Microscopic-scale processes significantly influence benthic marine ecosystems such as coral reefs and kelp forests. Due to the ocean/'s complex and dynamic nature, it is most informative to study these processes in the natural environment yet it is inherently difficult. Here we present a system capable of non-invasively imaging seafloor environments and organisms in situ at nearly micrometre resolution. We overcome the challenges of underwater microscopy through the use of a long working distance microscopic objective, an electrically tunable lens and focused reflectance illumination. The diver-deployed instrument permits studies of both spatial and temporal processes such as the algal colonization and overgrowth of bleaching corals, as well as coral polyp behaviour and interspecific competition. By enabling in situ observations at previously unattainable scales, this instrument can provide important new insights into micro-scale processes in benthic ecosystems that shape observed patterns at much larger scales.