5 Reasons Why You Should Go on a Night Dive in Utila
I very recently went on one of the most remarkable dives I’ve ever done, half of which I spent not being able to see my hand in front of my face.
It was a night dive; one where we completed a no-torch swim, turning our lights in toward our BCD’s to surround ourselves in complete and total darkness.
When you do this, it’s a little disorienting and a bit unnerving to be blinded by total blackness, but the darkness begins to give, opaque outlines start appearing, and with the wave of your hand things flicker to life in a growing glow.
This night dive really affected me and, while it wouldn’t take much convincing for me to go on one, I think night dives can be quite intimidating for other divers, so I’ve compiled a list of reasons on why you should take that plunge after the sun has set and dive in the sea when its supposedly sleeping.
When you hear the slow motor of the boat rumbling in the water, revving once, twice, churning the glassy, sunset sea into a small, gurgling Jacuzzi, you’ll just know you’re in for something special.
Every setting is different, but at this shop on this evening, the sun had set fire to the sky and was now a burning ember, sunken on the horizon, sailboats and catamarans silhouetted against its orange glow.
I imagine many night dives start this way, the anticipation of what the dive will hold building up against the backdrop of a beautifully setting sun.
As the boat reverses, rope thrown to its bow while it fends off from the wooden dock, you’ll hear your Instructor or Divemaster giving a briefing on what proper night diving technique entails.
If the night is calm, you’ll chug through the harbor, cutting through tiny, jagged waves, leaving a trail of whitewater in your wake. Your boat will likely round portside, its course heading for one of the white-and-blue buoys bobbing, half-sunk, in the water.
When your boat has been tied and its engine has sputtered to a stop, your group will spread out in the stern, waiting for the last remnants of the setting sun to fade to dark, welcoming the night sky, signaling the start of your dive.
On the particular night of my dive, the clouds were puffy and pale gray, their bulging bellies brushing the horizon like they had swallowed the sun, and the sky above them was streaked in a golden clementine shine that extended to the mountains in the distance.
The mainland’s mountains were clear, an unusual occurrence for that time of day, and they protruded through a thin blanket of those puffy, pale gray clouds, their peaks piercing through to the sky.
Oftentimes, the boat ride preceding a dive is one of my favorite parts, and, on a night dive, the breathtaking vista of a setting sun gives you the chance to reflect on your day and subdue any nerves you may be feeling before embarking on an amazing experience in the nighttime sea.
The Exhilarating Experience of Descending in Darkness
Dusk will be on the brink of dark when you start gearing up. The sky, a navy blue that blends with the water, mixing with its inky hues, will invite your dive group to twist on your torches and jump into the waves.
This will be a new experience, an occasion in which you enter the sea at a time you may have never been swimming before. Lean back and look up; you may see the first few stars, scattered like freckles on the nose of nighttime. You may see the thin sliver of a crescent moon, rising to its resting place amongst wispy clouds.
After you splash in, you can spit in your mask to clean it and put your face in the water, shining your light into the depths, trying to make out any creatures that might be out in the open.
The indigo water will likely be turbid, bits of sediment and transparent jellyfish suspended in the spotlight of your torch-lit section of sea.
Your mind may be running wild with what you might encounter, but, like with any dive, try to let go of your expectations and enjoy what the ocean has in store for you.
When your group gathers round your leader and elevates their low-pressure inflator hoses, you’ll press the deflate button and, in a simultaneous rush of escaping air, your head will dip beneath the surface, and your descent will begin.
This is the switch, the transition between worlds, where all your senses are heightened and your anxious anticipation, having crested, comes crashing down like a wave, foaming and frothing, washing over you and then receding, giving way to the calm current that will carry you throughout the dive.
The new environment and darkness can be disorienting, the sporadic waving of torches triggering your eyes to look this way, then that way, in an effort to locate the creatures that may be hiding in their coral homes.
You have to give yourself some extra space and remember to swim in slow motion; night dives are about meticulously searching for those mysterious, hidden life forms.
The experience is exhilarating, especially during the descent, and when you arrive at depth, drifting in that dreamy, underwater realm, you’ll feel like an outsider, alert and awake in an otherwise sleeping world.
The Nocturnal Creatures You’ll Encounter
The ocean’s nocturnal world is utterly astounding. In an arena where you would expect most creatures to be sleeping, safely hidden in the confines of their coral sanctuaries, an entire ecosystem shudders to life.
The nighttime hunters come out, prowling in the darkness, waiting patiently for prey to expose itself. And the animals lower down on the food chain, those who are too vulnerable to reveal themselves in the dangers of daytime, lurk in the blackness, shuffling and crawling across the sand, finding new shelters or food for themselves.
The possibilities of what you might see on a night dive are endless and otherworldly.
You may be met with urchins, their countless black spines sticking out in every direction, promising to prick any part of your body that gets too close.
Your light could fall on anemones, their dimmed-neon and waving appendages shrinking and retracting and shying away when met with the light.
You might come upon a gaping hole, a break in the reef, where large lobsters, their antennae poking and prodding in the night, expose themselves, their bumpy exterior a mix of red and orange and almost-purple.
If you shine your bright torch to illuminate a wide section of coral, you might see countless petite, reflective circles, clumped together in sets of two: the shining eyes of hundreds of shrimp.
You can examine the fissures and fractures created in the maze of corals and search for the distinguished eyes of an octopus or, perhaps, one’s distinctive tentacle, lined with suckers, searching and tasting its surroundings.
Your pursuit may prove to be ambitious, and oftentimes you’ll convince yourself that you see the flash of an arm or the flicker of an iris, only for it to evaporate into a dark, inaccessible hole before you can further investigate it. But octopuses are one of the most astounding things to see at night, their unpredictable colors and patterns enthralling even the most experienced divers.
And sometimes your light might accidentally shine on a colorful fish wedged in between coral and you must hurriedly direct it elsewhere, sending silent apologies to the sleeping being, hoping that you didn’t disturb it from its slumber.
Parrotfish sleep at night and secrete a mucus that protects themself from predators. If awoken amidst the nighttime hours, their mucus production is interrupted and they, unable to secrete enough coating for adequate protection, are forced into survival mode, defenseless and exposed to their nocturnal surroundings.
On the evening of my night dive, we were moored up at Moon Hole, a shallow dive site in Utila true to its name, a mirror of the moon in the sky, reflected onto the ocean floor; a large, flat, circular sand patch, encompassed by surrounding coral reef.
I would carefully cruise along, hanging close to the coral that ringed the rim of Moon Hole, shining my light in every crack and crevice I could find.
I’m not sure if it was the brightness or the color of the light that exuded from my lamp, but it attracted the first of many organisms I would encounter: worms.
Tiny, wriggling, writhing worms swarmed to the bright white beam, tickling my fingers and the hand holding onto the light. While it may sound uncomfortable, those creatures squiggling and squirming their way around in the darkness, I was intensely curious about them, shining my light in different directions to see if the swarm would follow.
If you cup your hand in front of the beam, within seconds a horde will appear so thick that the observable ocean becomes an obscure, opaque cluster of the tiny, reddish-tan organisms. If you move your hand and the light together, closer to the heads of coral lying on the sandy bottom, porous protrusions will suck in the worms, slurping them up, feeding on them in the torch-driven frenzy.
Larger worms may join the mass, their reaction to the light even more intriguing. When met with the beam, they writhe and spiral downward, seizing and convulsing and shedding a gaseous mist that is bewildering to see. Larger fish like snappers, their shiny scales flickering and reflecting in the torch-light, might dart through the pack, hunting the larger worms in spurts of speed.
During my dive, a small southern stingray glided along the sand patch beneath me. The ray would rear back its head and the sand around its mouth would swirl up in a dusty cloud. It would flap its wings and dig down into the sediment, clearly feeding. It seemed to follow my light, liking the food source I was attracting, and so I led it, feeling very much like I was playing with a puppy who eagerly pounced wherever I pointed.
At some point on your dive, your Instructor or Divemaster will signal to you, bringing their torch against their hand and then to their BCD so that just a faint ring lights up on their stomach, effectively stifling the bright light.
They will signal for you to do the same and, when you do, your group will be enveloped in complete and utter darkness.
The Bioluminescence: Swimming through the Stars
Windless night dives under a new moon are known to be best, stark black stretching both above and below the water’s smooth, unmoving surface; the perfect conditions for brilliant bioluminescence.
When you turn your torch to your stomach, it will feel like you may as well have just shut your eyes. If you try thrashing your hand around, only a few spherical specks may glow for a moment before disappearing. Don’t let that deter you; give yourself some time to absorb your surroundings and give your surroundings some time to come to life.
Your eyes will begin to adjust and the hazy outline of the other divers will begin to take form as dark, drifting shadows in an even darker world.
As you float along in that black-water bliss, the familiar sound of your breath through the regulator can be soothing, a mindless metronome that calms your thoughts and pacifies your mind, and the water around you will feel like the familiar embrace of an old friend, peaceful and protective and safe.
I would imagine that this is what it felt like to be a baby, except this time as an offspring of the ocean, and our mother, the sea herself, holds us in the cozy confines of her watery womb, providing a steady supply of security and an unwavering feeling of serenity.
As more time passes, your eyes will acclimate further and further to the figures, forms, and contours of coral, and with the notion of bioluminescence tickling your thoughts, you can again wave your hand in front of your face.
This time, if the conditions are right, the water will sparkle to life. Miniscule orbs of white light will fly from your fingertips, spreading out in the aquatic atmosphere, like you’re sprinkling stars across the sky. Wave your hand again and you’ll ignite a streak of twinkling sparks, like those emitted from a fire pit after you’ve thrown a log onto the burning pile.
If you continue to flap your hands, thrashing them more enthusiastically, you’ll create a dancing lightshow of the microscopic proteins that will seem to flutter from your fingers. Watch the divers in front of you, and you’ll see that their kicks produce the dancing, glowing flurries that fall like snowflakes from their fins.
If you move slightly shallower that is where the truly magical experience of the night dive will begin to transpire.
Hanging in the water, suspended in the murkiness of the marine world, you can find String of Pearls, and they begin to light up on their own, one shining orb giving way to the next, traveling down the line like a stoplight switching between red, yellow, and green.
They hang in strands, like vines running through a jungle, stretching endlessly through the darkness, shimmering and radiant against the midnight backdrop. You can weave through the threads, a needle through the glowing, gossamer webs, and you will be stunned into absolute silence, completely taken aback by the beauty unfolding right in front of your eyes.
There, in the inky, indigo sea, blackness billowing around you, broken up by ever-glowing, blue-white strings of pearly bioluminescence, tears may well in your eyes as they did in mine as a small, salty sacrifice to the ocean.
It feels like you have entered the alien world of Avatar, and you can drift along in a state of bewildered bliss, overflowing with gratitude and awe and unable to fully comprehend how your surroundings are lighting up so beautifully.
If you look up to the surface, you may see the bottom of your boat, rocking in the rollers, splashing seawater from side to side. Or you may only see hazy, silvery light filtering in through the shimmering surface, twinkling between the crests and troughs of the endlessly flowing waves.
If you’re like me, you will feel like you could stay trapped in that trance forever, marveling at the ocean world around you, but, inevitably, your leader will signal that its time to circle up, rise to your safety stop, and return to the world from which you came.
The Return to Your Own Realm
When you ascend to the 5-meter mark to complete your safety stop, releasing your torches from their resting places, illuminating the night once more, you might also experience the return of some nocturnal creatures.
On my night dive, we watched in awe, eyes wide, as hundreds of writhing bloodworms flocked and flooded to my torch in a troop so thick that I could feel some strays making their way under my wetsuit, tickling my legs, and some even fluttering against my cheeks and lips. I clenched my teeth on the mouthpiece of my regulator, moving the light as far from my face as I could, completely mesmerized by the mass.
When your safety stop is finished, you’ll point your torch to the sky and begin kicking upward, rising the last few meters and finally breaking through the surface, returning to your own realm once again.
You’ll be tempted to talk, to laugh and shout and share the amazing experience you just had with the rest of your group, but this is where you have to resist the urge to speak. This is the finale.
When you break through the topside waves, you have to inflate your jacket and lean back, resembling a sleeping otter floating on the surface. If you stare up into the night sky, you’ll see a reflection from the subsurface world: hundreds of bright white orbs glimmering in the atmosphere, spotting the galaxy with stars and wisps of the Milky Way.
This is where the sea fades into the sky, making it impossible to tell where one world ends and the other begins.
This is where you can float for a few moments, caught in between two realms, silence weaving its way between your group, allowing you all to take in the world above just as spectacularly as you appreciated the world below.
All night dives are different. Some are more magical than others. During some, you see creatures beyond your wildest dreams and during others, the brilliant bioluminescence is what stuns you into silence.
For me, night dives are those special subsurface trips, ones I don’t get to go on as often, and that makes them unique, a chance to see the ocean in a way I don’t normally get to. I feel like night dives bring me closer to the sea, submerging myself in a world that I’m witnessing in a new light, or, rather, without any light at all.
And, funnily enough, that blindness has allowed me to see more, to feel more, to be aware of more than if I if were only seeing the underwater world during the day.