Returning to shore from our fifth dive of the night, we were like neoprene-clad vampires being driven out of the water by the impending sunrise. Our dive lights had begun to dim, so we turned them off and found our way back to the swim ladder at Bonaire's Buddy Dive Resort by following the misty glow of the dock lights as they pressed into the dark sea.
We passed a wagon train of slipper lobsters, head to tail, which we knew would completely and mysteriously disappear as soon as the first finger of light flickered its way through the surface of the water. The midnight hunters -- eels, shrimp, octopus and legions of those carnivorous slow-motion marauders, nudibranchs -- were slinking back into their shadowed hideouts. A lone night raider, a tarpon, hovered motionlessly under the dock, waiting as if to bid us goodnight, then with a see-you-later flick of its tail, it rushed off.
Once out of the water, it was just my friend Sean, me and the rush and squawk of early-morning birds chasing breakfast before the heat of the day. A bat took one last sweep around a dock light and headed off to the cool dimness of its cave. We stowed our gear in the lockers just as the far edge of the earth was lightening, and one by one the stars we'd had for company during our late-hour forays slipped off into our memories. By the time the other divers staying at the resort had risen and groggily dragged themselves to breakfast for their first jolt of coffee, the only signs of our presence were two sets of quickly evaporating wet footprints leading to our condo.
We were in the dark, having a beer and heading off to bed. We'd put aluminum foil over the windows, fooling our internal clocks into believing that the bright, sun-drenched world of Bonaire was in a permanent state of darkness (and keeping any dastardly government types or aliens from listening to our thoughts, to boot). We flicked off the lights and were both asleep before the first boat had left for the morning dive.
Sean and I have a passion for dark water, so while in Bonaire for a week, we'd decided we wouldn't see daylight again until the last day. From dusk to dawn we would explore the cloaked reef to examine the other side of the dive day. It was a wacky idea, but we were committed to it. So far, it had been pretty dang fun. We felt like cat burglars at most of the dive sites because it was just us, kitted-up and wandering off into the moonlit water. As we drove past the yellow markers that designate Bonaire's shore dives, it was as if the entire island, under some enchantment, had become our dark playground. We'd felt, over and over, that electric thrill that ripples up your spine when you feel like you're doing something sneaky -- especially during 2 a.m. dives when the whole world, it seems, is hushed.
Most divers and most destinations consider night diving a novelty during a week's trip, scheduling one, maybe two dives for the entire week. But on the southern Caribbean island of Bonaire you get 24-hour-a-day access to the blue, anytime and almost anyplace -- just grab a tank and go. And one thing's for certain: Besides us, plenty of undersea freaks come out at night, creeping, crawling or flashing into our dive lights like bolts of lightning.
We woke up just before sunset for our evening breakfast, thene prepared to go to the high temple of the oceanic night: Bonaire's Town Pier.
The Madcap Forest of Small
Smack in the middle of the main town of Kralendijk, Town Pier is a legend that has resonated through the dive world for, literally, decades. Unlike the rest of this island's sites, though, diving Town Pier requies permission from the harbormaster. Hagen Wegerer from Buddy Dive has secured us a late-night slot, leaving just the three of us to explore this macro wonderland at our leisure.
We geared up right on the street next to the L-shaped pier. In any other place, this would be an odd sight. In Bonaire, there wasn't a sideways glace from anyone out on the waterfront. As we made our way into the water, the eccentric and singular allure of this site came to us full-on. The pilings, covered in vivid orange cup corals, yellow, brown and purple tube and stovepipe sponges, and red clusters of encrusting corals, made the place seem like an outlandish and bizarre forest. As Sean wended through these vertical worlds, his dive light slashing away at the darkness, he looked like he's exploring a mysterious thicket in space.
I make my way slowly into this peculiar seascape where each of the cement pillars, lush with growth, has become unique and remarkable universe. Bonaire's reputation as the "macro capital of the Caribbean" is well justified here. Decorator crabs adorned with sponges and algae roamed about in the open, secure in their camouflage. I followed a Caribbean reef octopus from its home pipe past green morays, a sharptail eel, arrow crabs, hermit crabs, fire worms, brittle stars and even a pair of juvenile spotted drums peeking out from an old truck tire.
Hagen found a pair of bizarre-looking frogfish whose camouflage was so perfect that even as I stared at the unmoving creatures they seemed to fade from site. Each spot illuminated by the dive light revealed some new creature. The seafloor was littered with the debris of a working pier: old tires, pipes, rope and bottles, all of which have been transformed into homes and hideouts. Even after two hours in the water, we hadn't had enough of this exhuberant and wondrous site.
As we left, Sean says, "I wonder what that place is like during the day?"
But we wouldn't find out on this trip. We packed up and headed off for some more night ops.
All that Glitters
Nothing completes the exhilaration of night diving like turning off your light and having the sensation of not knowing up from up, or down from down. It was a moonless night, about 4:30 am, and we were descending from a marker buoy at the surface, without a single visual clue, through 100 feet of blackness to the Hilma Hooker. Sean was below me. I could tell this because of the glitter trail he was leaving. Biolumenescent marine creatures were stirred by our movements and lit up in their reproach, surrounding us with flashing blue sparks of magic dust. Exhalations of bubbles would cause great eruptions of tiny points of light. I imagined what this scene would look like to a bystander: a sparkly-aura outlining our tank-bound forms, with a comet's tail of flickering light trailing behind us.
Out plan was, stupidly, to freefall until we thought we'd descended deep enough, then turn on our lights and see who had come closest to the wreck. When Sean finally turned on his, it was like a scene from a movie where the monster abruptly jumps out of the darkness. Mere feet from the hull, it was all we could do to keep from crashing into it. Lesson learned.
Exploring a wreck at night is like touring a haunted house. Shadows jump and change with every sweep of light and every sense is heightened at the possibilities of what you may see, or what lurks just beyond the dark edge. What usually skulks just out of sight is the jumping cat of Bonaire night diving, a prowling tarpon. They'd accompany us on every dive, waiting for us to shine our lights on a small fish, then they'd explode in a silver flash past our heads. About one in 10 of these stealth attacks was successful, and even though we knew the tarpon were there, waiting to pounce, it would scare the crap out of us when they'd rush out of the darkness directly from our blind side and about an inch from our faces. We took time out of every dive for this "tarpon targeting," and wondered how the heck these guys fed at night without using a diver to spotlight its prey. Second to Town Pier, the Hooker is my favorite dark haunt -- not only for the wreck itself, but for the slow ascent up an adjacent wall to the shallows.
Along the way, we found dozens of intricate blue and green lettuce-leaf and purple-crowned sea goddess nudibranchs; flamingo tongue cowries; fingerprint cyphomas; alien-looking brittle stars; stareye hermit crabs; red snapping, spotted, peppermint, banded-coral and Petersen shrimp; slithering sharptail eels; green morays; and forests of Christmas tree worms. This site in particular seemed to be a haven for the Caribbean reef octopus and regal slipper lobster. On this dive, just before sunrise, a diamond blenny peeked out from under an anemone, accompanied by a sawcheek cardinalfish. Just before light, we spotted a parrotfish in its comfy night cocoon.
The slow ascent perfectly exemplified night diving: We saw more. Eyes shone, colors exploded to life and the intricate play of nature happened right beneath our gaze.
In the brief pause between inhalation and exhalation, the first wash of morning light touched the reef. Suddenly, the creatures that go bump in the night were gone -- vanished into the reef, right before our eyes. In their place the day-dwellers materialized with the light. Even the parrotfish we'd just seen was gone. It's almost baffling to see this transition take place on the reef, and most divers have even glimpse it.
But the sun was rising. So, like the creatures of the night, we pulled ourselves out of the water, drove back to the resort and slinked off to our room, where we pushed once again into our manmade darkness, shielded from the encroaching sun.