Early macrobenthos succession in small, disturbed patches on subtidal soft bottoms is facilitated by the arrival of post-larval colonizers, in particular by active and passive dispersers along the seafloor or through the water column. Using a field experiment at two contrasting sites (protected vs. exposed to wave action), we evaluated the role of (a) active and passive dispersal through the water column and (b) the influence of small-scale spatial variability during succession of subtidal macrobenthic communities in northern Chile. Containers of two sizes (surface area: small-0.12 m2 and large-0.28 m2) at two positions above the natural substratum (height: low-3 cm and high-26 cm) were filled with defaunated sediment, installed at two sandy sublittoral sites (7-9 m water depth) and sampled after 7, 15, 30, 60 and 90 days, together with the natural bottom sediment. The experiment took place during austral fall (from late March to early July 2010), when both larval and post-larval stages are abundant. At the exposed site, early succession was driven by similar proportions of active and passive dispersers. A sequence from early, late and reference communities was also evident, but container position and size affected the proportional abundance of dispersal types. At the protected site, the successional process started with abundant colonization of active dispersers, but toward the end of the experiment, the proportion of swimmer/crawlers increased, thus resembling the dispersal types found in the natural community. At this site, the position above the sediment affected the proportional abundance of dispersal types, but patch size had no effect. This study highlights that macrobenthic post-larvae can reach at least 26 cm high above the bottom (actively or passively, depending on site exposure), thus playing an important role during early succession of sublittoral soft bottoms. The active or passive use of the sediment-water interphase may also play an important role in the connectivity of benthic populations and in the recovery after large-scale disturbances of sublittoral habitats.