In this work, we investigate the approach of a descending vortex pair to a horizontal ground plane. As in previous studies, the primary vortices exhibit a ‘rebound’, due to the separation of secondary opposite-sign vortices underneath each primary vortex. On each side of the flow, the weaker secondary vortex can become three-dimensionally unstable, as it advects around the stronger primary vortex. It has been suggested in several recent numerical simulations that elliptic instability is the origin of such waviness in the secondary vortices. In the present research, we employ a technique whereby the primary vortices are visualized separately from the secondary vortices; in fact, we are able to mark the secondary vortex separation, often leaving the primary vortices invisible. We find that the vortices are bent as a whole in a Crow-type ‘displacement’ mode, and, by keeping the primary vortices invisible, we are able to see both sides of the flow simultaneously, showing that the instability perturbations on the secondary vortices are antisymmetric. Triggered by previous research on four-vortex aircraft wake flows, we analyse one half of the flow as an unequal-strength counter-rotating pair, noting that it is essential to take into account the angular velocity of the weak vortex around the stronger primary vortex in the analysis. In contrast with previous results for the vortex–ground interaction, we find that the measured secondary vortex wavelength corresponds well with the displacement bending mode, similar to the Crow-type instability. We have analysed the elliptic instability modes, by employing the approximate dispersion relation of Le Dizés & Laporte (J. Fluid Mech., vol. 471, 2002, p. 169) in our problem, finding that the experimental wavelength is distinctly longer than predicted for the higher-order elliptic modes. Finally, we observe that the secondary vortices deform into a distinct waviness along their lengths, and this places two rows of highly stretched vertical segments of the vortices in between the horizontal primary vortices. The two rows of alternating-sign vortices translate towards each other and ultimately merge into a single vortex row. A simple point vortex row model is able to predict trajectories of such vortex rows, and the net result of the model’s ‘orbital’ or ‘passing’ modes is to bring like-sign vortices, from each secondary vortex row, close to each other, such that merging may ensue in the experiments.