As a travelling underwater photographer you experience many crazy adventures: diving with white sharks in South Africa, the search for shoals of sardines on the rainforest coast of Colombia, snorkelling amidst millions of jellyfish in a saltwater lake in the South Seas. “What in heaven’s name am I doing here?” I’ve never asked myself that question as intensively as in Europe. More precisely: At midnight in the middle of a fjord in Norway, deep in winter.
It’s January and we’re on the road north of Bergen with a small group of brave people in the Lurefjord. Marine biologists, journalists and underwater photographers from Germany, Italy, France and Norway. We all have sleep in our eyes, the cold rises up our legs, although we wear thick underwear in our dry suits. Fascinated we look at a small flashing light in the water. Below us, four hundred metres of ice-cold Norwegian fjord. The night is pitch-black and we all sincerely hope: “No snow, please no snowfall now.” That would ruin everything.
Already two days before we arrived in the port city Bergen. Only two hours by plane from Germany we boarded a ferry and enjoyed the view of one of the most beautiful coasts of the North Sea. With its many offshore islands and fjords, Norway also presents itself from one of its most beautiful sides in January. One more change of ship, tell the captain to make an extra stop for us and we are already let off in front of the house reef of the snow-covered Gulen Dive Resort. It is pitch dark and cold and we are happy that in one of the surrounding houses still light burns.
This diving region is best known for its wrecks and rich macro life. But we are looking for something completely different. We’re looking for deep-sea residents to surface here at new moonlight. Sometimes sporadically, sometimes in an almost unbelievable mass. Natural phenomenon or man-made change of an ecosystem? Nobody knows for sure.
But before we do, we explore the underwater world of the surrounding area. A bay is known for its ray population. It doesn’t take long before we get some friendly specimens in front of our lenses. A good opportunity to try out our photographic equipment. Even during the day we have only twilight at a depth of 12 meters. Our pilot lights and flashes work well. We’ll definitely need them tonight.
From a photographic point of view, I’m actually reluctant to choose a single motif for my destination. So I am all the more curious whether the effort is worth it. So at midnight I eagerly listen to our captain’s instructions. He dumped a buoy with a 30-meter rope into the open water. Indicators are mounted at the top, 15 metres and at the lower end. These serve as a guide. In the middle of the black nothing on photo hunt it is easy to lose sight of the dive computer. The highest concentration is also required on the surface. On a moonless night it is not easy for the boat crew to find the divers on the surface again. If snow starts to fall, we would have to stop immediately because of the bad visibility. But the cloud radar gives the all-clear: In the next two hours everything should go well.
One by one of us slides into the water. A few flips and we’ve reached our landmark. I’m looking down: Nothing, yawning emptiness. Slowly I sink to 15 meters. An unbelievable silence surrounds me. Only occasionally I hear the regulators of my fellow divers through my thick hood. We’ll wait and look around. Still nothing. In the corner of my eye I notice the flash of the other photographers. I turn around and I see her: A primeval creature, perhaps 20 centimetres tall, shines orange-red in the light cone of our diving lamps. Twelve tentacles protrude from his crown-shaped head. To make matters worse, it’s also milky translucent. A sea creature could hardly look any more unreal. And then there’s the name Periphylla periphylla, the great crown jellyfish.
Normally the primal jellyfish live in the deep sea. Here in this narrow fjord, which is limited in its tributary, they have suddenly multiplied in the last decades. Whether this is the consequence of the intensive salmon farming that takes place here, or whether it is perhaps also influenced by Europe’s largest refinery in the vicinity, the scientists are inconclusive about this. They also do not exclude a natural phenomenon, just as little as the overfishing of natural predators. Local fishermen were the first to take note of the changes in the ecological balance. Instead of valuable food fish, a large glibbery mass of hundreds of thousands of jellyfish landed in their nets. They tried to make a virtue out of necessity. However, despite some research projects, an economic exploitation of the new rulers of the fjord has not yet been found.
Above water there is no indication of the massive changes that are taking place as a result of the invasion of the deep-sea inhabitants. Snow-covered fjords in wonderfully soft Nordic winter light form the perfect backdrop for our dives during the day. So we go to several wrecks, which partly still originate from the inglorious times of the Second World War. Photographically, they present me with completely different tasks from the Periphyllas in the nightly black water. With the ambient light of the Norwegian winter quite sparse, it is not quite easy to set them in scene well. That leaves almost only detail shots. Well, together with the abundant kelp and wonderful orange and white anemones this is also quite appealing.
Some prefer to stay down
Secretly I had hoped to be able to capture an impression of the mass reproduction also photographically. But that night we see only isolated specimens. Crown jellyfish are sensitive to light. Thus, the deep-sea inhabitants usually only ascend towards the surface in absolute darkness. There must be unimaginable numbers of them deep below us. But they all stay out of the reach of us divers. So I give myself completely to the fascination of these bizarre animals. The black background on my pictures comes naturally. There is almost no ambient light! The aim is to capture the jellyfish from as many different perspectives as possible. A diver in the background helps to clarify the proportions.
Time passes incredibly fast. As soon as we have started to deal more intensively with our photo motives, the agreed diving time is already over. So we slowly reappear and return aboard. That’s a good thing! The snow clouds are approaching threateningly and the way back to the Dive Resort takes almost two hours. So it is almost three o’clock in the morning until we can finally snuggle into our warm bedspreads.