I'm breathing faster than I should. In scuba, you want to take long, slow breaths, not quick, staccato ones.
But this is my first time diving at night, and when I turn away from the five fellow divers in the water I see the narrow beam of my underwater flashlight and nothing, emptiness. This is the most anxiety-ridden portion of the dive-waiting for something to appear.
We were in Kailua-Kona to see the otherworldly, often semi-translucent, creatures that spend their days in the ocean's deepest regions, only to rise and feed when the water temperatures cool at night.
"It's the largest vertical migration in the world," said dive leader Chris Hunter of Kailua-Kona-based Jack's Diving Locker during the dive briefing. In fact, when they were first measuring the seafloor off of the coast of Hawaii Island, researchers registered false measurements at night because the sonar was bouncing off the mass of sea life rising up from the ocean floor.
While other night dives may hug the coastline or explore a reef, the pelagic dive, designed to find deep sea creatures, offers no underwater point of reference. Part of the attraction of doing a deep water dive from Hawaii Island is the water offshore gets deep fast. Hawaii Island is relatively young geologically speaking, and nature has not had as much time to erode the coastline. After a roughly 15 minute trip from the harbor, our boat had made it to the dive site.
Tethered to the boat, so as not to get lost in the dark ocean, I still looked up occasionally to make sure my only reference point was still there. Divers hover around a depth of 50 feet, and wait for the pelagic sea life to come up for feeding.
At times you see nothing but water, and recognize that a sea creature could be a few feet from your face before you would see it, if you're pointing in the right direction. You hope the next thing to traverse the beam of your flashlight is a fascinating, harmless siphonophore, a gelatinous string of cnidarians that clone themselves over and over forming long bands, or colonies, that slither through the water, and not something more troublesome like a box jellyfish (which we saw and our dive master dutifully shooed away).
Once I got my bearings I was able to focus on finding sea life. I turned away from the security blanket of seeing the other divers' flickering flashlights in the water and trained my light on my own section of nothingness.
I stopped looking for the nonexistent giant sea creature that would swallow my head whole, and I started seeing what was right in front of me. My eyes adjusted, and I spotted tiny shrimp, jellyfish and other creatures not larger than a thumbnail. Then, a blue and yellow reef fish crossed in front of me before the real show began. Finally, I spotted some of the pelagic critters advertised in the pre-dive briefing, what we had come to see. There were ctenophores, or comb jellies, that reflect a rainbow of light from their internal organs, visible through their gelatinous exteriors. It is also common to see heteropods, long, narrow creatures in the snail family with mostly translucent bodies except for their eyes and a couple of other organs.
I was transfixed by all of the new sea life I was encountering, an entirely new, eerie world compared to my numerous daylight dives highlighting coral reefs and larger marine life. It always seemed like something new and spectacular would appear from the abyss. I ran through my oxygen quicker than I liked, after spending some time acclimating myself to the nocturnal dive environment, and had to surface even though I was still enjoying the wildlife display.
Back on the boat the small group of divers shared stories of unique sightings and adjusting to the poor visibility over snacks as we headed back into the harbor. Getting one's bearings was the first, crucial challenge. The pelagic night dive is the type of activity that is best done multiple times, as more experience begets greater discoveries. And we all agreed we wanted to do it again, and see what else is lurking in the greatest depths of the ocean.
The Pelagic Magic night dive from Jack's Diving Locker
costs $175 and runs every week on Tuesdays and Thursdays and other nights by request.