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An introduction to night diving by Mark Crowley Russell

shutterstock 149339249 1Spanish dancer caught in divers' torch beams

Most divers would agree that night diving is a truly magical experience. For the less experienced diver it is a rite-of-passage - a sign that you have joined. Tramping in full scuba past the bars and cafés already filling with other tourists causes heads to turn and people to wonder why on earth you would be heading out to sea when dinner is being served and the beer is ice cold – dedicated divers, they might think. Or possibly that you’re just a bit nuts.

My first night dive was exactly thus. My buddies and I were excited (the instructor less so, for reasons I would sympathise with when I became an instructor), but with our fifty or so dives we had progressed to a certain point, and wanted more. It wasn’t simply about going diving anymore, we wanted to be divers. And it was both magical and nerve-wracking, suspended in the darkness, bunched together for comfort, kicking each other in the head as a result.

As an instructor, I have kicked – or been kicked by – more divers during a single night dive than an entire season of daylight excursions. The nervousness is natural and normal and I found it never really disappears completely – even as a seasoned professional and perfectly at home underwater I find that my air consumption is slightly higher during night dives, my pulse a little more rapid, each change of direction more carefully considered.  

Knowing where you are on a night dive isn't just a question of safety. Back in Na’ama Bay in Sharm El Sheikh it was very easy to find your way back to the shore. The problem with exiting in the wrong place miles down the beach from your dive centre was having to walk the gauntlet of shame past other dive centres and beach bars populated by fellow divers, well-lubricated with Sakara, breaking into spontaneous applause as you traipse dejectedly back to base.

nama bay at nightshutterstock 57886888Na'ama bay at night

But it’s worth it. Night diving offers a glimpse into a world that most people – and many divers – will only ever see in documentaries. Just as cities change between day and night, what was relatively ordinary during the daytime becomes somewhat disconcerting and mysterious by night, but at the same time infinitely more colourful.  What the residents of the reef get up to at night is – rather like people – often very different from their daytime activities.

Many aquatic creatures are nocturnal and rarely sighted at all during the day, while other animals exhibit dramatic changes in behaviour at night. Take the lionfish, for example, a familiar sight to many divers. By day they are docile, sitting on the reef or floating lazily just above it, but by night they are voracious predators – fast, aggressive hunters.  Lionfish will hunt in the beam of your flashlight, as will barracuda – a fairly scary-looking creature when you can see them, and it is heart-stoppingly chilling to see them flash into the beam of your torch and devour whatever unfortunate silver fish it was that couldn’t get out of the way in time. The first time I saw this I almost needed to change my wetsuit. I was also somewhat less than amused with a member of my dive team who kept aiming her torch at my silver earrings to see if she could get a result. That would be my EX- girlfriend.

If you’re reef diving, then the coral itself is different. Many species feed more aggressively at night, their polyps open and pulsating, and the presence of a more immediate light source, unfiltered by sea water, allows you to see the true, much more vibrant colour of the coral.

It’s worth remembering, however, that the light you use to observe these creatures will also cause them to return to their standard daylight mode of operation. Coral and flowery tube-worms will retract, lobsters, shrimp and crabs will scuttle back to their hideyholes, and other fish will simply flee, so shine your torch near to the creatures, not directly onto them.

A small, hand-held or head-mounted flashlight (and a backup, preferably) is sufficient, and I really do think that anything more powerful than this can ruin the experience. I once dived with a chap that was carrying a lamp known as the 'darkbuster' – the type with independent battery packs the size of pony bottles strapped either side of his tank – and it felt like somebody had turned on the stadium floodlights. For a wreck or cavern dive then fair enough, but for a tropical reef with perfect visibility, it was way too much.

shutterstock 132855593Night divers spot a nurse shark

Although some creatures will flee the beam of your torch, and some will use it to hunt, others are attracted to the light. Squid and octopus are particularly curious and will often make a very close approach. A friend once recounted the time an octopus seized hold of his torch, and – pull as he might – the creature with six extra arms won that struggle and the last my friend saw of that torch was the beam flickering off into the distance. I like to think the octopus was well fed that night as a result.

Encounters with larger animals are very much more startling; apart from something very large flashing by your head trying to eat something very small in the beam of your flashlight, that hulking shadow on the edge of the gloom can set your pulse to racing until you realise that it’s exactly the same turtle you saw during the morning dive, and not the Leviathan.

Sunset diving is an excellent way to start your night dives – practically speaking it makes preparation a little bit easier and some divers feel it is more comfortable to become slowly accustomed to the gloom rather than plunging headlong into an inky black ocean. It is also a world of its own, and the best analogy I can come up with has been in my head since my first sunset dive in the Similans some years ago: it’s like a late Friday evening in the city – some people are done for the day and already in the pub, others are frantically trying to finish their work and rush home, some are preparing for their night out on the town. There was a lot of scurrying, as diurnal species try to find a safe haven for the night, and a sense of anticipation as nocturnal species tentatively peer out of their hideyholes and stretch their legs – or antennae, as the case might be. Some predators hunt in the twilight; there is a certain tension to the reef, making for a fascinating observation of the transition between day and night.

Basic safety practice is as essential as it is with all dives, for divers of all experience levels.

In clear water, I actually found that group supervision was slightly easier at night – each individual light source provides an immediate guide to a diver’s location, although the diver themselves is less easy to identify. Familiarising yourself with your buddies’ equipment is essential; the colour of their fins being a good place to start, so that you know who is nearby without shining a light directly into their face.

In poor visibility, you’d be surprised at how little a torch beam will penetrate the water, so team and buddy contact is much more important – indeed, you may want to consider if it’s worth the effort to dive at all.

shutterstock 215111842Hawksbill turtle on the reef at night

In some locations – particular the arid deserts of my former home in Egypt, the temperature at night drops dramatically, and rapidly. You may have been sweating on your way into the water, but you may be shivering on the way back. That’s not a huge issue if it’s a short stagger back to the dive centre, but if you have some distance to travel, or you’re diving from a boat, then thermal protection is important.

It’s much easier to become disoriented at night, even as an experienced diver on a familiar reef. If the sky is clear then a bright moon provides a useful, if irregular, aid to navigation, as do lights from the shore or boat. Even if you get completely separated from the group, they at least provide a surface reference which may aid you in relocating your team. A more cautious approach to planning and navigation is essential, as is an understanding of how to communicate with your buddies using light signals.

It’s unlikely that you’d be night-diving anywhere with strong currents or big waves, but an SMB – essential for all diving, in my opinion – is especially useful at night. Shining your torch up the tube makes an excellent visible signal in the darkness. And also a lightsabre.

Not everybody loves night diving, but people who night dive regularly tend to love it very much. You may find instructors and guides less than thrilled at the prospect but this is based on the simple fact that after working a 12-hour day, seven days straight, night diving isn’t the first thing on every guide’s mind. I have been very guilty of this in the past, however once we got underwater, almost every one of those night dives was as magical as the first. They say that diving gives you a whole new world to explore. Night diving gives you another.

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