My First Night Dive: Crazy, Scary, Beautiful

Dive No. 14

Location: Kariwak Reef, Tobago

Depth: 40 ft

Dive Shop: Undersea Tobago, Coco Reef Beach Resort, Tobago

Highlights: First night dive…nuff said.

Details:

Night diving is an awesome, mind-blowing, life-altering experience, but it is not for the faint of heart. At present, my heart is still slightly faint. But with practice, I’m confident I’ll be diving in darkness like a pro soon enough. For now though, I’ll take in a few more day-dives before I revisit this particular exercise.

No matter how much literature you absorb about this special type of underwater excursion, nothing can prepare you for how vastly different that bright, vibrant reef you just explored in the natural light of day, can appear under the dark cloak of night. The expansive marine habitat that usually spreads out beneath you is now limited to the conical beam of your flashlight and its unnerving not knowing what lies just a few inches to the left or the right of that light.

To say I was excited about my first night dive wouldn’t be untrue, but every ounce of excitement I felt was accompanied by 10 ounces of apprehension. These days, any mention of the word ‘dive’ puts me in a really good mood so when Derek called yesterday morning to ask me if I was interested in a night dive, I accepted the invitation without giving it a second thought. It was only after I hung up the phone I realized I was clueless about what I had just committed myself to. So, I did what any neophyte with internet access would do – I googled it.

Of course, I knew what night diving was in theory, but thanks to the PADI website’s night diving tips, I acquired enough of an understanding to feel just a little bit lighter about the situation. Light enough to quell the concerns of my alarmed cousins (thanks Ren and Ker) but not light enough to reveal this daredevil plan to my parents (sorry Mummy and Daddy, but now you know I’m alright!).

The Crazy

In my state of anxious excitement, I must say I ended up with the perfect dive companions. After diving with them on Saturday I had pegged the two teenaged Brits as awkward, quiet and shy. Within three minutes of boarding the boat in the darkness of Coco Reef’s private beach however, they proved me wrong on the two latter counts. To my delight, they morphed into a comedic duo and their youthful enthusiasm did more to calm my nerves than my lonely, wandering thoughts ever could.

James, a lean blonde with a quick wit and an in depth knowledge of movie trivia that should worry his parents, split his time between reenacting scenes from Titanic (a movie that was released before he entered the world 15 years ago) and humming the suspenseful theme song from Jaws (a movie he so kindly reminded me was released “even before you were born Eye-ee-sha!”) . Patrick, a gangly 17-year-old with an interesting Trini-British accent, preferred to entertain us by plotting the order in which we would all die if Jaws actually made an appearance. James first, because Patrick would throw him overboard; Ellis next, because as the instructor he was obligated to attempt a rescue; then Patrick, because he’s a gentleman and couldn’t bring himself to sacrifice a female. Either that or he figured the shark had no interest in someone with little to no body fat.

It was only when the boat powered down and we sat in absolute and seemingly unforgiving darkness that they sobered up. After Ellis briefed us on the basic rules for night diving, they became very interested in the technical aspects of this dive. The questions came a mile a minute…Where are the flashlights? The book said we were supposed to have two, why do we only have one? When were the batteries last changed? They aren’t Duracell, are they? What do we do if we become separated? Are you absolutely sure we have enough air to stay under for a whole hour? Is this absolutely necessary for us to pass the course? They asked all the questions I needed answered so I let them have their time and listened intently to every response.

Once we were all suited up and seated on the side of the boat I found myself with nothing to do but stare out into the distance as we waited for Ellis’ next instruction. It was only then I realized that I could not differentiate between the blackness of the water and the blackness of the night sky.

It seemed like a good time to ask myself a serious question: “Aisha, are you freaking crazy?”

Without hesitation, Myself responded in the affirmative. “Yes, Aisha, you most certainly are.”

But so were my juvenile dive companions. So instead of giving Myself time to chicken out, I placed my regulator in my mouth, pointed my flashlight at my chest and fell backward into the water.

The Scary

Entering the water in daylight is exhilarating. Entering the water in the dark is intimidating. Even with the flashlight on, the seconds it took me to flip over and pop up to the surface felt like minutes. It also didn’t help matters that the boys were on the port side, Ellis was still on the boat and I was starboard all by my lonesome. I swam up to the bow with my head in the water as I usually do but soon flipped onto my back because the darkness below was too much to bare alone. What felt like hours later James and Patrick finally joined me and then so did Ellis.

Let it be known that descending in darkness is no more appealing than entering the water in darkness. When we got to the bottom I did my usual first-look around and saw…nothing, Not one thing except four aimless lights criss-crossing each other like sticks of chalk against a blackboard. I was not impressed.

To their credit, the boys adjusted quickly to the inky water and they immediately assumed a horizontal position in anticipation of what lay ahead. I on the other hand, was just about ready to abort this misguided mission. Suffice it to say, my first few minutes under there were not my best. I found myself second-guessing things that had become second nature to me during day-dives. With the flash light on my left wrist I had a difficult time reaching for my inflator so buoyancy was an issue; with such limited visibility I felt compelled to stop every few seconds and physically turn my body in search of my companions which made me expend more energy and utilize more air; and my depth perception was completely skewed so I did accidentally assault the boys on several occasions with my fins. Also take into consideration the fact that anything outside the white lights of our torches was just complete and utter emptiness and its not hard to understand why I hesitated to stray further than a few inches away from Ellis at any point in time (see Mummy, I’m not reckless).

The Beautiful

So…you’re probably wondering how could night diving possibly be such a big deal if Aisha’s making it out to be a watery nightmare. Well, as I said in my intro, night diving is truly an amazing, life-altering experience. Take everything you think you know about the underwater world, flip it around, then turn it inside out and you still wouldn’t be able to comprehend the drastic change that takes place when the lights go out 40 ft below the ocean’s surface.

By day, reefs are colorful and buzzing with activity as the sunlight enhances the rich hues of the coral and schools of fish move in unison, dipping and swaying, as if marking time to the beat of an invisible drum. But at night, all of that changes. As the sun sets, the brazen, spritely creatures that cut through the water with such carefree abandon retire to their nooks and crannies, their holes and caves, passing the proverbial torch over to the illusive critters of the night.

This new world is dark in name only however, as the definitive characteristics of this nightlife scene reveal themselves to be just as beautiful as their daytime counterparts. The pace of the habitat slows down considerably but it most certainly does not shut down. In fact, the purposeful, almost strategic movements of the nocturnal animals make the energy at night seem even more charged.

Yes, the piercing, red eyes of the Spanish lobster may scare you at first sight, but as your light follows its progress from open water to its home between two rocks, you can’t help but appreciate the graceful movements of this seemingly awkward crustacean.

Certainly, I wasn’t impressed when Ellis (with me only inches away from him) beckoned the solitary file fish over to us thinking I would want to touch it (I really thought he knew me by now). Thin as a razor with a fin that looked almost as sharp, I really did not need to be that intimate with the creature and I was more than relieved when it darted away from us at the last minute, but in the light of day I never could have appreciated the slate gray color of its scales or notice exactly how sharp its eyes become when it senses danger.

Also, when else but at night time would you be able to discover that fishes sleep in open water and float aimlessly from side to side like a stumbling drunk? Or that flounders aren’t really the fun-loving blue and yellow best friends of Mermaid princesses but flat, ugly creatures that burrow themselves in the sand to hide from prey? Or that all starfish aren’t actually shaped like stars? Or that shrimp wiggle their bodies like miniature breakdancers when they move? Or that when you shut off your lights and allow complete and utter darkness to fall over you, any slight movement will cause hundreds, thousands, millions of bio-luminescent creatures to produce a shimmering, rave-like light show.

This last one in particular was a favorite, not just for me but for Patrick and James. Among the three of us we made every ridiculous move imaginable to activate the lights – lethargic ‘water’ angels, jerking robot dance moves and slow-motion karate chops. If it weren’t for Ellis we probably would have used up all our air on this exercise alone but after a couple minutes it was lights-on and we continued along the reef.

Every now and then Ellis would use both his lights to draw our attention to one animal or the next then we’d all aim our lights at whatever it was until they got fed-up of our intrusion and scurried back into the hole from which they had emerged. We saw a pretty big toad fish that really earned its name, several moray eels that were content to remain in their holes until we had passed them by, an electric blue parrot fish that had fallen asleep between two rocks and countless other critters I had never seen in the light of day.

By the time our hour was up I still wasn’t 100% comfortable with the darkness but I was 100% appreciative of the experience. When we broke the surface Patrick and James couldn’t stop talking about how this was the coolest thing they had ever done and while my demeanor was a little more composed than theirs, I couldn’t help but agree. A reef that, only a week ago, had seemed played-out and mundane to me, had just become a fresh new world to explore simply because God had turned the lights off, and that was something I did not want to take for granted.

While I don’t foresee myself indulging in another night dive anytime soon, I am truly grateful I was able to go on this one. Kudos once again to Ellis for keeping me alive and “Cheers!” to the hilariously rambunctious Patrick and James for helping take the edge of what could have been a truly nerve-wracking experience.

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