Joshua Lambus is an award winning photographer and videographer based on the Big Island of Hawaii. He specialises in 'blackwater' diving, which involves travelling up to 8 kilometres off the shore of Hawaii, and diving into the ocean in the black of night, when thousands upon thousands of deep-sea species head to the surface to feed. It's the largest migration of any group of animals on the planet, and Lambas is there to photograph even the tiniest of creatures. Sinking to no more than 18 metres below the surface, he captures images of species that have often never been seen before, let alone identified.
I asked Lambas about the practice of blackwater diving, his favourite photographs, and his 'white whale'.
Bec: First off, I wanted to ask about that incredible photograph of an octopus holding what looks like Portuguese man o’ war tentacles. Can you tell me about how you shot this image, and how you figured out what the octopus was holding?
Joshua: This was a pretty exciting image to capture. It’s actually become one of my favourites over the years. When I first saw the animal it was balled up very small and didn't show the siphonophore tentacles at all. After the first flash of my strobes it unfurled its tentacles, changed colours and presented the the man o' war tentacles you see in the photo. It was quite a surprise and almost like watching a flower blossom. It took me many years to track down someone that knew what the species was, as it had not been seen many times before. It very likely that it is using the tentacles as a defence against would be predators.
Can you describe how you first got into the practice of ‘blackwater’ diving? I imagine the prospect of diving into the pitch-black ocean must have been terrifying at first (and probably still is)!
I was intrigued when I first heard the about the 'blackwater' dive. I had a few friends who were doing it but I had just started diving and didn't feel ready, with only 100 dives under my belt. I began doing the manta ray night dive with some regularity and would often find myself more excited about what they were eating than the mantas themselves. Soon I realised I had to do it, and set out with a borrowed boat and three of my friends. The very first night I saw a nautilus! I of course had no idea how to photograph this dive and didn't get a single picture, but just seeing it was all I needed.
Soon it became a weekly thing. Then once a week wasn't enough. Along with diving off of our own borrowed boat, I applied to work at a local dive shop that did the blackwater dive once a week as well. When I started working there, I pretty much took charge of the dive and started pushing it so that I could get out more often. Soon we were heading out into the dark on a bi-weekly basis, and have been doing so ever since.
It is a bit disconcerting, and I've fended off my fair share of big animals during the dive. But I think the reward well outweighs the risks.
What's the process for a typical dive?
I head straight off shore between 3-5 miles (about 8,000 feet of water beneath us) and set up out there. Inexperienced blackwater divers will wear a tether but after 500 of these dives I've found the tether more of a hindrance while trying to take photographs. I highly recommend people wear the tethers but I personally choose to accept the risk of doing the dive without one.
Once I get off shore where I want to be, we kill engines and drop any necessary tethers. Often we will put a light down at about 50 feet to use as reference. We turn off any deck lights and head in. Each diver has their own torch and we begin our search. Our dives usually last about 80 minutes, and we always see something new.
What's the strangest animal you’ve encountered so far?
That is such a hard question to answer. We’ve seen deep sea cusk eels, angler fish, 150-feet-long siphonophores, jellyfish of all shapes and sizes. It would be hard to narrow down just one. And if I did, I’ll see something even stranger next week!
The one that has definitely stood out though is perhaps the cookie cutter shark. To my knowledge, before I photographed it in 2008 it had never been seen alive in situ before by anyone. I have since seen them 12 more times, and scientists have been really excited about shedding some light on this rarely seen creature.
What work do you do with researchers at places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography? Are you helping them identify new species, and do they help you identify the creatures you’ve photographed?
Yes, I often use their database resources and expertise to whittle down identifications of my images. They have been very excited because I often bring them images of animals they’ve only seen from dead specimens. Or they learn that the distribution ranges for some species are much wider than they think, as they’ve not been seen in Hawaiian waters before. As well as learning that some animals previously only thought to inhabit deep, cold waters do often come up to the warm surface waters here in Hawaii.
Can you tell me about the migration of deep-sea fish to the surface that you coincide your dives with? Just how many creatures are involved?
Well, to get a true number would be difficult, but scientists think something like 100 million tonnes of biomass moves through the mesopelagic zone to the surface every night. And this happens all over the world. Some come up to feed in the nutrient rich upper water column, others to respirate in the higher oxygen concentrations near the surface.
Do you have a 'white whale' - a creature you haven't photographed yet but are dying to, or something special you see only rarely?
I do. The paper nautilus. A friend and colleague, Matthew D’Avella, photographed one during a blackwater dive many years ago. Easily one of the most beautiful and unusual animals that has been witnessed during one of these dives. But honestly with as little as we know about our oceans, my 'white whale' may not have even been discovered yet.
Watch Lambas talking more about his craft below, and head to his website to see more incredible images from his underwater shoots: