It was dark.
Inky dark. The kind of dark where you can’t see your hand in front of your nose if you don’t have a light. Fortunately I was equipped to split the dark with a small sliver of light.
I was drenched. This was not a surprise, as there was 45 feet of ocean above me and I was protected only by my wet suit and other scuba gear. In addition to the aforementioned light I had a backup, just in case the primary burnt out, ran down, or got flooded. A three foot barracuda briefly swam into my sliver of light, showing a toothy grin.
I was diving well after sunset in Bonaire, a Dutch island in the Leeward Antilles of the Caribbean Sea. It is one of the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao) located about 50 miles north of the west end of Venezuela, South America. While Aruba may be better known for partying, Bonaire is known for diving. That reputation is due only partly to the reefs, what makes it different is the ease of shore diving. Resort packages can include a pickup truck used to haul filled tanks and other dive gear. As you drive around the rim of the island, periodically you’ll see rocks on the side of the road painted yellow next to a place to pull off. These flag good spots for a shore dive, and allow you to do as many dives as you want in a variety of locations. Some of the resorts also feature nice “house reefs” where you can get your diving adventure without the drive, as well as boat dives that get you to Klein Bonaire, a smaller island off the coast of Bonaire. You can also drive to other parts of the island, where the inland is strewn with cactus, and there’s a lake in the north frequented by flamingos.
In the daylight the reefs were full of fish, albeit mostly smaller ones, darting in and out of the nooks and crannies, doing synchronized swimming in schools, or doing their own solo thing. The reefs too are more than just rocks, the many colors and shapes of live coral add to the experience. It’s like taking a vibrant tour through a gigantic aquarium, only you’re on the inside sharing the space with the residents instead of on the outside looking in.
Diving at night is always spooky. Although I came to Bonaire with my wife Priscilla, she doesn’t dive so I was doing most of my dives solo. At night when it’s just you and the big black out there the spookiness is especially pronounced – it would not be a good place to be claustrophobic or paranoid, although some would call me crazy just for doing it. I wasn’t entirely crazy though, this night dive was on the house reef which I had dived on several times, so I was familiar with the terrain.
As I swam along that night I noticed the reef was a much quieter place than in daytime. My beam of light only occasionally landed on a fish, looking a bit stunned and probably thinking “get that bright thing out of my eyes!” Even most of the coral polyps had drawn themselves in for the evening snooze.
Periodically I’d shine my light out into the blackness of the open water column, where only your imagination can see what’s hiding there. I hadn’t forgotten about the barracuda. Did I mention they have a lot of big, sharp, pointy teeth and eyes that say “I’m hungry”?
With that in mind I was quite startled when big silver flashes started zooming into the reef where my light shined in. Tarpon! These are bigger fish, greater than four feet long and 60 pounds as adults. I was their instant friend, as my light was aiding their night hunt.
As my air supply and wife’s patience were not infinite, I headed back to the resort. As I neared the end of the dive the sea bottom ahead of me was speared with many shafts of light, dancing erratically. It looked like an invasion of UFO’s. It turned out to be a group of divers going out for a night dive, mostly still on or near the surface, who had also spotted some tarpon and were trying to keep them in their lights.
Night diving is not for everyone. Most of the time, it’s not even for me. But if you can push away that boogieman that lives in the dark, what is already a strange part of the planet can show even more new mysteries.