November 18, 2017
It Started Out Great
In a typical weeklong voyage, the 115-foot Pelagian drops anchor in the south end of Pasar Wajo Bay on the island of Buton, Indonesia for a couple of days of supreme muck diving. The bay offers a variety of locations from very active and prosperous (both above and below the water) piers to gently sloping beaches where some of the most interesting critters nestle themselves in the black sand or take shelter in the occasional coral bommie.
Cheeky Beach is not far off as the ship’s tenders make the commute in seven or eight minutes. The drivers are careful to slow down as they navigate the harbor and pass by a few local fishing boats, some of which seem quite susceptible to even a mild wake. As the Muslim call to evening prayer wafts over the water from the local mosque, we arrive.
Now I have one rule about diving. Never miss a night dive. That is unless you hit your head running through a doorway because you were late for a dive briefing and open a small, bloody gash that doesn’t require stiches but is large and copious enough for everyone on the boat to strongly advise against exposing said wound to the somewhat less than pristine – as visibly manifested by small patches of thin oily film – water. Hypothetically speaking, of course. (More on that perhaps in a future blog.)
Night diving is exciting. You see completely different things after dark. Some are beautiful like the brilliant bouquet of orange cup coral polyps. Some might seem a bit scary like a free-swimming moray eel or a few four-foot silver tarpon circling around. Still others create lasting memories like an inquisitive octopus willing to grab your hand. In any case, night dives are not to be missed.
With the sun setting over the island, we did a back roll off the side of the tender in about ten feet of water and began exploring the terrain. Swimming in the slightest of currents, we slowly drifted down the underwater hill. My first find was a Napoleon snake eel. His white and brown-spotted head was barely noticeable poking out of his burrow. That was quickly followed by a very handsome black with blue trim nudibranch called a Gardiner’s headshield slug slowly crawling on the sandy bottom. Next up was a red stained urchin out for a stroll and then a rather aloof helmut gurnard that seemed completely unfazed by my lights.
Before I go any further, I should get into the lights for a bit. Earlier this year, while attending Our World Underwater, an annual diving trade show here in Chicago, I simply had to get Sola 9600’s. At the time, they were the strongest lights I knew about and have a terrific digital screen on the back that shows light strength, battery remaining at the current light level and the ability to control light intensity to the nearest 100 lumen.
Leslie once described my Sola 1200’s as the “light of God” given that she could easily see where I was from the boat when she didn’t accompany me on a night dive. The supposition with the 9600s is that my rig could now be seen by the International Space Station or, at the very least, trick incoming pilots into a potential water landing. Indeed, some of the other divers on the boat made quasi-serious comparisons to Big Geek, the small one-person submersible in The Abyss. No matter how strong they are, one of night diving’s little paradoxes is that you need them to see, but they can attract things don’t want around and scare off that which you do.
About half way through the dive, our group was joined by a few small silvery blue fish. It isn’t abnormal to get the odd hunter attracted to dive lights. Illumination can offer predators in the area a significant competitive advantage. They can swim around, outside the light undetected and swoop in when something tasty presents itself. I regularly attract a couple of three to four-foot tarpon every night dive in Grand Cayman, but these weren’t exactly on that level. These could better be described as three to four-inch micro predators, chowing down on tiny shrimp and other small niblets of the sea.
My newly found friends and I moved on to a family of ornate ghost pipefish hanging around a bommie. I spent a couple of minutes trying to get some decent footage, but noticed the camera had a little trouble focusing. Any ghost pipefish can be hard for a human to detect given their incredible camouflage, so it was natural to think the camera was experiencing difficulty. I repositioned to get more of a side view as ghost pipefish are quite thin when facing head on. Still no luck, so I chalked it up to the subject matter and my own relatively lack of experience with this new camera. (I must play with it more on land.)
I noticed a blue swimming crab (although it was actually walking, not swimming) out toward the edge of my light range and then turned to see a decent sized green and white reticulated puffer just laying on the sea floor. Some of the video was a bit fuzzy and I was getting annoyed that I was seeing all these great muck creatures and not able to get great footage. Swimming a bit further, I saw a fairly large Forskal’s Pleurobranch. Despite being classified as a slug, these are a beautiful deep red and can grow up to 12 in (30 cm). This one was about the size of a small football, so I was very surprised to see the camera has problems focusing…again. I looked over the top of my rig and immediately noticed the issue. That small group of fish had swelled to several hundred. They visibly lowered the amount of light traveling from the aforementioned lights on steroids AND messed with my camera’s ability to focus. They were darting all over the place. My hands were literally being pelted by frantically swimming fish striking with a mildly stinging force that reminded me of freezing rain on a windy December day back home. It was getting almost impossible to take any usable video.
Or was it?