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A catalogue of errors made Joseph Dovala think carefully about night diving in overhead environments

My particular wake-up call with overhead environments occurred many years ago when I was a much younger 'invincible' diver who was just too good to get into trouble. Or so I thought.

It was a perfect Southern California night with a new moon, and the very dark ocean would provide a perfect backdrop for the brilliant bioluminescence of the diatoms we knew would be present.

At that time my dive buddy and I subscribed to the 'same ocean same dive' philosophy of staying together. That is, we hit the water at the same time and usually exited at the same time but rarely spent more than a few minutes in contact underwater.

I had spent many hours during the day around this area and felt quite comfortable poking into the large crevices that permeated the reef. One of these fissures was more like a small cave that twisted into the rock. I’d gone into it before during daylight and found it interesting but with little critter activity. As I finned up to the entrance I thought that at night it was probably bustling with lobsters so I swam inside to have a look around.

The surge had been picking up during the dive but I paid little attention to it. As I made my way into the crevice I noticed that the walls, floor, and ceiling now resembled a spiked torture chamber from some Indiana Jones movie. Sea urchins were out by the hundreds, and their rotating spines looked like anti-aircraft missiles trying to home in on a target.

Enter sea cave1000
Enter sea cave - into darkness (Artwork: Two Dovala Images)

I thought that it would be cool to turn out my light for a short while and see what other critters might show up. Just a few seconds after being enveloped in utter darkness a particular strong surge pounded in and flattened me up against the spiked wall. All of a sudden this wasn’t so cool anymore. I had at least a dozen spines now taking up residence in various locations of my body. It definitely was time to go but wouldn’t you know it, my light failed to come back on. I did not have a backup light and I’d been diving without gloves because I didn’t pack them.

In the next couple of minutes, two more heavy surges plastered me into the vengeful walls and things were now getting serious. My breathing rate was way up and I couldn’t read my pressure gauge. There was no one else around to help me so I had to feel my way out – a very painful version of diving by Braille. I finally got out and made my way to the surface where my buddy had been looking for me. I felt like I’d been stabbed with a hundred red-hot needles and I still had to swim to the shore. Of course, my air was now gone so I had to come in on the surface crashing into the beach with the surf.

Despite my agony driving home that night, I was very lucky because I’d set myself up for disaster: Useless buddy plan, improperly equipped without backup light or gloves, and most important, making an overhead excursion on a whim without using proper techniques and examining prevailing conditions at the time.

Even though I was only a few yards from the entrance I could not just head for the surface I still had to travel the horizontal distance first and with much pain. If any of this scares you – good!

Think hard before entering any overhead environment. Gain proper training, use adequate equipment, practice any new, learned skills, and recognise your limitations. Applying a managed risk approach instead of just taking a risk will keep you exploring overhead environments far longer and with much more enjoyment.


We'd love to hear your diving stories. If you think others might learn from your experience, or if you've just got a fishy tale to tell – and if you'd like to see your story featured on our website and in the DIVELive app and weekly digest – why not drop us a line at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.






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