Blackwater Beauty

Story by John Pacenti

Steven Kovacs was no more than 5 years old, walking the beaches of Nova Scotia in his native Canada when he found a starfish and “went crazy over this creature.”

“I was just enamored with underwater life from a very young age,” Kovacs recalls. “It was probably watching TV shows such as Jacques Cousteau.”

What began as a childhood interest is now the life aquatic for the Palm Beach County resident, who travels the globe photographing mysterious sea species in all their underwater splendor. Some of his most compelling images, however, are taken in his home waters off Palm Beach County.

Kovacs, 54, specializes in blackwater photography where he dives at night to capture creatures, often in their larval form, right off our coast, creating almost 3D images with the deep abyss as his canvas.

“Blackwater diving is basically going out at night into very deep water and jumping in and seeing what comes up from the depths or floats or swims by,” says Kovacs, who’s a dentist.

Animals that live deeper during the day migrate toward the surface at night to feed in more nutrient-rich waters, Kovacs says. These include pelagic (open ocean) larval stages of many animals like deepwater fish that would otherwise never be seen.

The diving itself is done at recreational scuba diving limits of no more than 130 feet, but the bottom can be thousands of feet below, depending on the location of the blackwater dive.

In Kona, Hawaii, where Kovacs has recently done photo shoots, the bottom can be 6,000 feet or deeper. Florida depths tend to be in the 700-foot range. For comparison, the Golden Gate Bridge is 745 feet high.

Lights are dropped on a tether, attracting animals at various depths. Kovacs’ camera apparatus looks like a creature itself, with powerful strobes that must recycle once they flash.

The results are striking.

A photo of a ribbonfish is near angelic as its fins float like wings around the specimen, though its reddish, pouty lips give a “Girl With A Pearl Earring” vibe. It is transformed in the light of Kovacs’ camera into something heavenly.

Kovacs’ photo of a diamond squid could be a creature from a blockbuster sci-fi alien flick. With its poised tentacles, it hovers in the dark as if ready to grab the viewer in resplendent red, blue and gold.
A young lionfish—an invasive species having an impact on South Florida’s reef systems—is rendered in white with gold eyes. It appears startled as it fins fan around its torso.

Kovacs’ camera lens has caught elusive creatures such as the cascading blanket octopus, the bejeweled cusk-eel and Acanthonus armatus—aka, the bony-eared assfish, a deep-water cusk-eel species with a grumpy mug that unfurls its fins like flags.

“Acanthonus armatus, is always a highlight,” Kovacs says. “I’ve only seen two larger larvae in 10 years of blackwater diving. To me, it is one of the most stunningly beautiful fish in the sea when it’s in its larval form.”

Beauty isn’t the only element evident in Kovacs’ work. The eeriness of the backdrop leaves viewers to wonder: What’s lurking amid the blackness? As Kovacs knows all too well, there are inherent dangers involved with clicking a shutter deep underwater in the dead of night and miles out to sea.

Sharks, he says, usually mind their own business. However, “swordfish have a nastier reputation for a bad temperament; encountering them is more tense.”

The real photographic challenge, Kovacs admits, is having the patience to dive into the darkness and search for the tiniest sea creatures—with no guarantees.

“You can’t go back the next day and just find a fish in the same place,” Kovacs says. “Encounters are a one-time occurrence—and way too often it may take years of searching before the desired animal is finally found.”

You May Also Like

New Discovery at MODS

Over the past three decades, since moving into its downtown Fort Lauderdale digs in 1992, the Museum of Discovery and Science has welcomed more than 12 million guests to exhibits including the beloved Citrus Grove in its early childhood area. As president and CEO Joe Cox notes, the oranges in the grove “have been well loved.”  But

MOCA to Showcase Public Artwork Display From South Florida Artists

The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami (MOCA) is now featuring its “Welcome to Paradise” commissioning program featuring temporary public art projects by local South Florida artists at MOCA’s Paradise Courtyard. The project’s first season lasts through Jun. 25 and focuses on ecology and technology. MOCA’s Paradise Courtyard will feature “Victory Garden,” an interactive sculptural community garden

Where to Find Convenient Art and Culture Experiences in South Florida

South Florida remains a mecca for diverse arts and culture experiences, but navigating to the venues can be difficult with never-ending traffic congestion. From West Palm Beach and Boca Raton to Fort Lauderdale, Aventura and Miami, a plethora of world-class art exhibits exist for residents and visitors to enjoy.  With new Brightline stations now open

Los Trompos Art Exhibition Makes Its Way to South Florida

The Los Trompos art exhibition experience will debut in South Florida from Jan. 31 through Feb. 28 at Shops at Merrick Park in Coral Gables. The outdoor shopping center will host the world-famous Los Trompos art exhibition, created by Mexican designers Héctor Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena. This interactive, vibrant outdoor display is a traveling exhibit that has been

Other Posts

MOCA North Miami Seeks Artists for Art on the Plaza Series

The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami (MOCA) has launched an open call to South Florida-based artists to submit their work for MOCA’s 2023 Art on the Plaza series. Art on the Plaza features a series of temporary public art installations on MOCA North Miami’s front plaza, inviting artists to enhance the space and connect the museum

Cinderella at the Wick

Someone is leaving her glass slipper on stage over the next month—and that should be music to the ears of theater lovers in South Florida. The Wick Theatre’s production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, running through Dec. 24, promises more than just the main character’s famed lost shoe. “More than just a glittering ball gown and

Symphony for the Senses

Planet Earth is the inspiration behind The Symphonia’s second concert of the season as the region’s premier chamber orchestra presents “Inspired, Naturally” on Sunday, Dec. 4. The multimedia showcase inside Roberts Theater at Saint Andrew’s School in Boca Raton features principal conductor Alastair Willis—and special guest Kinman Azmeh as clarinet soloist. President Joe Biden recently

Hot Shows at the Hard Rock

The hits just keep coming at Hard Rock Live, which continues to draw some of the biggest acts in entertainment—as evidenced by the lineup over the next few weeks. Pop sensation Demi Lovato kicks things off this Sunday (Oct. 30) with a show that promises hits from a song catalog that’s produced some 30 billion