To some, the idea of diving into the open ocean is already a terrifying excursion, with the fear of the creatures and the intense feeling of vulnerability. Now take away the relied-on ability to see. Very few are brave enough to venture into the sea when the sun sets, but for those that do the underwater world is transformed. Nocturnal creatures awaken and are illuminated by the close lights on divers, bringing out brighter colors and picking up smaller living beings. The tranquil seas lull divers, allowing them to embrace the calming side effects of diving and carefully take notice of all the action around them. It is a different world at night, even when diving in a familiar area, and with the right preparation and dedication to safe diving practices, it is well worth facing those fears.
As with any dive, it is important to know what you are doing before hopping into the water. Taking a course on night diving from a professional is not always required, but some dive operators can require a specialty course to be completed prior to the night dive. PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) offers night diving courses that enroll divers twelve years of age and older who can be classified at least as Open Water Divers. There are several ways that a night dive preparation differs from that of a daytime dive. First, of course, is the issue of light. Every diver (not just dive-buddy pair) should have two lights, a primary light and a secondary light. A primary light is used generally for the entirety of a night dive and should be larger and brighter than the secondary light. These are usually handheld lights that can be attached to the diver with lanyards. Secondary lights, usually more compact and similar in shape to a household flashlight, are usually dimmer and used as emergency back-up. If the secondary light must come on, this should be a clear indicator that it is time to end the dive. Many divers also utilize reflective tape and glow sticks at nighttime. Reflective tape can be placed on gear to help locate if it gets lost and can be placed on air tanks to identify certain divers. Glow sticks can be used in some cases, however ask if you plan on using them on a trip because some sites do not allow glow sticks due to their chemical composition. It is a wise idea to go over hand signals before entering the water on a night dive. The lights can be used to illuminate dive signals or to make signals with the light (i.e.: moving the light in a circle for OK, up and down for YES, side to side for NO, etc.). Familiarity can mean all the difference at night. Having a dive buddy who you know well and have dived with in the past makes it easier to communicate and enjoy the experience. Many recommend diving in an area that you have already dived in previously, even if it was earlier that day. Knowing the layout and what your surroundings look like illuminated by sunlight can ease your nerves and make it not so mysterious.
Turn your primary light on before entering the water and after getting back on the boat or returning to shore. This way the light can be found if dropped in the water and does not need to be fumbled for in the dark if something goes wrong. It is also recommended that it is used to illuminate the area below when descending, to avoid landing on fragile coral, and when ascending to avoid banging your head on a boat.
When and Where to Go
A typical night dive meets just before sunset. This gives divers a chance to survey their equipment and go over important information prior to jumping in the waves. Even if the world above the surface is still exposed to sunlight, the water below may already be dark, making this an ideal time to dive. Most night dives start on the shore, not a boat, because they are generally very shallow (about 30-45 feet) and it makes it harder to get lost in the dark. Night dives can happen just about anywhere that allows it. Many dive companies repeat a daytime dive hours later, once it is dark, in the same area because the leaders are familiar with the area and they hope that the night divers have seen the site during the day’s trip. Some of the most famous night dive sites include Kona, Hawaii; Norman Reef, Australia; the Antilla wreck site in Aruba; and Academy Bay in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. A night dive can happen any time during the year (weather permitting) but most prefer to dive during the warmer months.
Try to make the same dive during the day with the buddy who intends to join you at least once before the night dive. This creates a sense of familiarity and comfort when entering at night, and allows you to not suffer through communication problems with a new diver partner. Also, when diving with a group, go with a dive leader you have worked with previously. He or she will know what you expect from a dive personally and you will know how he or she handles a dive excursion.
What to Expect
Just like a jungle transforms at night, awakening and dismissing exotic creatures and exploding with a new set of senses, the ocean is not the same once the sun slips below the horizon. Octopi unfurl their long tentacles and propel through dark waters. Crabs and lobsters scuttle along the sandy lengths of the ocean floor. Reef sharks are on patrol, searching for their next meal. Rays with enormous wingspans glide overhead like marine airplanes. As the sun sets, creatures that are red emerge. Many creatures cannot see the color red, as it is the first to be absorbed by water, and therefore these creatures are invisible to many predators, but not to the bold night diver. As with any dive there is a sense of solitude, the illusion that no one else can see or will ever see the beauty that you have just discovered. The ocean is full of wonderful surprises and some of them only come out after dark.
If you are curious as to what you will see before a night dive, a quick internet search of nocturnal marine life in the area should yield surprising results. There are numerous creatures that are strictly nocturnal and very few humans have ever seen them. Guides can also list the fish and mammals it is possible to see during a night dive, as well as travel books and locals. Many locals know not only what kinds of creatures you might see, but can give tips on what dive operator to contact to see certain marine nightlife.