It’s like floating in space. All you can hear is your breath. A mechanical breath. The robotic hiss of the regulator, in and out. Night diving in the tropics is an extraordinary experience. Face your fears of the unknown, of dark water. The thrill of the menacing outline of a wreck looming ahead. The ultimate freedom of movement in a three-dimensional space. Sleeping fish.
On the beach, the night is still hot. Heat in the darkness. Heat rises off the sand like steam escaping a freshly-baked loaf of bread. Sand that has absorbed the heat of the day and finally giving it back.
You can still hear music, but it quietens as you walk out to the water. Barbados is an island that pulsates with rhythm. There is music everywhere. On the streets, in the stores, car horns blaring, radios booming. Even the cicadas of the night and whistling frogs vie to out-decibel the music. But tonight we would eschew all that. As we walked onto the beach, the lights and music behind us from the nightclubs and bars began to fade.
One person has to take car keys. Preferably someone with old-school car keys that don’t have any electronics in them. You never know when a waterproof bag could fail. And everyone else locks their keys in that person’s car.
Like the sand, even the sea is still warm. Not hot, but luke warm like a bathtub that has been left to cool too long. Almost the exact temperature of your body. You become one with the water. And the surface of the sea is smooth like liquid glass. Moving rolling liquid glass, picking up the lights of the sailboats moored in the bay.
For this is the south coast of Barbados. The gentle coast. The Caribbean Sea. Although technically it is still the Atlantic. The island nation of Barbados pokes out by itself, apart from the rest of the Lesser Antilles. It is located so far east that all the water surrounding the island is actually the Atlantic. But the locals like to think of the south coast and west coast as the Caribbean Sea. It is flat and bathtub-warm. The tourists love it. The east coast, by contrast, is windy and wild with crashing waves and currents. The shoreline is rocky.
Not here, not on this coast. We wander further out, our feet shuffling on the sandy bottom. There is something so elegant, so graceful and flowing about the motion of scuba diving. Every movement connected to the last, in a chain. In slow motion. But on land, vertical and walking in ridiculous flippers, the movements are clumsy, the gear is heavy, cumbersome. Like the proverbial fish out of water. Doing a shore dive, it is hard to wade out to sea without looking like a pregnant hippo. Plonking your flippered feet down. Overbalancing, stumbling, falling. The juxtaposition of the two completely opposite feelings is extraordinary. As soon as you are in the water, the switch immediately flicks to slow motion flowing elegance.
So we sink down and start swimming. Even before it is deep enough. Our fins kick the bottom. Our knees hit the sand.
Immersion is like a big hug. You are wrapped in the water, and at depth, the density of the water presses onto your body. Totally covering you like a lover or a feather duvet on a winter’s night. Torches click on. Listen to the mechanical breath of the regulator and feel the bubbles tickle your face. They sound like a cartoon. Your bubbles and your breath are not the only sounds, there is also an unusual scratching sound under the surface. All pervasive. It is the sound of fish eating the coral, scratching at it with their teeth. At least the nocturnal ones.
Because fish sleep. Apart from the nocturnal ones that carry on about their business, the fish that are sleeping, don’t swim, don’t move. They just hang there. In mid-water. You could bump into one and it wouldn’t move. An excellent time to catch a fish. Wonder why more fishermen don’t catch sleeping fish at night.
As you swim out, descending to depths, the space becomes three-dimensional. You can be looking for someone, and they can be vertically above you. Or behind and below. You have unlimited freedom to move, roll, dance, back flip. Yoga poses that would be impossible on land. Any movement is possible. Growing comfortable with the dive, something clicks. Changes. The mesmerizing sound of your breath in rhythm, the warmth of the water. But suddenly it doesn’t feel like water at all.
I moved my hand through it, passed my face. Just to make sure.
It still didn’t feel like water. I didn’t feel wet.
More like floating through space. In 3D. Or plasma. A space that is hard to move through with the resistance. You simply cannot make any sudden or sharp movements.
There’s a feeling of menace on a night dive, a fear of the black ocean, ink black, and of what could be underneath. It’s a mind game. Calm your mind, focus your breath. Swim forward. But it doesn’t stop you getting a little thrill of danger when the black hull of a wreck appears in the darkness.
Carlisle Bay is a mile wide as the crow flies. There are a number of wrecks in the marine park, all fairly close to shore, 600 feet out. We visit two. First the Berwin, an old tug boat that attracts a lot of fish during the day. It looks menacing and and abandoned at night. A short distance away is the Bajan Queen. Another tug boat, my favorite. Our headlamps throw beams on the hull like robbers in the night.
We swim down the corridor on the starboard side of the wreck, and there is still a steel toilet fastened there. One diver finds a sleeping eel in the bowl of the toilet and motions us all to take a look. But the movement of the water and the lights wake up the creature. And with a shot of adrenaline the eel slithers passed us into the night.
He wasn’t the only thing a little freaked out.
Calm yourself, slow your breathing. Don’t suck in all your air and use up your tank.
Tonight is a recreational dive. Other nights we would dive in different areas, away from the marine park, which is a protected zone. So that some of the crew could hunt for lobster to eat. Lobster protect themselves by squiggling into crevices and crags. And they swim backwards. The guys catch them carefully by holding their backs. The divers need to wear gloves to avoid the razor sharp spiky shell.
On lobster dives, if we are lucky, the guys usually bag a couple of big ones, always letting the little ones and the pregnant ones swim free. You can tell the pregnant ones because you can see the roe.
Normally to finish a dive the ascent is done slowly, vertically. You shouldn’t ascend quicker than your bubbles. And if you have been really deep, then you have several decompression or safety stops to blow out excess nitrogen. It is my least favorite part of the dive. The wait. The ‘verticalness’ of it. Hanging in mid water watching your depth gauge. Sometimes I get motion sick or disoriented from all the bubbles, especially if there are a lot of divers in the group.
But thankfully there are no such stops on the shore dive. You can literally swim to shore on the bottom of the ocean, and, by definition, slowly ascend to the surface.
There you leave behind the underwater slow motion of movement in space. The rhythm of your regulator. The tickle of the bubbles. The sleeping fish. The mini-thrill of danger. And on the days of the hunt, bring with you only one thing.