After the sun sets over Florida, and the sky and the seas beneath it become pitch black, 55-year-old Palm Beach County dentist Steven Kovacs grabs his photography gear, meets his friends and heads six miles or so out into the Atlantic Ocean. They throw out a mooring line with lights to guide them and their boat, but otherwise darkness stretches thousands of feet beneath them and miles in any direction. After Kovacs jumps into the inky ocean, he descends often 50 feet or more and waits with his camera and two strobe lights at the ready.

Giant fish swim by and check him out—dusky sharks, hammerheads, marlins, silky sharks and swordfish, which have whacked at least one of his fellow divers.It’s a little uncomfortable when they come in,” he says. “But it’s also pretty thrilling.”

The large predators are not his preferred subjects, however. Kovacs ventures out to capture the small stuff: tiny creatures, often in their larval stage, that are no bigger than a dime. They migrate up through the darkness, hundreds of feet or more. Kovacs uses his camera, a macro lens and those strobe lights to photograph them in stunning detail. “I specialize in looking for the deep-water animals, the rare, deep-water animals,” he says with emphasis. “And so my favorite are things like the cusk-eels—where there’s over 200 species of cusk-eel—and goosefish, anglerfish.” Adults of such fish species mostly occupy the ocean floor, but their youngsters often swim closer to the surface, where Kovacs waits.

Larval Gargoyle Cusk
Larval gargoyle cusk Steven Kovacs

To chronicle the larval fish and other creatures, including adult squid and octopus and flying fish, Kovacs dives not just off Florida, but off Hawaii, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, Mexico and the Cayman Islands. He became a certified diver in high school, but he couldn’t afford the necessary underwater photography equipment until years later.

The practice of shooting such animals in the deep ocean at night is called blackwater photography, and more and more people are taking it up. Kovacs and other camera operators go home with stunning photos of creatures of exotic shapes, with flamboyant frills, that often have translucent skin accented with brilliant colors.

But Kovacs’ images are not just notable because of the brilliance they capture. They are also valuable to science.

If Kovacs sees a larval fish that he knows is special or that he’s never seen before, he’ll photograph it, collect it, place it in an alcohol solution to preserve it and send it off to scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

G. David Johnson, a curator of ichthyology there, and Ai Nonaka, an ichthyologist, study such specimens. Johnson says the Smithsonian is building the only larval fish collection in the world with blackwater collected specimens, photographs and DNA analysis.

Nonaka, Johnson and two other scientists from the Smithsonian, Carole Baldwin and Matt Girard, work with the blackwater photographers. After receiving the photograph and specimen, they’ll add a third identifying component: DNA. Nonaka extracts samples from an eye of a larval fish. The tissue allows the scientists to identify the animal down to the species level while the physical specimen is otherwise preserved for further study.

Larval Prickly Seadevil
Larval prickly seadevil, a deep-water anglerfish Steven Kovacs

The Smithsonian scientists first started working with blackwater photographers in 2016. On Facebook, the hobbyists had been asking the scientists if they could help identify larval fishes, and Johnson and another larval fish expert from Hawaii said yes. But while photos showed the larval fishes’ physical characteristics in detail, without DNA, scientists couldn’t always determine the exact species. So Johnson suggested that the divers collect specimens and send them in, allowing the scientists to examine them further.

Such collecting isn’t detrimental to the ocean ecosystem, because most larvae—more than 99 percent in many species—won’t make it to adulthood. And the divers have permits, such as a special activity license in Florida, to collect specimens.

The first specimens came from a photographer named Jeff Milisen, who took samples and photos of larval fishes off Kona, Hawaii. Nonaka says when she saw his photos and collected specimens she thought, “Wow, this is incredible. We’ve never seen the larval fishes like this.”

“So that was a whole new world to me, to us,” she adds. “We couldn’t have done anything like that research without the photographers.”

The blackwater photographs that researchers receive of larval fish continue to surprise them; the same creatures are often drab as adults. In their younger stage of life, the larval fish are often harmless, but they may be mimicking more toxic species, like jellyfish, as a defense.

Larval Tripod Fish
Larval tripod fish Steven Kovacs

The old way ichthyologists collected the creatures was to drag nets through the water, which beat the specimens up. Dead animals lost their shape and color, and they were often damaged, so much so that Johnson says the specimens collected in nets look like completely different animals than those in blackwater photographs.

The Smithsonian researchers don’t practice blackwater photography themselves. Johnson earned a license as a scientific diver a long time ago but doesn’t currently dive, and Nonaka is trained to dive but isn’t advanced enough to go blackwater diving and collect larval fish.

Off the Palm Beach coast, the shooters have likely collected more than 200 specimens. Kovacs has collected maybe 15 to 20 larval fish since 2020. The ichthyologists appreciate the photographers’ additional work. “For them to put the extra step in of actually carrying extra gear, and collecting the specimen, and bringing it on board and fixing it is a big effort,” says Johnson.

In 2021, Nonaka, Johnson and colleagues wrote an important paper about how blackwater photography can enhance the study of larval fishes. The researchers wrote that recreational divers and photographers’ observations of the fish can be “priceless,” as they give scientists access to an otherwise expensive-to-research habitat. The images and video can offer an exciting window into the way fishes appear and swim in their environment, and the cooperative efforts between the photographers and scientists could improve the quality of larval fish collections and increase knowledge about the animals. The scientists hope to inspire more photographers to collect specimens, and to encourage their colleagues to take part in blackwater diving themselves so they could collect specimens, too.

Photographers like Kovacs are also observing larval fishes engaging in rarely seen behaviors, such as riding jellyfish, swimming inverted and attaching themselves to other gelatinous organisms with their teeth. Their eyewitness accounts deepen scientists’ understanding of these species. For example, Nonaka says, Kovacs related to her that he can tell a type of anglerfish larva from far away, because it “bounces” in the water as it swims.

So far, Johnson says the team has worked with Kovacs on a few papers, and another is in the works. Nonaka says a species is being named after her due to her dedication to the discovery, identification and curation of larval fishes in collaboration with citizen scientists. She and Johnson marvel at Kovacs’ photos of larval animals such as the bony-eared assfish and the gargoyle cusk.

Kovacs finds many beautiful, interesting larval fish, the researchers say, possibly because he often goes deeper than other blackwater divers. Nonaka says while other divers may go 15 or 20 feet deep, the dentist goes sometimes to 50 and 80 feet. “And so occasionally he’ll get rarer specimens that other people don’t get,” says Johnson, later adding. “Yeah, he’s one of the best.”

We called Kovacs up to find out what drives him.

What are the greatest challenges of blackwater photography?

That you don’t have a bottom. You don’t have any reference. You’re floating out in the open ocean. There’s no operator. There’s no down, so you can’t stabilize yourself. And the animals are not happy to see you. They’re running. They’re moving—trying to get away from you. Technically, it’s much more difficult than regular reef macro photography.

What are the greatest rewards of blackwater photography for you?

It’s seeing animals that you don’t usually see. Just weeks ago, in Kona, we found a deep-water anglerfish that’s never been photographed before, never been seen before. That to me is an absolute thrill. And we work closely with the Smithsonian, showing them things they’ve never seen before.

Diamond Squid
Diamond squid Steven Kovacs

How often has it happened that you’ve captured something that hasn’t been seen before?

The trip before Kona, we found a species of Ipnops fish that’s never been photographed, never been seen before, period. It happens once every year or once every couple of years. We’re still finding new stuff. That seems to be more prevalent off the coast of Kona, which is pretty much unexplored and is really deep water. In Kona, we go into water that is 5,000, 6,000 feet deep [beneath us] at night. It’s really open ocean, so we’re getting some pretty amazing deep-water animals coming up.

Baby Long Arm Octopus
Baby long arm octopus Steven Kovacs

What’s your favorite blackwater image?

Oh, that’s a tough question. I have so many at this point. It would probably be the bony-eared assfish, Acanthonus armatus [pictured in the top image above], that we see off Florida once in a while. It’s one of the most beautiful animals I’ve ever seen underwater. It’s just absolutely gorgeous, and just so unusual and so rare. I mean, the adults live several thousand feet down, so to see these animals is incredible.

If I had to choose, it would be between that and a photo of pelagic nudibranchs mating.

Pelagic Nudibranchs Mating
Pelagic nudibranchs mating Steven Kovacs

What was your toughest shot?

I mean, some of the images are challenging, but it’s not so much challenging getting the shot, it’s finding the animals. It’s like a treasure hunt. Some of these animals I’ve been looking to find for years. Sometimes it’s just a waiting game. The biggest challenge is to just keep doing it until they show up. I mean, you see all these images, but some of these animals I’ve searched for five, six, seven or eight years.

The hardest pictures to get are of two things actually. The lobsters riding on jellyfish are a real challenge—not to take a picture but to make it look aesthetically beautiful. The lobsters are in constant motion, as are the jellyfish. They are spinning and moving in every direction. To have the lobster and the jellyfish perfectly lined up takes a lot of time and a lot of shots. I’ve photographed them for over 30 minutes—and that’s still not a guarantee I’ll get a good shot.

The second-hardest shots are of some of the deep-water anglerfish. They are small, in the five- to eight-millimeter range, and they hang upside down and move constantly. To get straight underneath something that small and shoot upward while it’s in constant motion is a huge challenge.

Larval Lobster Riding a Jellyfish
Larval lobster riding a jellyfish Steven Kovacs

And do you have a dream animal right now that you want to photograph?

I do. No. 1 on my list is the hairy goosefish, and only one person in the world has a photograph of it on a blackwater dive. That’s Jeff Milisen in Kona, Hawaii. It’s just the coolest-looking animal. It’s just so exotic.

Which of your photos gets the most attention?

The general population likes colorful photos, especially colorful photos like the lobster and the jellyfish. Things people recognize, like flying fish, will be popular. The rare and exotic are not usually popular because they’re for the fish geeks like us.

Adult Flying Fish
Adult flying fish Steven Kovacs

And do you ever see marine debris or plastics when you’re out?

When we go to places like Anilao in the Philippines, or Indonesia, there’s a lot of plastic, a lot of garbage in the water. I haven’t seen too much off Hawaii. Occasionally we see it off Florida, but surprisingly not a whole lot yet. I do have a whole bunch of images with animals on my Instagram with garbage. You’ll see the nautilus riding the garbage, the plastic bags, and fish hiding in plastic. If there’s a connection between nature and the garbage, I’ll take a picture and show the relationship.

Nautilus Grabbing Garbage
Nautilus grabbing garbage Steven Kovacs

You post a lot of your stuff on social media. What do you hope that folks take away from the images?

I’m just sharing the beautiful environment. It’s a way to get my work out there in the public, and people may want to purchase it. But I just enjoy sharing what I get to see—and a lot of people don’t get to see.

And have any scientists told you anything about the importance of your shots?

Yeah, they’ve actually done research papers on some of our animals. They’re absolutely thrilled, because we’re providing information they’ve never had access to. They didn’t know how these animals even looked in the wild.

And how does that make you feel when you find out there’s been a paper or you’ve captured a new species?

It’s absolutely thrilling. It makes it all worthwhile. I mean, it just gives me the motivation to keep going.

Editor’s note, December 15, 2023: This article has been edited to clarify the unique qualities and breadth of the Smithsonian’s larval fish collection.

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