>First off the deck, Anna and I make a beeline for the glowing down line — our mother ship for the next hour and a half as we drift in the little-known universe of larval sea life, the great oceanic diaspora of the externally fertilized offspring of reef fishes and invertebrates. The few survivors of the multiweek metamorphosis eventually settle to the seafloor, where they develop into their final adult forms.
>In less than 10 minutes Anna is spotlighting a larval flounder that was drawn to her handlight like a moth to a flame. Not knowing its behavior, I hold back and watch one of the fanciest fish I've ever seen flutter in her beam before flopping onto its side like a dead leaf. As I inch closer, the fish rights itself and sails away. I'm close behind, attempting to work my way alongside, focusing, framing and hoping it will slow or turn back on itself. Unsure how far I've traveled, I glance around, locate the down line and turn back. The fish is gone.
>All it took was that one outrageous larval fish, and Anna and I are hooked just like our South Florida colleagues, who seldom, if ever, miss a scheduled night drift. The majority are veteran Blue Heron Bridge shooters — naturalists to the core and well-versed in the trials and rewards of wildlife photography. As a group they have taken to night drifts like ducks to water, but they were not the first to fall under the spell of offshore larvae. By the time the Florida folks made their first drift two years ago, divers in Hawaii had been photographing larval fish at night for 20 years. Inspired by legendary underwater photographer Chris Newbert, their night drifts, known in the islands as blackwater diving, introduced larval art to the world. Our Florida friends are happily carrying on the tradition 5,000 miles away.
>Scientific understanding of the oceanic orphanage has been transformed in the past 15 years. It is no longer thought to be an exclusively open system, randomly transporting passive larvae to distant shores. Recent studies have shown larval fishes to be strong swimmers with sophisticated instincts for remaining in local waters. But exactly where they go between spawning and settlement remains a mystery. Meanwhile, underwater photographers from Florida, Hawaii and beyond are adding bits of understanding to the sea of knowledge whose currents sweep us all along like night drifters, having the time of our lives.
>© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2017