Do you dive by night?
NIGHT-DIVING IS ONE of those things some divers just don’t do. It can be a little spooky, it’s true, and does incur slightly more risk than daytime diving. Feeling uncomfortable with the notion is nothing to be embarrassed about, because a bad experience on an unsuitable site or when insufficiently trained might have put you off in the past, or perhaps you just can’t put your finger on the reason for your reluctance.
It’s also true that It’s always best to miss a dive if we don’t feel comfortable with it, rather than create risk.
All that said, pushing ourselves every once in a while can be thrilling, and that’s where a little advance knowledge and training makes the difference.
On a night dive you see only the little bit of the world illuminated by your torch and perhaps the lights from your boat or the moon, which is perhaps why it can be off-putting to some.
There is less information available
to us, and we are very much visual creatures. The grand vistas of corals, the massive steel architecture; all is replaced with a disc of light a few metres wide.
This does not have to be a bad thing, however, if you keep in mind that all that has changed is time and your perception. With the bigger picture in your mind, relax and go with it.
Wrecks, reefs and even sunken vehicles have a greater presence, shadows are deeper and your gaze is no longer focused on the whole.
Before you know it, you’re seeing so much more concentrated detail than you did on the day dive. It doesn’t have to be a loss of information, simply different information. Moving slowly and working up a mental map can really help.
Take the Thistlegorm wreck – a popular dive, day or night, though at night finning down the companionways and exploring the interior with your torch, picking over each detail that you missed in the day, feels far more like exploring. Suddenly the bikes or the shells have so much more immediacy.
During the day you’re admiring the batfish swimming across the superstructure and trying to get a shot of your buddy next to one of the guns, but at night your torch beam is finding hidden crevices, lighting up fish-filled cabins and the descent into the holds is even more atmospheric.
It’s the same ship, but you are experiencing it very differently.
The night shift
During the night, the bulk of the fish are tucked up in crevices and coral heads, and the reefs belong to an army of critters busy getting on with their lives while the rest of the reef snoozes.
Daytime’s anthias, parrotfish and butterflyfish are keeping their heads down and trying to avoid predators.
Out on the reef, the basketstars and featherstars are catching passing plankton and the nudibranchs in their bewildering colours are scattered across the reef.
A concentration of torch beams and a red glow will indicate that someone has found a Spanish dancer, and under deck-plates and in coral rubble hermit crabs, lobsters and shrimps will be spotted staring at you before scuttling away.
Of course, some fish-life will be making the most of your lights: the lionfish, for example, loved and hated in equal measure (depending in which ocean you are) may well have learnt to catch their now-startled prey with the help of your torch-beams. I don’t help them, and I don’t think we should, but that’s another matter.
Dive torches are now available that emit light entirely at the red end of the spectrum. Fish and other life-forms can’t perceive it; great for observing creatures at night without disturbing them.
Other lights that emit a very blue light can bring out the fluorescent pigments in fish, corals and inverts and add a new dimension to the dive.
One step further is the use of specialist ultra-violet lights – fluo-diving can illuminate patches of reef to create a magical otherworldly experience.
For many, the night shift is the main reason for night-diving. An otherwise mundane wreck or reef can come alive with life once the sun goes down.
If you’re not sure about night-diving, a short and shallow “critter hunt” with a dive-guide or experienced buddy can be a great ice-breaker.
Night-diving can provide a great way to get some astounding shots with even the simplest of cameras. You can forget backscatter and washed-out reef shots – just set your controls to macro and focus (literally) on the little stuff. Nudibranchs, shrimps, other critters and corals look great at night, and you can really capture their bright colours and intricate structures.
You may well be tempted to snap away at sleeping fish, turtles and your buddy’s increasingly angry face, but be considerate. Not only can flashing fish perhaps be painful to them but it can cause them to break cover, putting them at risk of predation or injury. As ever in diving, be thoughtful and considerate.
The right site…
Some sites are perfect for night-diving. Small shallow wrecks such as the famous barge at Gubal Island in the Red Sea are easily navigated and avoid extremes of depth.
Walls also make great night dives. You simply fin along the wall, turn round and come back, which limits the chances of getting lost and reduces the work required on navigation, allowing you to concentrate on the sights around you.
… the right kit
Knowing that you’re prepared and have the correct kit helps to allay any worries you may have and reassures you that there’s one less thing to worry about. A redundant gas supply, two torches (one as a back-up), knife, SMB, emergency strobe and whistle will all help should an emergency arise.
If you get lost, don’t feel embarrassed about surfacing and signalling with your torch illuminating your SMB.
Any diver can get disorientated and it’s best to surface safely with plenty of gas than get stressed and feel you must return to the boat.
A pick-up by RIB is better than spending the night on oxygen and you’ll be surprised how many divers have surfaced on the wrong boat. Don’t worry, at least you’ve come up, and you may well make new friends.
We’ve all drifted off during a briefing, but if you remember where the shotline is, in which compass direction the wreck or reef faces and how deep certain features are, your mental map of the site will keep you orientated.
When you get back to the shotline and begin your ascent with 50 bar (or more) left in your tank, you’ll feel pretty proud of yourself.
Many inland dive-sites offer night-time sessions in unthreatening surroundings. Chances are you’ll be diving with friends and perhaps others who are getting their first taste of night-diving, so you won’t feel outnumbered.
Dive a site you’ve dived during the day so you that you’re already familiar with it. Apart from feeling more secure, the contrasts between the day and night experiences are interesting in their own right.
Night-diving courses are available, and cover aspects such as avoiding buddy separation, night-diving signals and how to orientate yourself and relocate your entry point.
Don’t be embarrassed to ask dive-guides to take you on a short shallow bimble – chances are they’ll find loads of good stuff for you to look at that will distract you from any lingering nervousness.
Practise and confirm signals to be used with your buddy.
Consider a dusk dive. Entering the water before the sun goes down can be the perfect halfway-house, and shallow reefs can look fantastically well-lit.
Have a simple dive plan. You don’t need to commit to 45-minute, multi-level complicated dives.
Set a sensible goal of 20 minutes exploring a small part of the site and build your confidence as you develop your capability.
Night-dives require patience and a steady approach. With sensible planning and training you will find that you lose your apprehension of night-dives as your confidence grows, and you’ll learn that while your caution was well-placed, you can safely avoid the risks, real or imagined, and will have taken one further step in your diving career.
You are now someone who definitely does “do” night dives.
Understanding and using night-diving signals is key to ensuring that you and your buddy keep in contact and exchange information as readily as during the day. It’s all about clever use of your torch, which becomes a communication device as much as a critter-hunting tool.
* During your pre-dive check, discuss which signals you are likely to use to avoid confusion on the dive.
* Making a circle with your light beam is a question: “Are you OK?” Your buddy will do likewise to signal yes. Making the circle around your buddy’s beam is the best way to get their attention. Tank bangers or shakers might help if your buddy is not taking much notice.
* Moving the torch-beam to either side rapidly indicates that you are trying to get your buddy’s attention. Some divers use up and down movements to indicate problems, and rapid movements indicate more serious issues.
* Divers who know each other well often adapt and develop signals. Some will “lasso” a buddy’s torch-beam with their own before “leading” it towards something of interest.
* Shining your light onto your hands allows you to use hand-signals. You can also shine it onto your contents gauge and computer to show readings to a buddy close by, but make sure you are not shining the light into the buddy’s eyes.
* Stay close. Your light-beams should be able to overlap so that you can share information. Show each other what you’ve found but create the least amount of light disturbance.
* Be prepared to use the torch at the surface to indicate that you are OK and to illuminate yourself or your SMB and if necessary to indicate distress by rapidly waving it.
Do’s and a don’t
DO consider wearing small lights to identify yourself (or ask your buddy to do so). They can be useful, but your fellow-divers might prefer it if you avoid flashing ones.
DO avoid disturbing the local wildlife, which can be easily damaged by careless divers. Take extra care, take it slow and easy and plan your dive to avoid easily damaged life and structures.
DO stay close to the boat. You may well see just as much life under the boat as you will far away from it, and sometimes boat-lights attract that life.
DO have a back-up torch, and consider using a torch with variable output. You will see more underwater life with a light that isn’t blasting the reef with hundreds of watts of power.
DO have a plan worked out in case of buddy separation.
DO use a shotline if one is available. Use it to orientate yourself and locate yourself on wrecks before heading off.
DON’T point your torch directly into your buddy’s eyes. Learn to use it as a signalling device.