My lonely, first night dive
I was travelling through Cambodia when I got the chance to do my first night dive on a liveaboard at Koh Rong. We were told to keep our torches on at all times, but that, towards the end of the dive, we would take the chance to enjoy the phosphorescence, by concealing the torches against our bodies for a few minutes.
It was quite surreal jumping into the dark water at night but the torches were a comfort as they were handed down, their powerful beams penetrating the depths and making me think of blitz movies.
The dive was more serene and peaceful than I had imagined. The current was very strong with lots of sand and silt in the water but the torches made the visibility better than it had been during the day and it was easier to keep track of the other divers because of the beams of light.
Earlier than I expected (I still had lots of air), the instructor cleared a patch of sea urchins and indicated that we should settle down, kneeling in a rough semi-circle. I made sure I was close in, accidentally sitting on another diver's fin and shuffling away so that she wasn’t uncomfortable.
Then we all darkened our lights against our bodies and watched the phosphorescence develop. I was conscious not to spoil it with my light, ensuring my torch was pressed hard against my leg.
The phosphorescence started as vague flashes in the distance, time seemed to pass slowly as the light show developed. I recalled that the light was a result of agitation and so waved my spare hand in front of my face. Lazy dribbles of fairy dust lit up in its wake, like a cold sparkler from bonfire night.
I was enjoying the experience but was starting to feel the passage of time. I could see my air gauge from its faint fluorescent glow and had plenty left, but couldn't check the time without lifting my torch holding hand, and so ruining the night vision of everyone else. It felt like a long time, but was entrancing, and relaxing.
Then something brushed against my knee. I let a bit of light escape from the torch and realised that it was the spines of a sea urchin. Not good! I had been hearing stories of how sharp, painful and difficult to remove they were and decided that was enough! As my hand lifted the torch, I tried to formulate an apology in unorthodox gestures, for spoiling the fun.
But no one was there.
I swept my torch wider, and then in a full circle, there was still no-one.
Now that I could use my torch, I could see the dive had been 54 minutes. Was I lost, or were my buddies? Either way, I was alone. I swam around for 40 seconds and then figured I should ascend. They would likely turn on their torches and realise that I was missing so I began to surface slowly, in case I would then see lights below, and waved made every increasing circles with my torch so they wouldn’t panic that I wasn’t there.
I wasn't sure if you were supposed to do a safety stop when you were separated. Did my buddies even know that I was lost, or were they still enjoying the show? In the circumstances, I decided to do a stop.
In the darkness and with the swell it was difficult to maintain my depth so I stayed with my torch glued to my watch, time ticking by inexorably slowly.
But then there was a light, and a diver appeared at my shoulder, gesturing that I should surface. I shone my torch on my watch, indicating one more minute to go. He gestured, rather emphatically, that I should surface, so I obeyed.
It turned out that the others had not enjoyed the phosphorescence for so long. I must have been turned aside or drifted away in the current (I am sure my knees were on the ground) and when he signalled an end, the instructor said he had counted the torches but only realised at the safety stop that he was one short. The other instructor on the boat had kitted up and joined a search pattern - eventually seeing my light in the water as I did my safety stop.
I have since done numerous night dives in clear waters. If I experienced such current again I would make sure of keeping track of the other divers, making physical contact if the visual aids were to be dimmed. I would also be conscious of the distance I could cover in strong current on a safety stop.