Catastrophic optical damage (COD) in semiconductor lasers is a major limiting effect for high-power operation. Several techniques like microphotoluminescence (μPL) mapping, focused ion beam (FIB) microscopy, and micro- Raman spectroscopy were employed to reveal the physics behind catastrophic optical damage, its related temperature dynamics, as well as associated defect and near-field patterns. High-resolution μPL images demonstrated that during COD, nonradiative dark line defects (DLDs) originate from the front mirror of the laser and propagate deep inside the cavity. Furthermore, FIB microscopy identified the epitaxial layers affected by COD, revealing that the DLDs are confined to the active region. In addition, deep-etching uncovered the DLDs by making them visible, and showed that they are composed of complex dislocation networks. Lasers that underwent a spontaneous breakdown where also studied. One missing piece to complete the characterization of COD is to analyze if the DLDs actually follow certain crystal direction lines inside the laser cavity, which are in general perpendicular to the output facet, or follow the path of the light-field intensity-maximum. Using a specially designed innovative device, namely an asymmetrical AlGaInP tapered laser, it is proven in this study that the COD is strongly dependent on the light-field intensity inside the laser cavity and not on certain crystal direction lines.