10 Awesome Things About Night Diving in Grand Cayman

Guest blog for http://www.idivecayman.com

If I was given a dollar every time a diver asked me the question, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever seen underwater?” I’d probably still be broke, but I’d have lots more stories to tell!

It’s a fair question though, I’ve done a lot of dives and who knows what I might have seen down there; mermaids, treasure chests, guys dressed up as unicorns…… the possibilities are endless. For me, it’s a tough question to answer because I’ve seen tons of cool stuff underwater, from sunken ships to caves to sharks to trains to, believe it or not, a man dressed up as a unicorn. What was the best? I couldn’t judge, they’re all just different kinds of awesome.

Having said that, if you want to ramp up the chances of seeing something truly mind blowing, you have to try diving at night. The excitement of putting on the gear and getting into a moonlit ocean still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. In addition to the thrill of the activity itself, you never know what you might find, as all kinds of beasties come out to play at night.

Ten things I love about night diving in Grand Cayman are:

1) Bioluminescence

How does being inside a cosmic, underwater snow globe sound? The trick with this stuff is for everybody to turn their lights off (no, I’m not joking) and wave their arms around like crazy. The effect of the electrically-coloured pixie dust that darts around is bioluminescence; a kind of plankton that when disturbed, lights up like a firefly. Try it for a while then turn your light back on, hopefully there are still as many people in the group as when you turned it off!

2) Sleeping Turtles

What’s more cool than finding a turtle? Finding a sleeping turtle! Turtles work on the principle that if they can’t see you, then you can’t see them. So when it’s time to hit the hay, turtles take a big breath of air before swimming down to a ledge or rock to wedge their head under. Typically when you find one sleeping at night, the first thing you’ll see is their big turtle butt hanging out in the water. In order to make their breath last longer, turtles drop their heart rate down as low as one beat every nine minutes.

3) Basket Stars

By day, these guys wrap themselves up into a tight ball and attach themselves to coral. After sunset, they open up and spread out in the water column to feed. When fully open they can look like the skeleton of a big satellite dish, as their arms reach into the ocean. They eat by catching waterborne food such as algae or plankton then recoil their arms in order to bring the catch to their mouth.

4) Lobsters

I have a vivid imagination, but even so I am sure that spiny lobsters are in some way related to the face huggers from the Aliens movies. At night, it is far more common to see lobsters scampering around looking for food. This means you get to see the whole creature, you’ll be surprised as to how much bigger they look than when hiding under a rock in the day. A real treat which is more likely under the cover of darkness, is to find a slipper lobster. These guys look like they just crawled out of a 50’s B movie and can often be found wandering around in the shallows.

5) Brain coral

Before I started diving, I thought that hard coral was a kind of pretty rock, apparently they are classed as animals, who knew huh? Coral has mobility, but you won’t catch a piece going for a pleasant stroll across the reef. In fact you won’t see much movement out of brain coral at all, until night that is. At night, the coral catches food from the surrounding water by firing their tentacles with surprising speed. When they catch something like a blood worm, they pull the struggling victim in and suck the insides of the worm out leaving just its sizzling empty carcass, it’s an impressive sight indeed!

6) Tarpon

Depending on where you dive, you could find yourself being surrounded by a school of tarpon. Creatures of habit, it only takes a little local knowledge to find a dive site where these night time feeders hang out. Some shore dive sites attract tarpon, as they like to use nearby lights from the land to find their food. And what’s the big attraction? Well, they grow up to lengths of four feet, have a mouth that makes them look impossibly down in the dumps and have silvery, armour like skin that reflects the light. It’s a really cool feeling to be in the water surrounded by 15 or so big, shiny, depressed fish munching on whatever gets caught in the flash-light.

7) Hunting

One of the reasons why things can look so different at night, apart from the lack of light of course, is that the marine life behaves differently. Many species that hide throughout the day, come out at night, often to hunt. Schoolmaster snappers have managed to catch on to the fact that divers at night have lights with them and that if they hang around just behind the diver then they can use the light to their advantage when hunting. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I have been swimming along and noticed something like an angel fish, before I’d even had a chance to fully focus on it, a snapper has appeared from nowhere and gobbled it up. It always makes me a little paranoid as to what I shine my light on “Wow, cool, it’s a…… oops, oh dear.”

8) Octopus

As far as I’m concerned, the absolute highlight of a night dive is the chance to find an octopus. If you ever needed proof that aliens exist and are living amongst us then come find an octopus at night and you’ll never have a doubt in your mind again. Octopus change colour right in front of your eyes. Often when you first find them, they are a kind of blue/green colour which is good for camouflage against the reef. When they realise they have been spotted they seemingly flick through an entire spectrum of colour in an attempt to communicate. I don’t speak octopus, but I guess they’re saying something along the lines of “get that damn light out of my eyes!” Our 8 legged buddies are curious creatures, so may well hang out for a while or even extend a tentacle in order to investigate a diver. If one does that and you stretch a finger out to have a kind of ET moment then believe me, if it makes contact with you, the feeling will make you jump out of your skin.

9)Critters

I love the little dudes! At night, like many other things, tiny shrimp and crabs venture out to see what they can find, banded coral shrimp are a great example. My little tip for finding these guys is to watch where you shine your light and look for small reflections. Shrimps’ eyes are like the reflectors in the road that help guide cars in the fog. If you see a little dot winking back at you, go check it out, you could be in for a nice surprise.

10) The Kittiwake

Even Caymans wrecks take on a new persona by night. Swimming through the Kittiwake in the dark can give a more eerie feel to it as you move from room to room with no ambient light breaking through. Exploring the corridors of this sunken vessel with just your flash-light to show you the way is one of the most exciting ways to dive this wreck. At night, the floors of this ex USS navy ship become covered in peppermint shrimp. If you have doubts about whether you will be comfortable diving at night then my suggestion is to avoid this dive until you have built a little confidence. It can be pretty spooky, especially when you turn a corner into a room only to come face to face with a huge grouper, they aren’t too pretty at the best of times!

Some of the most fun I’ve ever had has been at night, trust me, the stories are endless! But this is a dive blog, so all that rock n roll stuff is gonna get parked for now, those stories are best told over a beer anyway. If you’re coming to dive in Grand Cayman then you need to check out a night dive. Either talk to your dive operator for a boat dive or take a look on Idive for some options from the shore. You don’t need extra training but if you want to be taught about diving at night, most dive centres will offer a course in it. Any extra equipment that is required (lights) should be provided by the facility you get your tanks from.

Grand Cayman has some of the most convenient diving in the world, heading out at night is no exception. Whether you’re a seasoned night diver or trying it for the first time, you’re gonna love discovering its hidden treasures in the dark.

Dive safe and have fun out there!

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Diving with Buzz Aldrin

Diving has taken me to some incredible places and enabled me to do things that would have once been unimaginable. There are a few experiences which will always stand out, some good, some bad and certainly some ugly. Recently I had the very distinct pleasure of not only meeting Buzz Aldrin, his son and his personal assistant but guiding them all on a DPV (underwater scooter) dive in the tropical waters of Grand Cayman.

When I started working for Divetech in 2013, I recall staring with amazement at the signed photos of the moon landing that were behind the counter. Boyish excitement rose within me as I recalled my childhood fascination with space. So when I was informed by my operations manager that I would be guiding Buzz Aldrin on a DPV dive I will not pretend that I was anything less than awestruck.

I knew that Buzz participates in fundraising activities for the Astronaut Scholarship Fund (ASF) and that in the past he had been diving with us in order to raise money for that cause. My initial assumption that this visit was along the same lines turned out to be wrong, this time round Buzz was on vacation.

It goes without saying that life for an astronaut will be different to most other peoples, vacations, it turns out, are no exception. I was soon to learn that this would not be a relaxed affair where we had all afternoon to casually stroll in to the ocean like one of our normal gigs.  The dive was sandwiched in to a schedule involving activities like school visits and presentations, even on vacation it seems that the work never stops. This trip to Grand Cayman was certainly no vacation for his personal assistant. In the brief glimpse of their lives I had, I could see that she never switches off and the ability she demonstrates in keeping the tight schedule on track is an art form unto itself.

buzz cropped

When the day came, I made my introductions and tried to play down my excitement, after all, I was there to do a job. Underwater my focus would primarily have to be on safety as it is with any dive regardless of whether the people with me have been to space or not. Immediately I sensed that time was not to be wasted. The group as a whole were more than polite and pleasant but also keen to keep things moving in order to honor their next commitments. Knowing they were all experienced divers, I kept my briefing to a minimum, just covering what was required to make sure everyone was on the same page.

At first, it took the group a little while to get to grips with the scooters. All but one were tentative in their initial approach, trying the controls to see what did what. Buzz was the one who was not so interested in starting slow, he clearly wanted the thing to go as fast as possible as soon as possible. Before long, we were on our way, shooting through the water like a bunch of crazed maniacs. I love DPV dives. As soon as we got moving, this one proved to be as much fun as any I’ve been on before. Everybody held on tight with the scooters between their legs, occasionally swerving to avoid coral heads and other underwater obstacles.

As I looked around the group to make sure everyone (including the man who once walked on the moon) was OK and keeping up, my mask shuddered and my reg pulled at my mouth under the velocity. We flew through the water just a couple of feet from the sandy floor, the mini wall to our left hurtled by way too fast to pick out any detail.

Periodically, I checked in with each of the group to ensure that everything was good by giving the “OK?” signal. Although everyone responded, in truth this was one of those times when you don’t really need to see the confirmation as you can tell from their faces that OK is an understatement. Everyone was having an amazing time, me included.

As all good things must come to an end, constrained by air, decompression limits and battery power we had to start thinking about ending the dive. Following a decrease in speed while we did our safety stop we cruised on in to the exit point. Breaking the surface it was smiles all round. In the excitement of the dive, I had forgotten to be star struck, it was just so much fun that everything other than the thrill of the moment ceased to exist.

Back on dry land, opportunity to talk about the dive was minimal. Buzz said his good bye by giving me a “Get Your Ass to Mars” T shirt and mentioned that he hopes I see someone land on Mars in my lifetime as (in his words) he probably won’t get to see it in his.

buzzdd

Then they were gone, what a whirlwind of a morning! I slowly set about washing and packing up the gear, taking the opportunity to rest a little. I still was not fully able to digest what had just happened. As I made my way back home, I started thinking about the Mars project and wondered what it would be like to be the first person to go there. What would go through your mind to truly pioneer something like that?

It is my sense of adventure that attracted me to diving. This same attraction has kept me traveling the world in search of new and interesting underwater escapades. To meet a living legend who has had an adventure, the likes of which I can only dream of, was nothing short of inspirational. This encounter gave me an interesting perspective on what is achievable in life. From here on in, whenever I set my sights on something, I will never again worry about punching too high. As Buzz can tell you, not even the sky is the limit.