Night-dives are exciting: the thrill of kitting up under lights on the dive-deck, surrounded by inky blackness; the trepidation of a giant stride into a black sea; the other-worldly effect of dive-lights stabbing through the darkness. Familiar sites take on an eerie feel and you need to dive in a different way – our industry experts offer guidance on making the most of diving after dark
Vikki Batten, PADI Examiner, Course Director & TecRec Instructor-Trainer: “Invest in a really good light. Check out which ones tech divers and photographers have, and ask them for the pros and cons of their choices. Battery and bulb technology has improved in leaps and bounds over recent years, so you can get excellent lights that are small enough to carry on every dive.
“Don’t forget to tailor your choice to the type of diving you do. If you want to use an action-camera under water to help film creatures at night, you’ll need something different to someone whose main purpose is getting the best view of underwater life, and communicating with their buddy.”
Emily Petley-Jones, PADI Regional Training Consultant: “Night-dives are my favourite type of dive. Observing the differences in critter behaviour at night is mesmerising. Having fully charged primary and back-up lights are the obvious considerations when preparing for a night-dive.
“However, careful consideration should be given to the strength of the light you’re taking down with you. There are many that have super-strength flood and are so strong that they can dazzle the other divers and create the effect of daylight. One might argue that if you want to replicate the effect of daylight, why go on a night-dive? This is very much a personal choice.
“The most-important thing for me is getting a torch with a robust switch, so that I can easily turn it off and on again should I need to. There are some underwater lights where to turn it on you have to rotate the torch-head. It is possible for divers to fall foul of not being able to remember which way to turn it, to turn the light back on again, and end up flooding it by unscrewing it too far.”
BSAC National Diving Officer Dai Atkins: “Hello darkness, my old friend… my torch has failed on me. Again! I wish I’d put a spare in my bag!
“I hope this is what you’ve actually done, because night-diving is ever-so-slightly more prep-heavy than day-diving. Not only do you have to remember all the stuff you need for diving during daylight but you also need to add some extras – and take some additional precautions too.
“There are some pretty standard practices when it comes to diving in low light conditions to ensure that it’s safe. Diving only in sites with which you’re familiar is one, so select sites you dive regularly during the day and you will be less likely to become disorientated now that conditions have changed.
“Stick to areas of calm water – different conditions at depth might not be readily recognisable from the surface, and surfacing in a remote area far from shore is particularly high-risk if surface conditions are challenging. And, finally – be seen! Give surface support a sporting chance of locating you, both when you’re at depth and when you finally pop up!
“Lights of all kinds are key here – torches and a back-up are obvious essentials for the kit-bag, but also strobes and glow-stick-type devices are handy to help your buddy locate you under water, and for surface support to spot you.
“To avoid the higher risk of separation a buddy-line might be a good idea and unless you’re absolutely certain that you’re going to remain static, a surface marker buoy equipped with a permanent light of some description will enable you to be tracked from the surface.
“The boat- or shore-cover should be equipped with a spotting lamp to help look for your bubbles and avoid hitting you, and while everyone likes to look cool in black, there’s a valid reason here for wearing your hi-vis Day-glo orange 1980s exposure suit!
“Diving in moonlight often gives a lot more ambient light to the water surface, and other fixed points of reference such as a shore-party or boat location can be improved by having some kind of beacon-esque device. So maybe a beach barbecue or a campfire can help you maintain a datum to the shore, or else stick a strobe on the shotline.
“If you surface under a delayed SMB, this can be illuminated by sticking your torch inside it – but beware of subsequent reports of offshore alien beings to the local papers if you haven’t touched base with the proper authorities about your intentions (don’t ask me how I know!).
“Sound on the surface is another way of pinpointing you position should you get separated from your group and your light has failed. Whistles, air-horns and other noisy things are all worth sticking in your jacket-pockets, and if you have access to a personal locator beacon then all the better.
“As well as the safety side, don’t forget to take your camera and all the spare lighting paraphernalia you need to take those magic shots (video lights, strobes, reflectors) and ensure that they are all fully charged!
“Focusing objects in a torch-beam gives a different framing perspective, and the colour of marine life is often much more vivid against a darker backdrop. Wrecks look far more mysterious and often ghostly, and some nocturnal marine life exhibits bioluminescence, which is certainly something you won’t want to miss!”
SDI/TDI’s Business Development Manager Mark Powell: “Diving at night might seem daunting at first. However, more often than not, I see divers fall in love with it. It truly is one of my favourite types of diving. With the proper equipment and the right planning it can be a fantastic experience.
“So why do we bother diving at night in the first place? The environment completely changes. The same dive-site you have seen multiple times turns into a whole new world.
“As the sun sets, a shift in wildlife occurs. An amazing new array of creatures emerge from their homes. Octopuses come out from their hiding-holes to hunt. Squid dart in and out of your vision and lobster travel in packs across the ocean floor.
“Many fish will settle down into any available nooks and crannies to rest for the night, while others will be out and active. This means that you will see a completely different ecosystem when compared to diving the same site during the day.
“As you learnt on your open-water course, colour becomes absorbed by water the deeper you descend. However, during a night-dive you are continually reintroducing the spectrum of light. This causes the scenery to be illuminated in a dazzling show of colour. My favourite feature of night-diving is the bioluminescence.
“If you cover your light and wave your hand around, you will see a fantastic glow of blue and green specks similar to a field of fireflies. Many marine organisms such as bacteria emit light because of chemical reactions occurring inside their bodies. Observing the underwater world at night is one of the most unique diving adventures you can have.
“Going on a night-dive begins with solid preparation. Make sure you’re familiar with the site you’re going to dive. Choose a location you’ve dived before or scope the site out during the day beforehand. Knowing the layout will make navigation a breeze and help you feel more comfortable throughout the dive.
“After you have picked a location, try to arrive just before dusk. It’s much easier to gear up and plan out your route while there is still light. While you set up, conduct a thorough briefing with your buddy.
“Go over the dive-plan and review all of the key hand and light signals you’ll be using. A circular motion with your light means “OK”, while a side-to-side motion means “attention”. Talking about these signals will ensure that you and your team are on the same page.
“I also like to touch on buddy-separation procedures. My dive-partner and I have agreed to look around for no more than one minute before surfacing. Then we can reunite and continue our dive.
“Before you enter, mark your exit with a light or by using some prominent landmark. This facilitates an easy return by giving you a heading to swim for at the end of your dive.
“During the dive, try to stay shallow, stay close and go slow. Limiting your depth allows you to extend your bottom-time and see all the cool things night-diving has to offer, and you’ll have more fun knowing your buddy is nearby. Lastly, there will be a ton of new night-life, and going slow helps you take it all in.
“There are some additional equipment requirements associated with night-diving. Of course, a good light is necessary to enjoy the dive. Actually, two good lights are required.
“Dive-lights come in water/pressure-proof housings. They are rugged and capable of enduring the underwater environment. Over the years, light technology has improved drastically. Battery-life has got longer and the bulbs are burning brighter than ever before.
“When purchasing your first dive-light for night-diving, look for solid construction, common battery types, sufficient brightness and appropriate ‘hotspot’ for signalling. AAA, 18650 li-polymer and 26650 li-polymer are common battery types for dive-lights.
“Hotspots are the middle area of a beam, where the light is most focused and brightest. These are critical in night-diving for signalling your buddy, so you’ll want to avoid lights that have no hotspot.
“Your local dive-shop can help you compare the myriad different lights. One tip is to attach a boltsnap to yours just in case you want to clip it off.
“While you’re using your light, be very careful not to shine it in your buddy’s eyes. He or she will not appreciate being blinded for the next few seconds.
“Not only do you need a primary light but also a back-up. In case your primary light should ever fail, your back-up light will allow to you make a safe, controlled ascent. It’s important to call the dive if any team-member experiences a light-failure. Your back-up light should share all the attributes of your primary and be well-maintained.
“Other useful pieces of equipment are light-sticks or marker-lights. Light sticks can be attached to a tank-valve, making you and your buddy easily identifiable under water. Marker-lights can be attached to an anchor-chain or an exit-point to help you find your way back home. Putting one on your SMB allows for quick reunification in case you and your buddy get separated.
“Finally, compasses are very important tools to help you navigate under water. Make sure to get one that has a glowing dial. They are far easier to use when they stay illuminated after a brief flash of your light.”
IANTD’s Tim Clements: “Night-diving not only offers an additional insight into the underwater world, but also challenges the use of our own major sense – sight. If you’re going to night-dive ‘like a pro’, you’ll need to learn how to use additional senses such as touch, and have excellent navigational skills. By tapping into and developing these skill-sets on recreational night-dives, you can also prepare for more challenging deeper dives.
“Pros would ensure that they have sufficient illumination for both orientation to the environment and signalling between divers. They would also ensure that torches were sufficiently charged and backed up with an additional torch in case of failure.
“Night-diving like a pro also means more meticulous attention to preparation of dive-gear and boat or shore access – any problems at night might be harder to deal with than by day, so preparation needs to be better. Have you got a method everyone understands for diver rescue, or location at the surface? Do you have good shore-support closer than the saloon bar of the Pony & Freeflow local pub?
“Under water, a pro will ensure that all team members stick together and, most importantly, that everyone understands that anyone can turn the dive at any time. Darkness is an odd thing, and taking a diver for a first night-dive might be unsettling. It might also be brilliant!”
Photographs by Mark Evans and Jason Brown