Last week I took the plunge and conquered my fears and after 10 years of SCUBA diving, I experienced a night dive. What drew me in finally was the possibility of witnessing the coral spawning. I’m still not sure if I saw it, but what I did experience was something surreal and out of this world … the nighttime, magical world of bioluminescence.
Perhaps its that I watch too much “Shark Week” and have a healthy fear of the dark/unknown, but diving at night where all I can see is within the small field of light emanating from my flashlight didn’t appeal to me. In fact, it invoked a bit of terror and anxiety. I’ve been boating at night with halogens glowing off the stern and saw that the small fish are attracted to the light and the bigger fish (aka predators) lurk just outside. Watching. Waiting. F-R-E-A-K-S me out. But, I am all about conquering (most) fears and with the added lure of coral spawning, I decided it was now or never.
Coral reefs are home to more than 25% of all marine life found on earth. Many reefs can be aged at 5,000 to 10,000 years old! The critters who inhabit the coral reef ecosystem in turn are eaten by larger predators who visit for a meal. Reefs also play an important role in the symbiotic relationship with coastal seagrasses which filter runoff and feed seaturtles and other marine life. The predatory fish that rely on the reefs are consumed by a huge portion of the human population. These are just a few reasons that corals are a critical part of our ocean environment. And thus, the annual spawning is not only exciting but crucial to its survival. [click here for more information on coral]
So, I guess you could say they had me at “coral spawning”. I posted a shout out on Facebook to my local friends that dive and in the end coerced a couple to join me (thanks Jerry & Chris for not making me face the dark alone!!). We headed out that Friday night with St Croix Ultimate Blue Water Adventures aboard their boat Reliance and headed for “Blue Chute”, a dive site just outside of Christiansted harbor. Keeping us safe and entertained was the dynamic duo of Captain Jon & dive master Lauren. And then we waited. For the sun to go down. Eek!! When I finally rolled off the boat into to the inky dark ocean I was in search of coral spawn, but what stole the show that night were the underwater fireworks.
It wasn’t the first time I’d experienced marine bioluminescence. In the 90’s I was an educator at the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, CT where I taught classes ranging from Shark Behavior to Jellyfish to Marine Conservation and crewed on the Marine Life Study cruises. In one of our classrooms, we had a small bag of dinoflagellates that we kept in the refrigerator. We would turn out the lights and shake them up to the “oohs” and “aahs” of the elementary school kids. On a trip to St Maarten in 1994, I’d seen a little glow while swimming at night. And at the beginning of this bio-rific week I got to experience one of only a handful of bays in the entire world that light up like a glow stick, the phosphorescent Bio Bay in Vieques aka Mosquito Bay. While sitting in the clear canoes you can actually see fish swimming by, their bodies illuminated by the tiny dinoflagellates that luminesce when disturbed by motion. But I’m not going to lie, the night dive was the grand finale of my “bio week”.
I’ll admit it, I never expected what I saw. In fact, when a friend told me that we would turn our lights off during part of the dive I said “Hell no!”. Then when Lauren mentioned it as part of the dive brief, I thought “Ok you do that… I’m keeping mine on!” But once I was below and focused on the critters of the night, I started to relax. About a half-hour into our dive it happened… I saw lights starting to go out. I didn’t hold my breath (that’s a no-no in diving) but I wanted to as I clicked my torch off. It took a minute (what seemed like an eternity) for my eyes to adjust and THEN… magic. Dive Master Lauren described it best when we surfaced – it was like the night scene in the forest from Avatar. No lie. It looked just like the illustration below. I can still see the water all around us twinkling like a million little stars. It was like I was a constellation sitting in the middle of the milky way. Suspended all around us were glowing “Strings of Pearls”. These are actually Ostracods which are sesame-seed-sized crustaceans that live on the reef. The males, when courting, put on a dazzling light show to attract females and it looks like little strings of pearls (thus the obvious name). The reef itself was also brightly lit with the glowing eyes and bodies of other tiny creatures and floating particles. I thought to myself, why did we even bother with the flashlights?! I can see just fine!
All-in-all it was a spectacular end to an exciting week. One that left me smugly satisfied that I am not just a visitor to these incredible islands – I live here and am appreciative of that every day. And while I may never experience quite that dramatic of a dive again – I’m certainly hooked on night diving now. Next stop, the Frederiksted Pier at night. I hear there’s quite the after-hours party going on there.
If you would like to try a night dive – or maybe you’re inspired to try your very first SCUBA dive we highly recommend our friends at St Croix Ultimate Blue Water Adventures or for diving at the Frederiksted Pier (an easy shore dive) contact our friends at N2 The Blue in Frederiksted. Both shops also offer West End wreck dives, as well as other great dive sites.