NHPA – Image Library Representation

NHPA – Image Library Representation

This news is slightly overdue, but I’m really pleased to officially announce that my images are now represented by NHPA.  NHPA is one of the world’s premier wildlife and natural history image libraries and will be stocking a wide variety of my underwater shots.  You can see my first submission to them by following this link, but I am presently working on the next batch to send through.  This will consist of images from Australia, as I’m working through my catalogue by location.

As always please do not hesitate to contact me directly with any specific needs should they not be available through NHPA.  It will take a while for me to go through everything captioning and keywording!

 

Raja Ampat Aboard Dewi Nusantara (Trip Three)

Raja Ampat Aboard Dewi Nusantara (Trip Three)

My final trip aboard the Dewi Nusantara liveaboard started in full force.  Each of our three day dives on the first day yielded one or more giant mantas (Manta birostris) with the second dive at ‘Blue Magic’ being particularly memorable.  A good sign before the dive was a breaching manta that flew straight out of the water not far from the tender and crashed down onto the water’s surface.  Once in the water, nine of these behemoths spent the entire 65 minutes swimming over and between us.  We were sure to give them plenty of space to approach their cleaning stations but even with my 10.5 mm fisheye lens they came too close to fit inside the frame.  I could ascertain by the spot pattern on the belly that one of the animals in particular was intrigued by us and was making the closest passes.  Incidentally, if you happen to get a shot of the belly from giant mantas anywhere in the world then you can upload them to www.MantaMatcher.org.  My friends at the Marine Megafauna Foundation are working to create a global database of mantas to help elucidate their movement patterns, abundance and ultimately aid their conservation.

The next morning we went on a great adventure into the forests of Waigeo Island, one of the ‘Four Kings’ that makes up the quartet of Raja Ampat’s islands.  We began our walk at 5am in search of the rare and illusive Wilson’s Bird of Paradise (Diphyllodes respublica), which is endemic to Waigeo and Batanta Islands.  Birds of Paradise are members of the crow family and diversified on the island of New Guinea into forty or so impossibly beautiful and ornate species. Several years ago I saw the Red Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea rubra), also endemic to these islands, were males gather together at dawn in a lek and display together, hoping to draw the attention of a female.  Male Wilson’s on the other hand, individually select a particular area of forest where they display to attract a female for a private show.

White-Lipped Python, Waigeo Island, New GuineaAfter an hour and a half walk through the pitch-dark forest, with one of the most amazing dawn choruses I’ve ever heard, our Papuan guide signalled for us to crouch behind a few strategically placed palm fronds.  We were only several metres from the display tree of the male Wilson’s Bird of Paradise.  We waited an hour or so and were fortunate enough to catch a fleeting glimpse of the stunning male.  He was one of the most vibrantly coloured animals I’ve ever seen above the waves.  His bright blue cap and vivid red back feathers stood out electrically amongst the drab foliage.  It was a real privilege to have been one of the lucky few to see this magnificent bird.  In the early morning light we walked back through the forest and spotted a large and stunning White-Lipped Python (Leiopython albertisii), pairs of noisy Blyth’s Hornbill (Rhyticeros plicatus) flying high above in the canopy as well as Eclectus (Eclectus roratus) and other small parrots and cockatoos.

We were lucky this trip to have with us the designer and owner of Dewi Nusantara, Guido Brink, and one of his partners, Simon Day.  It is great to hear stories from Guido about the construction of Dewi, built in the style of an American Schooner.  The construction of the boat took place up a river in the forests of Kalimantan, Borneo.  Once completed, the hull was moved to Bali where the final fit out took place.  In order to get her into the water, a channel was dug around the vessel and the river waters allowed to float the hull.  Guido personally oversaw all of the construction, having already built another vessel, the Ombak Biru.  It took 16 months from laying the keel to her maiden voyage, which I was actually on!  You can see more on the Dewi Nusantara website about her construction: www.Dewi-Nusantara.com

Simon, a partner in Dewi, was also on the trip.  He is a great character and an accomplished conservationist, having been one of the co-founders of Sea Sanctuaries.  This is a conservation initiative that has created 58,000 ha of no-take zone in conjunction with local villages around the Penemu region of Raja Ampat.  Within this huge area is one of the most famed sites in Raja, Melissa’s Garden.  I call it the reef of a billion fish – a million would seem like such a huge understatement.  There are so many fish that you can literally hear the roar as hundreds of bodies react in unison to the threat of a hunting predator.  I was extremely fortunate to meet Simon and hear more about his project, which is protecting this very important area.  Check out the Sea Sanctuaries website for more information: www.SeaSanctuaries.org

Aljui Bay was the destination for our third day of diving and it is always one of my highlights.  This trip we had some great ghost pipefish sightings with a purple velvet and a white Halimeda both spotted on Bird Wall.  These tow species are the jewels in the crown of the Solenostomidae family.  As always though my highlight of Aljui was the night dive.  We only had one dive on the small Cendana Dock but it was as intense as ever.  One of my favourite creatures from this trip’s night dive at Cendana was a young juvenile Raja epaulette shark (Hemiscyllium freycineti) that our guide Yann found.  Out in the open at around 6 m depth the 8 inch long baby shark crawled along the substrate searching for food.  The colouration was quite strongly banded alternately brown and beige, but was not nearly as contrasting and bold as a juvenile bamboo shark.

Wayag Raja AmpatIn search of further land tours this trip, since we had a few non-divers, we hopped just over the equator to a small group of islands called Wayag.  Here is one of the most photographed vistas in Raja Ampat, Mount Pindito.  Between dives we explored the mushroom-like limestone islands and climbed the mount.  The view was much like the limestone islands of Palau except without any other people to be seen in any direction.  It was quite a clamber up the rock but took only about fifteen minutes each way.  The pure isolation in this absolutely stunning landscape was a very special and humbling experience.

Another privilege this trip was to be present at the engagement of two of our guests, Tom and Sue.  On the first dive of our forth day our cruise director, Wendy, placed the engagement ring that Tom had given to her in an overhang.  Wendy called over the couple and Tom pulled out a slate where he had written “Sue, will you marry me?’.  She nodded and I swim over to fulfil my duties as official photographer!  We are all hoping to be invited back to join them on their honeymoon, which will obviously take place on Dewi Nusantara!

As it is my last trip on this visit I will be sad to say goodbye to the fantastic crew, many of whom I have known since the maiden voyage four years ago.  The camaraderie between the crew is great to see and it is obvious the whole operation has become a very well oiled machine over the years.  There are as many crew as guests with each and every crewmember working hard for everything to be perfect for us divers.

Four dive guides, Wendy, Yann, Andre and Risko, work on Dewi ensuring small groups and a top experience in the water.  Wendy, the cruise director, has been a good friend of mine for many years and I have really learned a lot from her.  Nothing is too much trouble and she works very hard for everyone to have the best possible cruise.  The assistant cruise director, Yann, is well known as one of the best dive guides in Indonesia and is a hoot to be around.  He is always smiling and joking, but when it comes to finding amazing critters on the reef everything becomes much more serious!  Yann showed me my very first pygmy seahorse ten years ago and I am very pleased that we still dive together now.  The other two dives guides on Dewi, Andre and Risko, hail from Bitung and Bunaken respectively, both in north Sulawesi.  They are extremely experienced and have brilliant eagle eyes for all the creatures that live on Indonesian reefs.

Raja Ampat chose to give us a great send off for our last full day of diving.  We spent two dives on the seamount, ‘Magic Mountain’ in southeast Misool.  There was just the right amount of current to energise the fish and open up all the soft corals.  It was great to see a pregnant white tip reef shark and at least four juveniles around the seamount.  The presence of these sharks is certainly a testament to the great conservation work undertaken by Misool Eco Resortwho have gone to great lengths in creating a large no-take zone in the area.  We also had a single reef manta (Manta alfredi) spend the entire dive with us and which made some nice close passes.  The definite highlight, however were mother and calf bottlenose dolphins, which swam over a couple of us as we hooked on at around 9 m.  From previous experience I’ve found that dolphins love a good sing song so I started singing as soon as I saw them.  I’m sure the mother slowed down and turned back to see what was producing these dulcet tones!  What an amazing dive and rare treat!!!

I am working with the folk at Dewi Nusantara to put together some more trips for the future, where I will again conduct lectures about Indonesia’s amazing reefs, marine creatures and photography tips to get the best shots of them.  If you are interested in joining one of these trips please either contact me or Dewi Nusantara for further information.

Images from all three trips can be found in my Raja Ampat 2012 gallery by clicking here.

Click these links for my blog from Trip One here and Trip Two here.

Sharks Demystified (Asian Diver Article)

Sharks Demystified (Asian Diver Article)

The following article ‘Sharks Demystified’ was originally published in the shark issue (105) of Asian Diver Magazine:

Requiem for a Requiem- Sharks Demystified

Asian Diver Article - Sharks DemystifiedSharks, like snakes and spiders, are one of those creatures that have the ability to instil dread in even the most rational of people.  Unlike those other groups, which are always slithery and crawly, sharks are a hugely diverse group and not all are the stereotypical “Jaws” you might imagine.  Obviously a handful of species have been responsible for attacks on people but the remaining 450 or so species are entirely innocent and unfortunately persecuted with the same fervour as more their dangerous cousins.

The sleek lines, large pointed fins and big toothy mouth of the great white shark are the most well-known and feared fish in the ocean.  It is the largest predatory fish currently in existence, although a closely related fifteen meters goliath went extinct only 1.5 million years ago.  The sleek predatory, or requiem, sharks that roam the open ocean are honed in every way to catch their favoured prey but they represent only a small subset of the huge diversity within the group.  Many sharks are in fact small, bottom living and inconspicuous.

Diversity

There are some 450-500 species of sharks known to science and only twelve have caused fatal attacks on humans.  Sharks inhabit many ecosystems from the deepest ocean trench to shallow coral lagoons; they have even been found 4,000 km up the Amazon River.  Their diet can be equally diverse; whale sharks feed on tiny plankton, the cookie cutter shark bites a perfect circle of flesh out of large fish and dolphins and tiger sharks have even been found with car tires and licence plates in their stomach.  There are some true creatures of science fiction within the group.  Hammerhead sharks with their stalked eyes, horned sharks that have a spine in front of the dorsal fin and thresher sharks with a tail as long as the body used to whip and stun prey.  Not to mention the elusive and cartoon-like megamouth shark, known from only forty animals, the most recently collected specimen became a curry in the Philippines!

A Long Lineage

Sharks split from the other fishes 100 million years before the dinosaurs even walked the Earth.  As a result of millions of years of evolution there are some very fundamental differences between today’s bony and cartilaginous fish.  The bony fishes are the most species rich vertebrate group with up to 30,000 members that include the smallest fish (a tiny carp measuring 0.8 cm) and the fastest fish (sailfish reaching 110 km/hr).  The obvious difference between bony and cartilaginous fish is their skeleton, which is not calcified in cartilaginous fish and therefore more flexible compared to relatively brittle true bone.  Sharks belong to the cartilaginous group and have many other unique features to their morphology.  The skin of sharks is made of millions of tiny tooth-like scales known as dermal denticles, which are both tough and help streamline the fish.  The same principles behind denticles have actually been applied to professional swimming suits as they reduce drag in the water.

Sink or Swim

Another unique feature of sharks is their buoyancy control.  It is not only divers that must remain neutrally buoyant in the water column.  Sharks and bony fishes have approached this quandary from different perspectives.  The bony fish use similar principles to a BCD and have an organ known as a swim bladder that is basically a balloon filled with air.  Air within the swim bladder is added to or expelled depending on whether the fish wishes to go shallower or deeper.  You can even see this happen occasionally when a school of fish quickly ascend.  This isn’t fish flatulence but air being released from the swim bladder!

Sharks have a different solution to buoyancy control and use a combination of a buoyant liver and morphology to keep their heavy bodies from sinking.  The liver of a shark is full of oils, which are positively buoyant and thus help towards making the animal float.  The liver can make up 25% of its weight.  In addition to the liver, the shark’s fins and body contours also are aligned to push it upwards in the water.  The snout is angled slightly, pushing the head upwards, and tail shape is designed to help provide lift.  If you look at the tail of a shark the upper lobe of the fin is virtually always longer than the lower lobe.  The longer upper lobe helps to push more water downwards, and therefore the shark’s body slightly upwards as it swims.

After learning a few aspects about the biology of sharks it is fascinating to then apply this knowledge to some of the sharks we might see on a dive.  The bottom living sharks common to our area such as leopard, bamboo, wobbegong and epaulette are all content sitting on a rock rather than constantly swimming around.  Their body has evolved to suit this life style and this is evident in the length of their tail.  As I mentioned, the top lobe of a shark’s tail provides lift and the bottom living sharks need a lot of this to get going.  The lobe is hugely extended in these species to help lift them up.  They are quite negatively buoyant so without the extra lift generated from the long upper lobe of the fin they would have trouble getting off the bottom.

A longer upper lobe is not limited to bottom-dwelling sharks.  All but a few sharks have these asymmetrical fins that help to counteract their sinking bodies.  The upper lobe of some sharks, such as reef and tiger sharks, also helps them with manoeuvrability and allows for sudden bursts of speed.  The varied prey that these sharks feed on has driven the evolution of their tail fin.  A couple of notable exceptions, which actually have almost symmetrical tail fins are great white and mako sharks.  These are active sharks that rely on speed rather than agility in the water to catch their prey.  The enlarged lower lobe of the tail fin provides them with the additional thrust to catch fast moving prey such as tuna and marine mammals.

Shark Dentistry

The teeth of sharks are another fascinating feature of their anatomy.  As you might expect each species has teeth that are perfectly shaped to suit their diet, and to some extent it is possible to infer the diet from the shape of the tooth.  Grey nurse sharks, although they look fearsome, thanks to rows of needle-like teeth, prey only on small fish.  The teeth are suited to pierce the fish and would be completely unsuitable for biting chunks out of bigger prey. The teeth of tiger sharks on the other hand are adapted to allow them to tear chunks out of large prey such as a whale carcass.  They are oblique and serrated allowing them to feed on a great variety of prey including stingrays, seals and turtles.

Respiratory Distress

It is a common myth that sharks will asphyxiate if they stop swimming.  This stems from the fact that oxygen transfer between seawater and the blood in the gills is not as efficient as is in bony fish.  Sharks need a constant stream of fresh water to flow over the gills for them to extract oxygen.  Many open ocean and reef sharks therefore must keep swimming to quench their demand for oxygen, but obviously many other species have found a way around this problem.  If you notice a white tip reef shark sitting on the sand it will look as if it is panting, but it is actually keeping a flow of water over the gills providing all the oxygen in needs whilst at rest.

Milne Bay epaulette 'walking' shark (Hemiscyllium michaeli)Epaulettes

Most people are more familiar with the open ocean sharks than the smaller inshore and reef-living species.  These smaller sharks are fascinating in their own right and should not be overlooked by divers.  One group of bottom-living species found in our area are the epaulette sharks.  The word epaulette is derived from the French meaning “little shoulder” and refers to the black spot that is found in many members of the group, just above the pectoral fins.  There has been a recent flurry of new species described in the genus Hemiscyllium, to which the epaulettes belong.  The Raja Ampat epaulette 'walking' shark (Hemiscyllium freycineti)island of New Guinea has revealed a host of species that were only discovered as expeditions went to document the wild shores of the little known island.  Since epaulettes do not travel far in their lifetime, and will not cross areas of unsuitable habitat, they easily become isolated in bays and gulfs.  Once populations become separated from each other in this way, they gradually, over many generations, change to suit the conditions where they are living and become a separate species.  Examples of this are the Milne Bay species of eastern Papua New Guinea that has a brown honeycomb-like pattern, whereas the Raja Ampat epaulette from western New Guinea is pale with occasional spots.

Unfortunately sharks are facing their greatest challenge for survival in the 400 million years of their existence.  Shark finning is the term used for the fishing technique where sharks are caught, usually by long line, and their pectoral, dorsal and tail fins removed and body discarded.  The insatiable demand for fins to be used in shark fin soup is decimating their populations globally and estimated to claim the lives of 70-100 million sharks per year.  Without protection the current trend of disappearing sharks will continue until they are no more.

A great mythology surrounds this misunderstood group.  Divers soon realise that sharks are graceful, fascinating and harmless.  Perhaps less well appreciated is the amazing diversity found within the group and the threats faced by them.  These are animals on the brink of extinction and with them we would loose a huge array of astounding fish.

Identifying Scorpionfish on Muck Dives (Asian Diver Article issue 106)

Identifying Scorpionfish on Muck Dives (Asian Diver Article issue 106)

The following article was the second in my ‘Species Crash Course’ series published in Asian Diver Magazine (issue 106) entitled ‘Species Crash Course: The Scorpionfish of Muck Dives’.

SPECIES CRASH COURSE: Identifying Scorpionfish on Muck Dives – By Richard Smith (© Richard Smith 2012)

Asian Diver Article - The Scorpionfish of Muck DivesThe Scorpionfishes of muck dive sites aren’t your run of the mill lionfish, they include some of the reef fish connoisseur’s most sought after treasures!

Scorpionfish are well represented on the muck dive sites of Asia such as Lembeh Strait, Komodo and Bali in Indonesia, Anilao in the Philippines and Milne Bay of Papua New Guinea.  Muck sites, for the uninitiated, sound like a pretty terrible place dive but these areas, often sandy and sheltered, are packed with unusual and unique creatures you won’t see on a coral reef.  You may come across tasselled scorpions and common lionfish but there are also Rhinopias scorpionfish, referred to as the “Photographer’s Holy Grail”, and a host of other oddities.

The Habitat –

muck diving has become really popular over the past ten to fifteen years and refers to sites which usually experience little current, primarily consist of a sandy bottom (often black sand) and depending on where you are there might be rubbish littering the ground.  The joy of muck diving is searching for the cryptic, hideous and downright bizarre creatures that make the area their home.  Many are so well camouflaged that only a beady eye gives them away.  Search for members of the scorpionfish family hiding in the sand (with only their eyes and mouth protruding), discreetly nestled amongst algae and even brazenly sitting out in the open, supremely confident of their camouflage.

The Science –

Scorpionfish belong to the family Scorpaenidae, which contains the lionfishes, Rhinopias and leaf scorpions as well as the more typical reef scorpionfishes.  Closely related, but belonging to the family, Synanceiidae, are the stonefishes and demon stingers.  All scorpionfishes possess spines containing neurotoxic venom that is produced by paired glands at their base.  Great care should obviously be taken not to touch the fish but if accidentally pierced by the spine the best treatment is to immerse the wound in as hot water as possible, which will eventually break down the venom, rendering it inactive.

Scorpionfish are ambush predators, relying heavily on their camouflage for a hapless fish to stray too close to the gaping mouth.  You may notice that the mouths of many scorpionfish are relatively large.  The fish is able to open it very quickly and almost suck the prey into the mouth and subsequently swallow it whole.  Many species are not at all well adapted for swimming and have gone so far as loosing their swim bladder, which is vitally in buoyancy control for most fishes.  As a result swimming is quite a great effort.  Finding a mate can also be slightly troublesome so some remain in mated pairs and do not stray far from their partner, although the majority are solitary.

 

The Species –

Short fin lionfish (Dendrochirus brachypterus)Short-Fin Lionfish – (Dendrochirus brachypterus):  Finding the short-fin lionfish is a great indication that you are in the right habitat for many of the other species.  Where conditions suit them they can be abundant and these same conditions will also suit some of the rarer species.  Hint: time to keep your eyes peeled!  The short-fin is also known as the dwarf lionfish and is found in a variety of colour forms including a rare yellow form.  Unlike some of the other species included here it is quite an active species that can often be seen patrolling small rock bommies or sandy areas for a snack.

Weedy Scorpionfish (Rhinopias frondosa)Weedy Scorpionfish – (Rhinopias frondosa):  There are two species of scorpionfishes in the genus Rhinopias that can be found on muck dives.  The weedy must not be confused with the lacy scorpionfish (Rhinopias aphanes), which is only found in the Coral Sea area bordered by Papua New Guinea, Australia and the Solomon Islands.  The lacy is exclusively found on rich coral
reefs and not muck sites that are the domain of the weedy and paddle flap species.  The colour of weedy scorpionfish varies greatly and depends directly on the type of algae or substrate around the animal.  In photographs they seem gaudy and you might think they would stick out like a sore thumb but they definitely earn the accolade of the “photographer’s Holy Grail” requiring a great deal of patience and luck to find!

Paddle flap scorpionfish (Rhinopias eschmeyeri)Paddle Flap Scorpionfish – (Rhinopias eschmeyeri):  Another species of Rhinopias that with a great deal of luck be found on muck dives.  Like other Rhinopias it reaches a maximum size of 20-25 cm and is also found in many colours although most commonly pink, red or off white.  It can be identified by the lack of tassels and weedy appendages over the body, a uniform colouration and the smooth, paddile-like, edges to the fins.  Rhinopias are most often found at over 20 meters depth and will happily sit in the open, whilst matching their habitat perfectly.  They prefer rubble slopes rich in algal, sponge and soft coral growth.  Some of the best locations to see them are Lembeh Strait, Ambon and Komodo in Indonesia as well as Anilao in the Philippines.

Leaf scoprionfish (Taenianopterus triacanthus)Leaf Scorpionfish – (Taenianotus triacanthus):  The leaf scorpionfish is a jack of all trades and is equally happy hanging out on a reef wall or on a muck site amongst a pile of leaves!  These ranges in habitat preference mean there is a corresponding variety of colour forms of this species.  The most striking perhaps is a bright pink but on muck dives the more subdued white, yellow and brown forms are more common.  If disturbed the animal will begin to sway from side to side in an attempt to convince you that it is in fact a leaf that you are looking at!

Ambon scorpionfish (Pteroidichthys amboinensis)Ambon Scorpionfish – (Pteroidichthys amboinensis):  This is surely one of the most comical members of the group.  The huge cirri (skin flaps) above the eyes, which have given it the alternate name of Bugs Bunny scorpionfish, are the diagnostic feature of this species.  It is usually found crawling around in an open sandy area with sparse patches of algae.  They are virtually always found in pairs with the larger individual the female and the small one the male.  Like many of the muck site scorpions the Ambon varies in colouration depending on the predominant colours at the specific locality.  I have seen yellow, brown, maroon and pink individuals.

Gurnard Lionfish (Parapterois heterura)Gurnard Lionfish – (Parapterois heterura):  Like its namesake, the flying gurnard, the gurnard lionfish is quite a drab well-camouflaged fish until startled.  Suddenly, it will spread open its large pectoral fins revealing the bright blue and black streaked inner surface of the fin.  This is actually a very rare fish and is only found in several localities with quite specific habitat characteristics.  It prefers sandy slopes, where it will often remain partially buried in relatively shallow water at the edge of where the slope drops off steeply.  They usually occur in pairs so if you see one then scan the area for its mate.

Demon Stinger (Inimicus didactylus)Demon Stinger – (Inimicus didactylus):  Also referred to by the genus name Inimicus this group, containing several species, can be distinguished by the patterns displayed on the inner surface of the pectoral fins.  They are often seen crawling along the bottom using little ‘fingers’.  These are in fact the lowest 2 or 3 rays of the pectoral fins that are thickened and used to drag the animal around or search for prey in the sand.  They often remain half buried with only the head and sharp spines protruding.  Depending of the habitat in which you find them, the colouration can range from pale to very dark and a site in Lembeh Strait is even known for an orange/red morph.

The Photography – Scorpionfish are a pretty robust bunch and don’t appear to mind having their photograph taken.  Indeed some species seem so convinced of their camouflage that they will remain motionless for an entire photo shoot.  Having said that they are wild animals and probably value their retinas for feeding so try not to take too many shots with huge powerful lights!  For the more skittish species a careful, slow approach will get the best results and always be careful not to damage any marine life when taking your pictures.  The most preferable method in a muck dive situation is to hover neutrally above the sand.  This probably isn’t the easiest way but it will stop you from stirring up the fine sediment and from being silted out.

Night Diving: Dos and Don’ts

Night Diving: Dos and Don’ts

The following article ‘Night Diving: Dos and Don’ts’ originally featured in issue of Asian Diver (volume 115, 4/2011) which includes some tips for happy night diving. In the same issue I has an image in the ‘Art of Diving’ section of a basket star shrimp (Periclimenes lanipes) running around its echinoderm host, taken at Wakatobi Dive Resort in Indonesia.

 

NIGHT DIVING – DOS AND DON’TS – By Richard Smith (2012)

As the sun sets an entirely different mood shrouds the reef.  Without the daytime bustle and colour to steal your attention the cacophony of noise is striking and immediate.  The last few fusileers dash to find a hollow for the night as the first echinoderms and crustaceans emerge from their haunts.  It seems relatively few intrepid divers actually enjoy night diving, but with a little thought and planning it is an exciting and rewarding time to dive.

Night diving can either be one of the best or worst underwater experiences.  Sometimes, I’ll admit, the prospect of getting back in the water at night when your core body temperature is low after a day of diving isn’t all that appealing, but having made the effort you’ll rarely regret it.  For even veteran divers however, bad experiences on one or two occasions put them off the idea altogether.  I would strongly recommend giving it a second chance, taking some tips on making the most out of your night dives into consideration.

Do: Reconnaissance

Whilst your torch is charging, the best preparation for your impending night dive is to go diving!  Visiting the night dive site during the day is one of the best ways of preparing yourself for what’s to come.  Experiencing the topography and layout of the reef will really help you to prepare you and you’ll be much more relaxed.  People who are anxious about night dives will have some of these worries quelled by a knowledge of the topography.  When you’re more relaxed, buoyancy will come more easily and reduce contact with the reef, which both unnerves the diver and damages the reef’s delicate creatures.

Don’t: Dis the Dusk

Guides will often try and have their divers in the water when it still seems relatively bright on the surface.  This makes a lot of sense as, whilst it’ll be much darker underwater, the dwindling light helps immensely with orientation, plus it’s easier to prepare equipment.  Dusk is also one of the best times for observing behaviours such as fighting, courting, mating and spawning.  Like night diving, it is best to take your time and spend a while observing the reefs inhabitants at a slow pace as light levels fall.  Those fish that seem unusually close or active might just reward you with a little show.

Do: Go it Alone

Good guides or instructors are vital for the enjoyment of night dives but personally I enjoy night dives much more when my buddy and I stray a little farther a field from the group.  Novice and experienced divers alike have a tendency to cling very closely to the guide, reducing the enjoyment of all.  Obviously you may want to stay close enough to your guide for them to point out interesting animals, but much of the enjoyment in night diving is gained from the feeling of solitude, tranquillity and finding things for yourself.  Reports of bad dives usually come from people caught up in a scrum of divers clambering around the guide.

Don’t: Use too Bright lights

A good torch or flashlight is obviously the most important piece of equipment in a night diver’s arsenal.  By good, I consider reliability to be the most important feature of a torch. People often mistakenly think that a torch as bright as the sun will be most appropriate but this makes watching nocturnal animals next to impossible.  The beam of a bright torch will send even eyeless nocturnal reef creatures such as basket stars scampering for shelter.  I’ve found that more subdued torches are most useful for observing behaviours especially when the outer rather than main beam is used to highlight the subject.

Do: Carry a Spare and a Strobe

Torchlight is also the night diver’s tool for communication so it’s important to have a spare one on you at all times as a backup might be your only way of attracting attention under or above the water should your primary fail.  Another light that can be useful is a small flashing strobe attached to the tank.  Battery powered versions are preferable to glow sticks as the latter can leak and the chemicals within them are toxic.  These flashing strobes allow buddy teams to keep track of each other in groups of other night divers.

Don’t: Harass daytime creatures

As a rule of thumb animals that are active during the day should be avoided as subjects at night.  They might be easier to observe and photograph but waking them from sleep severely disturbs them.  Imagine yourself in their shoes, woken from sleep by a huge spotlight.  The bright lights disorientate them, making them easy pickings for predators.  Ghost pipefish for example can’t see a thing at night and bump off the reef by their snout when blinded by a torch beam.  Similarly, pygmy seahorses are equally harassed if observed by divers at night.

Night diving allows you to see the reef in a whole new light, so to speak.  Taking a slow approach will reward you with sightings of new and fascinating creatures as they emerge from their daytime retreats.  Treat your role in the lives of these creatures as an unintrusive bystander rather than a night terror and you’ll want to brave the inky black waters as often as you can.

Seeing Red

An unusual phenomenon on the reef is the appearance of various red creatures as the sunsets.  Think of the night octopus, Spanish Dancer nudibranch or soldierfish; they’re all bright red!  Despite seeming ridiculously conspicuous to us, this is in fact a form of camouflage.  You may remember from your Open Water course that red is the first colour in the visible spectrum to be absorbed by the water.  As a result, few marine creatures bother to include the colour in their visual repertoire and red animals are practically invisible to predators.  For night divers, a different way of viewing nocturnal creatures and their behaviours is to use a red filter over the torch to create a less harsh light to observe the animals.