by Nick Lakoff, Certified Dive Instructor
I just returned home from guiding a night dive at Mandy’s Eel Garden in West Bay on the Island of Roatan. No matter how many times I do a night dive I’m always blown away by how different diving this site is once the sun has gone down. One of the reasons for this change is many creatures that during the day are dormant will come out at night in search of food and prey. The largest migration of animals on the planet is at night as animals from the deeps, sometimes thousands of feet down, will come to the shallows and feed. This is why it isn’t necessary to go deep on a night dive to see some spectacular creatures doing what they do best, eating and procreating. Another reason that night dives seem so intense is because your field of vision is determined by the width of the beam of your underwater flashlight. Your focus is much narrower and you tend to observe much more in that narrow field. Something else I love is you never know what you’re going to see and very often I observe animals I’ve never seen before even with all the night dives I have under my belt.
Tonight was a moonless night and added another layer of bliss for me as a diver. Once in the sand patch at Mandy’s towards the middle of the dive we kneel down as a group and turn off all our lights. The first thing we can observe once our eyes have adjusted is the bioluminescence caused by our movements or the bubbles from our regulators. When disturbed, Plankton will give off sparks of green glow which all by itself is quite amazing.
On moonless nights where it is dark enough we get an added treat called the “String of Pearls”. Small crustaceans called Copepods are about in the water all around us. One of its defense mechanisms to confuse its prey is to give off bursts of bioluminescence. This is done in a series so it looks like a string of pearls or little mini fireworks as I like to call them. This is a most fantastic experience that is hard to beat in the scuba world.
This dive was particularly enjoyable because of all the critters we did get to see. It started with a Greater Soapfish and then we were exited to find a Slipper Lobster only the third time I had ever seen one. Once out of the first swim though we saw what seemed to be a clam moving through the water, long red eyelash like tentacles coming out of its mouth. Further along we saw an exquisite and quite large Tulip Snail moving along the sand hardly disturbed by our inquisitive lights. Just before we turned out our lights for our fireworks we saw a black spotted Moray Eel jutting its head out of a solitary coral outcrop in the middle of the sand patch. I led our group to a spot where I know there is a basket star that has been there for as long as I have been diving here and probably for many years before that. During the day it’s curled up in a ball but at night it stretches out its long tentacles out like marine lace hoping to trap passing prey namely small shrimp its favorite food. We got to see many juvenile and adult Caribbean Spiny Lobsters and another Black Spotted Eel which thrilled us by coming out of its hiding place and scurrying along for another hiding spot away from the limelight. During the dive I was keeping an eye out for one of my favorite night crawlers, the octopus. And sure enough one of our Divemasters Daniel spotted one and I was delighted as were the rest of us. On our way back I showed Theo a diver I recently certified as an open water diver some star coral with its feeding tentacles extended. During the day this coral, as well as many others, looks like solid rock but in actuality it is alive. This is why it is so important as a diver never to touch coral as even the slightest touch can damage them. The tentacles are equipped with stingers that trap passing prey like plankton and Zooplankton that is then passed on to the exuded guts for digestion. It is quite an amazing transformation and no matter how many times I see it, it leaves me in awe at the complexity of nature.
We are now heading back to the shore and return via the swim through and there I see a very strange creature I’ve never seen before. It is some kind of worm, about three feet long partially translucent and with tentacles for a mouth. I’ve never seen anything like it and I am excited. I know I have to look it up but it’s possible that it’s never been documented. That is the mind-blowing reality that we know so little about the ocean and its dwellers that very often we do come across previously undiscovered species very often without knowing it. In a way we are explorers in our own right. Then as we surface in the shallows of the beach, exhilarated from our dive we look up to the heavens and are treated to the most beautiful starry night. Devoid of excessive light pollution, it is the way it must have been, many centuries ago, as seen by pirates and fortune seekers coming to the Bay Islands in search of glory and fortune.