Moonset Menagerie

It was a week full of patient anticipation. After receiving our new piece of equipment last weekend, I was hoping to push the diving pretty hard all week. A stream of customers, however, kept us from doing any dedicated video dives until Saturday night. Resourceful man that he is, Karl managed to affix the external recorder/high-def external screen to the camera rig with a mount that was supposed to be used for a GoPro. I religiously read the product manual, determined to make our next dive run as smoothly as possible. From our past few dives together, it’s become clear that this whole video thing is a slow and gradual process – a new piece of equipment here, an “oh shit, the focus sucks” there. We really didn’t expect for this dive to amount to much, but we were completely blown away…

“Apparently, fish are most active at four different times of the day: sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset,” Karl said to me as we were planning our dive a few days ago. I had hoped to dive last Thursday – the night of the new moon – since deepsea creepy crawlies tend to come up to shallower depths in the absence of moonlight. No such luck, though. Karl had double-booked for that day. Fortunately, the rising and setting of the moon have been within several hours of sunrise and sunset during the past few days – meaning, no moon at all during the late-night hours. Karl piped up again, “They say the moon is more influential than the sun – we should really start planning our dives around moonrise or moonset.”

At 6:00 pm Saturday evening, we began loading up the weights and gear into the sub. We were aiming to be at 2000 feet by 7:45 – the moon’s ETD. At 6:41 pm, Karl closed the hatch and we began our descent into the black infinite depths. “Are both the high pressure air tanks on?” I blurted out, almost like a nervous tick. Karl reassured me they were. In the past month, I’ve become positively placid (okay, relatively) about diving in the sub. Xanax didn’t even make it on the checklist for this dive, but for some reason, at 500 feet – I felt as if the pressure outside the sub was palpable. Compacting my chest. Compressing my abdomen. Crushing my head. I did a quick introspective check: what set this off? Noise – or rather, my perceived deviations from “normal noise”. Karl had the vertical thrusters on, pushing us down faster than usual. Instead of drifting peacefully, we were grinding quickly down the water column. The light on the right side of the passenger sphere was switched on and contributed to the abnormal noise load. A rickety fan thumped softly. Strange, I thought – anxious with too much noise and uncomfortable with complete silence. After several minutes of ruminating, I promptly forgot my fear and stared out the window at the drifting particles.

“I’ve already seen three squid tonight!” exclaimed Karl around 600 feet – an auspicious omen. At 7:18 pm, we hit 2000 feet. During a dive with customers a few nights ago, Karl had found a venus fly trap anemone that we had been trying to find on our first dive. He knew exactly where it was this time. The deepsea doppelganger posed in front of the video, pretty in pink, and was accompanied by an vibrant orange sea fan. Venus Fly Trap anemones situate themselves in the upwellings of currents so they can clamp their tentacles down on any prospective meals that drifts past their expectant trap. In the second picture below, the anemone is collapsed a bit – likely a defense response to the sub moving in too close!

Venus Fly Trap Anemone

Venus Fly Trap Anemone

Venus Fly Trap Anemone - collapsed

Venus Fly Trap Anemone – collapsed

After filming for about 10 minutes, I took the opportunity to playback the footage on the nifty little screen recorder. A glowing smile creeped across my face as I realized that this little black contraption had been our missing link for creating stunning footage. That smile was plastered across my face for the remainder of our dive.

Old Man Whiskers

Old Man Whiskers

The grinding whir of the motors signaled that we were back on the hunt. We first came across a fish looking all-business with his whiskered chin. He didn’t show the camera much love, but I was thrilled to be filming with perfect focus and beautiful colors. The Ninja2 external recorder actually has focus and exposure assist functions, so most of the time, I was trying to maintain as many red lines (called peaking – indicates which components of your frame are in focus) as possible. Some parts of his white underbelly began to show signs of overexposure (called zebra – black and white lines). I have yet to figure out a more efficient way to work with my exposure – it’s a bit of a hassle to reach over the camera rig and mess with ISO – another trick to learn in this gradual process!

We were very fortunate to experience little “dead time” during our dive. I kept the camera and external recorder on and ready for any creature that materialized in front of the viewport. We filmed some deepsea regulars – shrimp, crab, brisingid sea stars, white coral. At one point, we were swiftly motoring over a sloping, sandy plane. I thought to myself: there’s gotta be something here! Squid? Eel? Swimming sea cucumber? It didn’t take long for a creature to appear…

Dumbo Planking

Dumbo Planking

“DUMBO!” Karl yelled. “ARE YOU SERIOUS!!!” I screeched back. For one, dumbo octopuses are very rare. For two, even if you do see one, it might be camera shy. We completely lucked out (again!) with a dumbo that was busting moves left and right. Karl saw three behaviors he had never seen before, and we were able to capture all of them, in perfect focus, on camera! The first, what I call “Dumbo Planking”, occurred in mid-water. Billowing out it’s tentacles, the dumbo swam in front of us like usual, but suddenly went completely rigid and maintained this pose for about 30 seconds. Maybe it was stretching, maybe it was displaying, who knows. I imagine that few people, if any, have seen this behavior before.

We ooed, we awed. Time stood completely still while this little guy was dancing in front of the viewport. At one point, he was facing the viewport, but slightly above it, so the camera’s frame was filled with his underside. He slowly stretched out, then tensed his tentacles and curled them into his body, bobbing slightly forward as he completed the movement. Just imagine playing parachute with 10 of your friends holding on to the outer edge of the material. You all flap the parachute up and down until you’ve got enough momentum to raise it over your heads into a billowing pocket of air, then you quickly sit down on your end of the parachute to keep it inflated and erect. This is precisely with the Dumbo did – “The Parachute”.

DumboBall-1 copy DumboBall-3 copy DumboBall4 copy DumboBall-5 copy DumboBall-6 copy DumboBall-7 copy DumboBall-8 copy DumboBall-10 copy DumboBall-11 copy DumboBall-12 copy DumboBall-13 copy

Sensei Dumbo

Sensei Dumbo

I went freaking nuts after this shot – the perfection of the movement sent chills down my spine. What a charming creature. Soon after the dumbo completed this dance, it pulled a Dumbo Sensei move on us where it’s two front tentacles were crossed over one another. Shortly thereafter, it transitioned into another strange pose: Spindly Legs. This stretch of filming was part of a 10 minute 40 second clip (dubbed “dumbo awesome” in my editing program) – long enough that the camera overheated and shut off. It was perfect timing, really. After the performance of a lifetime, the dumbo was taking a rest – still and peaceful in the water.

Spindly Legs

Spindly Legs

Not wanting to burn up the camera, we decided to start working our way up. Neither of us was expecting much more excitement – this dive was already a rousing success. At about 1500 feet though, Karl spotted a Jellynose Eel. I had never seen one before, and I was mesmerized with it’s hypnotic, undulating form. It was cooperative at first, but then started to swim off – a bit camera shy. Karl had the good sense to cut it off so we could get a frontal view of the eel swimming in black water. He couldn’t have set up a better shot! Out of focus, the eel emerged from the darkness and popped into focus as it turned, giving us a gorgeous profile.

Jellynose Eel

Jellynose Eel

We felt satisfied with one great shot of the eel and continued our ascent. As we crossed over another sandy plane dotted with boulders, Karl spotted a swimming sea cucumber in the distance. Normally, these sea cucumbers rest on the bottom, but occasionally they uproot themselves to wiggle and twirl. It’s a short-lived event that doesn’t happen too often, and once they stop dancing, it’s over. We managed to get a glimpse of the end of one sea cucumber’s routine, but we were too late to get footage. As we motored along, Karl point out several others that were exiting the stage – maybe next time.

At around 1,000 feet we spotted a catshark. Unfortunately, it was quite the jitterbug, and we weren’t able to catch smooth footage. I turned off the camera after this encounter, convinced that our filming marathon was complete. However, another surprise lie in wait for us at 500 feet. As we were cruising along the wall in front of Half Moon Bay, my eye caught a waddling movement about 50 feet away – Karl saw it too. We quickly thrusted upwards and I heard Karl yell, “Oh!! It’s a torpedo ray! I’ve only ever seen like 4 or 5 of these things!” Such luck we had on this dive.

Spotted Torpedo Ray

Spotted Torpedo Ray

The spotted torpedo ray – also known as the electric ray, is a pretty rare find in the Caribbean. They are among the group of animals who have evolved electric organs for predatory purposes, and the largest species in the Torpedo genus, weighing in at 200 lbs, can deliver 220 volts of electric shock! The electric organs are simply modified muscle tissue. If you think about it, normal muscles function via electrical impulses and signals – the same thing happens in electric fish but with one modification: a gene duplication event which allows for the modification of muscle tissue behind their eyes. This second gene allows these muscles to generate electricity – a mutation that is deadly for humans (since we only have one version of this gene), but advantageous in electric fish who can now use their electric organs for a plethora of purposes: recognizing conspecifics, communication, and predation.

At 11:17, we resurfaced – exhilarated but exhausted. The next several weeks will be dedicated to sifting through footage, pulling out the best shots, and lots of color correction. Most of our footage was shot flat (underexposed, low saturation, low contrast) in order to preserve the details of our images. If you overexpose or blow out highlights, you lose information. This is why most of the pictures in this blog are fairly dark and the colors muted. There should be an even larger pile of videos after tonight – we’re pushing off the dock at 7:30…moonset at 9:15 pm.


Ammons, Archie W.; Daly, Marymegan (2008). “Distribution, habitat use and ecology of deepwater Anemones (Actiniaria) in the Gulf of Mexico”. Deep Sea Research 55 (24–26): 2657–2666. doi:10.1016/j.dsr2.2008.07.015

University of Texas at Austin (2006, March 6). Convergent Evolution Of Molecules In Electric Fish. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 12, 2013, from­/releases/2006/03/060303114337.htm

University of Texas at Austin (2009, September 29). Electric Fish Plug In To Communicate.ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 13, 2013, from­/releases/2009/09/090928201849.htm


~ by twonakedapes on May 13, 2013.

3 Responses to “Moonset Menagerie”

  1. Bravo and WOW! from PA!

  2. Tremendous! That sounds like an amazing dive.

  3. Thanks fam!

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