In the Darkness, Thousands of Tiny Creatures Thrive

Photographer Ryo Minemizu illuminates ocean waters to reveal the secret underwater world of plankton.

Enter the ocean and you are likely to be swimming among thousands of tiny creatures —larvae of fish, octopus, sea urchins, crustaceans—newly hatched and on their way to maturing into adults. Along with plants and other organisms, these beings form the base of the marine food chain, giving and sustaining life.

Photographer Ryo Minemizu has spent 20 years diving off the coast of Japan, perfecting a proprietary technique for revealing the intricate beauty of these creatures. His series of images, The Secret World of Plankton, recently won him the Nikkei National Geographic Photo Prize.

Visually translating this secret world from something barely visible to the naked eye to vivid, colourful portraits is an exercise in patience. At sunset after a high tide, Minemizu and his team set up 30 color-rendering LED lights on tripods on the sea floor near the breeding grounds of migratory larval fish. He then waits for hours at a time while the lights attract the organisms and then depending on the size, uses either a macro or wide-angle lens to photograph them. The average size of the larvae is 1-4 centimetres, he estimates, with some as tiny as 2 millimetres.

"I am surprised by the new discoveries I encounter every time I dive," he wrote via email. "I am also amazed at how these tiny creatures are able to adapt to often challenging conditions. They look so frail yet they are able to develop the means to protect themselves from predators by becoming transparent, developing protective 'armour' such as banner-like fins. I admire their struggle to survive."

Minezimu's hopes that his photographs will spark an interest in marine life, and the importance of protecting it. "I want to share these revelations about the beauty of our world under the sea with as many people as possible."

A larva of a sipunculid worm floats in the water. This creature inhabits the benthic layer, in the sand or under rocks. "Adults are long and slender, grotesque," says Minemizu. "However, some larvae are beautiful like this picture."
PHOTOGRAPH BY RYO MINEMIZU

A larval form of an Aglaura hemistoma jellyfish
PHOTOGRAPH BY RYO MINEMIZU

The eudoxid (or sexual reproductive) stage of Enneagonum hyalinum, a type of nectophore
PHOTOGRAPH BY RYO MINEMIZU

A longarm octopus in the larval stage
PHOTOGRAPH BY RYO MINEMIZU

A larval sea anemone from the Cerianthidae family
PHOTOGRAPH BY RYO MINEMIZU

A juvenile Acanthuridae fish. "In the sea where there is nothing to hide behind, being transparent provides protection," says Minemizu. Once they reach the sea floor, he says, they begin to take on the colour to camouflage themselves among the surrounding coral.
PHOTOGRAPH BY RYO MINEMIZU

A gastropod in its larval stage. It manoeuvres through the water by spreading a membrane lined with cilia.
PHOTOGRAPH BY RYO MINEMIZU

Limidae, a type of bivalve, in its larval form
PHOTOGRAPH BY RYO MINEMIZU

A young Liopropoma, a type of reef basslet fish. The long tail that develops during this floating stage is larger than its body which is an effective buoyancy adaptation, says Minemizu. This also allows the young fish to be carried by the current.
PHOTOGRAPH BY RYO MINEMIZU

Phronima is a type deep-sea amphipod which can be found at night in shallower waters. This photograph shows a female Phronima stebbingi preparing to spawn, says Minemizu.
PHOTOGRAPH BY RYO MINEMIZU

A larval form of a flying fish
PHOTOGRAPH BY RYO MINEMIZU

Header Image: A paralarva of Thysanoteuthis rhombus, which is a type of squid. "It is striking a unique pose, raising its arms along the mantle," Minemizu says of this defensive pose. PHOTOGRAPH BY RYO MINEMIZU

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