Our little dock rocked with the evening tide as the palm-thatched roof provided the perfect frame for a sherbet-colored sunset. One of the guys’ fishing line, a transparent thread with an unfortunate crab’s claw tied to it shivered with the frenzy of tiny silver fish coming to shallow water for the night. It had only been seven days, but early mornings spent exploring coral formations and afternoons huddled around headlamps illuminating NAUI training books had left our bodies water-logged and our brains buzzing, especially now that a bio-luminescent night dive had been promised. One of the guys shuffled through the pages of a well-worn book on spirit animals and landed on the page titled shark.
By the time headlamps were necessary, I was standing in as assembly line passing scratched silver air tanks from our dock to a boat. “The thing about sharks is they won’t attack you from above, and the ones here have bitten so many divers tank they’re really not inclined anyways” shouted Jim – our dive master and my boss – as he maneuvered the boats motor and reflected on the time he fed a shark a sleeping fish. Despite this and several tips on where to find the sex-changing parrot fish sleeping in their own mucus, we were eager to get into the water because tonight he said, was perfect conditions for seeing bioluminescence.
Jim, being the educated one in the group explained that the bursts of white light were thousands of tiny phytoplankton flaring up after being moved around and that we would be able to see them once we were in the water and our flashlights turned off. As a last warning, Jim reminded us that we would see a lot of shadows, but to conserve air and enjoy the dive we should just ignore them and know that most of the time, they wouldn’t be sharks.
As the bubbles exploded around our face, something else did too. I was only inches underwater but I was gasping for breath as the blue-white sparks flew off of my hands and everything else that was flailing. Jim had turned off the boats lights and by the time I bobbed to the surface to make sure my dive partner had seen it too, the boat had blended into the smooth black surface despite only being a few feet away. She had and despite the feelings buzzing inside my head the only words I could squeak out before descending again were “SO COOL!!!”
As we sunk down, the differences between night and day dives became immediately apparent. Up and down suddenly looked the same and our visibility had shrunk to the size of a beach ball, provided by our single flashlight. While we oriented our bodies a few feet above the coral reef, swimming hand in hand, certain areas glowed brighter and we would turn the flashlight off, break apart and move as fast as we could, spinning shaking and waving to create clouds of galactic explosions that disappeared as fast as they had formed. When we joined back together a hard hand squeeze and muffled squeals confirmed that we were both alright with spending the rest of the night making things glow, and with no sense of direction or landmark, we continued zig-zagging along the ocean floor.
We kept our eyes out for fish but darker, stranger things appeared. The head of an eel poked out of volcanic-looking coral and huge crabs with legs like spiders picked invisible snacks out of the water and kept their beady eyes on us even as they shuffled sideways and out of our light. We learned quickly to keep our flashlight down after pointing it into open water just to be greeted with shifting greys and blues that made staring into pitch black feel a lot safer, if only for the illusion that nothing existed past our tiny beam of light. We found fish with mouths like trumpets face down, their bodies like columns among swaying plants, and swam too close to the fire-red fan of a lion fish who had claimed her hole for the night.
Still, the thrill of turning our flashlight off in exchange for a bio-luminescent light show was the highlight of the night. As I twirled and watched my bare fingers turn water into light, I understood what it means to experience something so amazing, I could never fully put it into words. I thought about how many times I had read about this exotic phenomenon, and how out of reach it had felt before I began traveling. I understood what it meant to pay infinite attention to tiny details and tried my best to fully absorb the moment. But best of all, I understood what it means to let go of everything and just have fun.