Scuba In The Dark: What’s Night Diving Really Like In Belize?

by Carolee Chanona

Jumping into the deep end — literally — is a thrill in itself, fully outfitted to enter a world of its own. But if the idea of scuba excites you, think about doing it at night. Yes, the thought of plunging into a pitch-black ocean is mysterious, exhilarating, and somewhat scary, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Marine mammals like octopus, bioluminescent jellyfish, giant crabs and lobsters, sea snakes, and many more that are near-impossible to spot during the day will climb out of their dens and appear in droves once the sun sets. Best seen under the guise of darkness, descending to the beam of your dive flashlight is confirmation: the darker the night, the more mysterious and magnificent the wonders revealed in Belize.

What To Expect Night Diving The Southern Belize Barrier Reef

We’re taking a closer look with the help of Splash Dive Center in Placencia and their prime site for night diving the Southern Belize Barrier Reef: the Laughing Bird Caye drop-off. As one of the seven composite sites of Belize’s World Heritage Site, Laughing Bird Caye is the southernmost island in the central lagoon of the Belize Barrier Reef. In fact, the long narrow isle stands on an elongated ridge of reef known as a faro—an angular atoll that sits steep-sided on a continental shelf. In short, the Laughing Bird faro is an island surrounded by deep channels on all sides.

Image by Kevin Quischan Photography.

A total of 12 miles away, the boat departs the Splash Dive Center in Placencia around 4 pm and arrives ~30 minutes later, leaving you almost an hour to explore the beaches and catch a killer sunset. As dusk settles in, your dive master with Splash walks through the 45-minute dive ahead for all safety & night diving procedures, including the max depth of the dive at 40 feet. The tangerine-hued sun dips beyond the horizon, and Dive Master Ruth yells, “Let’s go, everybody!” It’s time.

What You’ll Likely See

A Flamingo Tongue snail. © Chris Taylor

Dive flashlight secured by lanyard and buddy in sight, your nighttime dive with Splash Belize begins at 25 feet below the last shred of a moonlit (or starlight) glow. Thanks to air bubbles that race ahead of you, you’re reminded of which way is up. Here on the east side of Laughing Bird Caye National Park, you’ll explore the sandy shelf into a sloping coral wall for nocturnally active creatures like squids, octopus, shrimps, nudibranchs, lobsters, crabs, eels, sea urchins, and more. And who knows? Bigger fish like manta rays and sharks may be out looking for prey. Adrenaline surges at that simple thought but feeds into a fascination instead.

© Bill Carmela diving with Splash Dive Center.

Shark or no shark, the reef itself looks entirely different at night: coral polyps open to feed and create a star-studded canvas of nocturnal life. Corals may even be fluorescent, considering their spectacular shades of neon best seen under UV or blue lights at night.

The critically endangered Nassau Grouper. © Chris Taylor

Parrotfish, damselfish, butterflyfish, and other vibrant diurnal fish become instantly scarce. With the lack of light, active marine flora and fauna now completely transform to whatever the upper hand against predators is. Fish dart around, flittering as shadows behind your waterproof torch, and you notice they’re mostly metallic silvers and reds. Thicker at night, phyto- and zooplankton cast their own shadows — but these floating flecks are feeding, too. Eyeshine of cleaner shrimps and spiny Caribbean lobsters beam back, but you’ll also spot plenty of sleeping fish. Don’t wake them!

3 Tips To Apply When You’re Night Diving

The entire experience is just 5 hours, transportation included, for a scheduled return to the peninsula by 8:30 pm. Night diving requires PADI Advanced Open Water Certification or equivalent. Don’t have it? Invest in your scuba education with Splash Dive Center, where it can be counted towards your certification. You’ll be briefed on Laughing Bird Caye before your night dive, but here are three reminders to keep in mind:

1. Practice your hand and light signals before, since they’re different for night dives. To get your dive buddy’s attention, you’ll wave the scuba torch back and forth in a horizontal line, just in front of them. To signal “something’s wrong”, wave the torch up and down. For “ok”, draw a circle with your torch.

2. If you feel any disorientation, breathe deeply and slowly, then on exhale, pay attention to your bubbles. Always remember, bubbles go up — you’ll orient yourself again to where the surface is.

3. Don’t forget to look for bio-luminescent organisms that glow a brilliant blue and green in the dark, just like stars in the sky. You can see them by covering your dive torch beam with a hand or holding it against your body to stop all light, then by just waving a hand through the water, you’ll see streams of tiny, bluish lights dance off the fingers. The phosphorescence is caused by tiny plankton-type organisms giving off a bio-luminescence when disturbed. It’s amazing to see them light up and steam off the diver’s fins as they swim in front of you.

All images © Chris Taylor, unless stated otherwise.

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