoriented in this dark of night. I am, however, utterly lost. I can see the shaft of water defined by my light. It is bobbing randomly below me because I can’t find the grip, though it’s strapped to my wrist. I can see the white line dropping into the abyss. My ears begin to compress, so I know I am descending, but how far? I see the weight bag on the end of my line pass quickly (50 feet). I grab for it. I miss. My inflator has gone missing. I forget I am wearing fins and can swim up. I just sink. Then my tether catches and I stop with a jerk. The inflator reappears and I add a little air to my vest, just a little, I think, and suddenly I rocket up and break the surface.

This is not good.

I focus my light on the weight bag at the end of the line, using it as a judge of depth, and descend again. This helps, but still I seem to zoom up and down, realizing only after some time that the bag attached to the boat is pitching and rolling in the surface swell. This fight to achieve stabilization seems to go on for hours and is, in fact, but fifteen minutes. So says my watch when I finally have the wits to check it.

Only then do I begin to see the darkness.

My light extends out some thirty feet, and miniscule creatures float through the beam. Below me Scott hovers untethered, facing the surface, moving with ease. I turn toward the bow and there are my fellow divers, drifting, limbs extended into undefined night at the end of white strings. It is as if we are spacewalking in a sky without stars.

When the animals appear, they look just like Matthew’s slides, but are no more familiar for it.

First I see a two dimensional spider, almost entirely clear, wafer thin, four legs protruding forward, four aft, a small thorax and an abdomen large and round. It twitches, turns sideways and disappears, reappearing as it turns.

Larval Slipper Lobster, flat as a decal

Then a comb jelly fish, fully extended, its inner strings churning like generators, its overall shape that of a futuristic space ship.

Comb Jelly

Then a bunch of oblong grapes whose cluster is about the size of a cantaloupe, again translucent and glowing coppery on the inside around which swim tiny silvery, almost flat fishes.

Then a blunt-nosed cone with the overall look of a raspberry inside of which swims a translucent shrimp. The shrimp exits the raspberry, climbs on top, does some business and returns before shrimp and raspberry drift beyond my light.

Pyrosome, note shrimp outside and right

Glowing twitching worms. Animals that look like triangular razor blades with fiery edges and antennas at the corners that shoot sparks. Jellies the size of peas. Egg sacks in the shape of perfect spheres.

Salp Chain

Hydromedusa being ridden by larval crab

On and on.

Long intervals separate sightings, intervals of silence, darkness, and cold where I am sure time is stuck, unable to pass for lack of anything to pass by. Yet when the dive ends after 65 minutes, it is as if it had been but an instant.

If the Manta dive felt like a revivalist church service, this dive had about it aspects of the purely private. Like climbing a mountain or sailing across an ocean alone, it was a solitary reaching for the utterly-other-than while hoping it wouldn’t bite your hand off.

Either dive I would do again in a heartbeat, but it’s on a blackwater night dive that one really has a sense of seeing deeply into…the deep.


The short video below from 2010 does a very nice job of capturing the experience. Same boat, dive master, and location.

This video fails to capture any of the feelings of weirdness, but the photography is much better and contains most of the creatures I saw from below.


Please visit for Matthew J D’Avella’s stunning photography of animals encountered on these dives.

More information on the dive can be accessed at

  1. April 30, 2013 5:24 am

    Kids are fascinated by all kind of prehistoric creatures, at land or in sea. But things living today are equally strange, of which the pyrosomes must be some of the most funny things found in the deep. I guess they have got their name which means firebodies, because many of them are luminiscent. They are totally harmless, though, as far as I know. They consist of myriads of individual animals that make upp the tubelike structure. The band-like things are salps, near relatives of the pyrosomes, where the individuals are connected in a row.

  2. May 9, 2013 5:44 am

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