….For The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors
My very first real night dive was in Jamaica, Dragon Bay, 20th June 1994…..The bay is truly beautiful and was the location of the beach-bar scenes in the Tom Cruise film Cocktail. It’s nice to say I had a couple of beers at that bar and swam in the pool overlooking the white sand of Dragon Bay, if you want to hear more then you can read about the Jamaica trip and Dragon Bay in earlier posts in this section of the blog. As this piece is about night diving more than exotic locations let me set the scene……I wanted a real night dive, in fact I had wanted one since surfacing from a dive in the Adriatic, in the dying light of an afternoon, way back in Pula in 1992 two years since. The clear water of the Adriatic and the ever darkening blue of the sea around me was fascinating, like the transition into a deep sleep as the peripheral vision closes down and the mind drifts off into the peace of the dark of the subconscious…….
I had many experiences of diving in very low viz, from Chesil beach, where, literally, the lights went out at 3m and I had needed to use Toot’s thumb to repeatedly jerk her hand up to indicate it was time to end the dive, I couldn’t honestly see her at the end of my arm……..to “the washing machine” dive, where Igor & Jellico had taken me on my first cave dive, off Pula in the Adriatic. It wasn’t as if I had no experience of darkness under the sea….it was just I had never actually planned and executed a dive after dark and with all the equipment needed for the event. All that was about to change just a few days after my 34th Birthday, on the pristine white sands of the shallow bay in front of Dragon Bay! My Buddy was Steve and we had been offered the expedition camera on the strict instructions from Don Shirley….”Don’t fcuking flood it, break it……. or lose it”……. Seemed simple enough!
The entry was a simple one and we waited till the Sun was really low in the sky before kitting up in front of the “Cocktail” bar, whilst the other members of the team were still popping Red-Stripes by the pool or on the veranda of the hotel restaurant, their kit drying in the heat of the evening. It is never easy walking backwards into the sea in clumsy dive kit, but we managed it without stumbling over the occasional coral and rock shelves in the shallow bay, and lay back into the cool water as the Sun disappeared below the horizon….time to switch on the torches and submerge…….
My dive log is, as usual, less than eulogizing of the occasion “Shore Dive – Dragon Bay (JA) 1st True Night Dive – Around a coral bay sometimes down to 0.5m depth – Two large Puffer Fish – a Sea Snake – Lots of smaller reef fish beautifully coloured – a couple of lg Crayfish A great dive – Air in 110 – Out 70 W/Temp 23’ Buddy Steve” Now there was no real need for more than a hand-held torch on this dive and it showed me despite the dark, the clarity of the water makes a great deal of difference to the visibility once your eyes “dial in” to the darkness, something like the way your eyes adjust above the water at night, even the darkest night still allows you to see sufficiently to get about without slamming in to everything. In a small area like that of Dragon Bay there would be no real issues, in deeper more remote locations the ability to be seen from the surface, by those in the boat following your light beams under the water meant good, powerful torches were a necessity, it was either that, or surface marker buoys with light-sticks attached!
My second night dive was again in Jamaica, this time off the Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory at Mona, (another piece written up elsewhere in this section of the blog) just a few days after the Dragon Bay dive. July 01st of 1994 we were taken out in the University skiffs to do some diving with the research students as they checked out their marked observation and specimen areas. These areas often featured plastic “squares” which were made up to “grid” an area of interest, the marine life at any particular time could then be recorded, and the observation of seasonal or weather influenced changes noted, and “usual” state or “normal” established for a particular zone or reef. I would find myself noting several changes in condition whilst diving on this particular night………as the log book recalls: “Small Boat Dive Discovery Bay (Ja) Night Dive – Plenty to see Two small Leopard Rays – a huge Moray Eel – several Cuttle Fish and Lobsters, Two Sea Snakes and various reef fish – stung by Sea Wasp Jelly-Fish on ascent but great dive, clear star filled sky full of summer lightening on return – Great. Air In 210 Out 100 W/Temp 28’ Buddys Neil & Hayden” Yet again I fail miserably to adequately describe the feelings and sights of the dive but the recollection as I type is absolute clarity…..firstly I can still physically recall the sting of the tiny Sea wasp Jellies…..there isn’t much above the surface that I can liken them too….imagine a very hot needle, a large needle, like a knitting needle say, one you had placed in a lit ring on your cooker for enough time to become Cherry Red, then imagine sticking it into yourself randomly six or seven times….not pleasant at all! I took hits to my groin, my thigh, my neck and to my face, one right on my top lip….it was bloody painful, eye wateringly so…. and they lasted for a good twenty minutes before subsiding enough to be given a stiff ignoring!
I did no justice describing the lightening we surfaced to in such a small piece either, if you have ever witnessed a tropical storm at sea they can be nothing short of breathtaking! As we got back in the boat it was clear a storm was brewing and the sky was getting darker and more brooding as we headed back to the Uni, lightening flashing in the distance, thankful it was way offshore and nothing to worry the little marine lab skiffs we were diving from. Don, Hayden, Neil and I had sat on the veranda of the Dragon Bay restaurant a couple of nights before, watching a storm pass out to sea for an hour or so. Rain lashed the restaurant roof as we drank Red Stripe, in silence, just awestruck at the show God put on for us that evening. I have never thought of storms as frightening, they have always struck me as demonstrations that, no matter how clever the human race thinks itself, the true majesty of this Earth will never be something mere human beings can emulate. If nothing else, a tropical storm, with its clouds flaring in hues of Purple and Grey, lit by the most intense White light as bolts of electrical energy flash the skies or strike the sea, shows just how tiny and insignificant we are…… and will always be! I loved those two night dives in Jamaica and even though I have taken many since, will always think of those as perhaps the best, well apart from perhaps the wreck dives I have been lucky enough to take at night
The next time I would get to night dive would be back in the UK at Stoney cove, three years later in February of 1997, by this time I had started Deep Blue Diving and opened up an entirely new phase in my diving journey. Having taken my PADI Open Water Instructor exam and decided I could supplement my day-job with diver training, so my passion was not costing my new young family to support it, I was getting into the swing of training divers and the rigors of the PADI system, it wasn’t what I was used to in the British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) and there were others I noticed perhaps not taking their students or the course requirements quite as seriously as I believed they should be. It was clear there were constraints on what could and couldn’t be, or more correctly “Shouldn’t” be taught on many occasions but the one that stuck out most to me was “Night Diving” which some instructors seemed to believe included the summer months of the UK season, where, on completing one’s “Night Dive” before the cove closed its doors at 21:00 on the 1st or 3rd Wednesday evening of each summer month, one could note the sky was still incredibly bright, with the Sun not yet touching the horizon behind the cove walls……… I disappointed quite a lot of our trainees by telling them I would only train them for night diving or take them on night dives when it was actually dark as they entered the water. Perhaps that cost me some students, perhaps they actually understood “Night” should mean “dark” or there wasn’t really much point and their money was being wasted……..? Either way it meant I would only get night dives in during the winter months at best, it also meant we had colder and clearer water in the cove which, for those embarking on their first ever descent into what is, to them, a perhaps somewhat frightening and dark quarry, made a difference when they were ready to shield their torches and realise they could actually see quite reasonably without torch beams everywhere around them. I had become so used to night diving in the first two years of Deep Blue Diving I preferred to dive the cove with my light switched off and navigate by sight alone, that skill did not come immediately though as my log book records…. 19th Feb 1997: “Night Dive – Stoney – Leicester Tim and Another Buddy pair – 1 aborted (cold) so went on as a 3 good root round 7m Shelf & play in the pub Large Perch about and many Crayfish – great dive – fun round the cockpit – managed to tag onto wrong dive pair but re-located after 5 mins W/Temp 3’ Viz great – real choppy Air In 200 Out 90 Buddy Tim”. Two months later and I was back for another Advanced Open Water Course and took students around again: “Night Dive – Stoney Cove – Leicester A.O.W Cse (2) Trip round the well head – lg shoal of Perch about – eyes glowing – down round cockpit & on to the pub footings 10lb –ish Pike about but only 1 Crayfish plenty of Roach though! W/Temp 10’ Air In 220 Out 175 Buddy’s Tim – Barry” It makes me smile to think my buddy’s for that evening were my youngest brother Barry and my Father-in-Law Tim, Ellie’s step-father, it is a source of joy to me to have given them both a start under the water……..
The next Night dive in my log sees me under the Aten (Ancient Egyptian for “the Sun’s disc”) in Egypt’s Red Sea with the first trip I took for a couple of the members of Fenton Sub-Aqua Club, the club supported by and driven from the students of Deep Blue Diving. I had two of the club with me, John Keeling and Colin Woodall, both good strong divers relishing the chance to get away from Stoke-on-Trent and under the seas in foreign lands…..It was only day two of the trip and our first Night Dive presented itself as we moored over at Sha’ab Um-Usk, which I had misheard and which ended up in my log as Sha’ab Ummush: 02/08/97 “Night Dive – Liveaboard – “Shaab Ummush” hunting coral & fish – lots to see – 2 Lionfish together very pretty – plenty of Urchins & many Shrimps just two red eyes gleaming – two pretty tube worms, beautiful colour of corals W/Temp 28’ Air In 210 Out 170 Buddy John Keeling”
The difference between Night dives in Stoney Cove and in the Red Sea cannot be understated, the Sun drops very much quicker in Egypt than it seems to do in Leicester for some reason………with a full 20’ difference in temperature and still beautifully clear waters……. I would see 1997 out with one last night dive, that would be in Stoney Cove and back to single digit temperatures, taking another advanced open water course in December as my log records: 03/12/1997 “A.O.W Night Dive Stoney Viz 8-10m Dropped over well head to road then round cockpit to Pub Great Fun – Air In 150 Out 100” It seems that 1997 was a good year for night diving! I suppose I averaged a dozen or so night dives per year over the next two years, training advanced open water courses, I won’t go through them all here as they were pretty much the same route every time, (down the Bus shelter uprights, across to the Viscount cockpit, Left along the shelf drop-off to the broken pipe, across to the pub footings and through the windows, then back along the shelf to the exit, initially at the ski-hut, occasionally, later on, to the steps in the newly made quayside) and for good reason
I had determined that those making a transition from sometimes only 4 open water dives at Stoney Cove, would have a harder time if I added the uncertainty of a new direction, or area, as well as the stress of kitting up in the dark, additional equipment and the primordial Nyctophobia, or “Fear of the Dark” (I have a constant fear that something’s always near…… Smith S. In Maiden. I: “Fear of the Dark”. Published by EMI, May 1992). As a coping strategy for our advanced open water students, the Night Dive of the course was always the last of the 5 we took them through, (deep, navigation, dry-suit, multi-level & night were our usual A.O.W dive choices at Stoney, the first two being mandatory), and followed the reduction of light during the deep dive, and multi-level dive and their required familiarity with the route taken on the Navigation dive, which we took them out on and then invited them to take us back, in reverse order, using familiar references along the route that we had pointed out. If nothing else, when students finally took the giant stride into Stoney Cove on a Wednesday evening in the winter months, they knew where they were going and what they should see on the way out, and on the way back in……it didn’t always prevent a student deciding night diving wasn’t for them….but I am confident it did tip the balance for many of them! I had one of my best ever dives at Stoney Cove on a Wednesday evening in December of 1999, with Mark Hill, one of those students who quickly became a close personal friend, along with Kerry his wife and his son Leon and daughters Kelly and Alycia. I won’t relive that dive here, I will, when I am ready, write it up where it should be, another of those odd anomalies that you really don’t expect, one of the very moments that make life profound rather than abstract and one of those memories you can call to mind when all around looks a little too bleak……
I returned to the Red Sea in 2006 with my family, no students, just us and a well-deserved rest after ten years of training divers through Deep Blue Diving. It was time to end that journey, a new job working with the military in Andover, Hampshire, meant I had no chance to continue running dives at the weekend, only to be away from the family through the week, to return to run dives again….it just wouldn’t work, so it was time to close the pool and say goodbye to Deep Blue Diving and the members of FSAC once and for all. The Egypt holiday was closure of a sort, as one pool closes, another one opens so to speak, and in this case I would finally get to take my three kids diving myself, in the warm and forgiving waters of Far Garden at the Northern extreme of Sharm el Sheik, but that’s a tale for another post! During the holiday I got to take a night dive on Far Garden as relaxation, nothing more, my dive log records: April 2006: “Night Dive – Far Garden – Sharm this time over towards Middle Garden (Right from the Crowne Plaza) finding everything we could – Barracuda, Lemon Rays, Lion Fish – Scorpion Fish fantastic corals and great opportunity to get real close to them too Air In 200 Out 65 Buddy Mark” Another of my dives with Marky and a great family holiday with our wives and children when they were still youngsters!
The first real night dive I took on a wreck was on, to some, probably the most prestigious in the Red Sea, perhaps, to most, in the world. The SS Thistlegorm, sunk 06th October 1941, went from an obscure transport vessel (carrying war materials bound for Alexandria, to support Montgomery and his Desert Rats during the Libya campaign against Rommel and the Afrika Corps), to Jacques Cousteau’s most celebrated find in the early scuba diving days of the 1950’s, and then on to become one of, if not “the” most iconic shipwrecks in diving history. If there is a wreck that more people have dived on then I will be very surprised, the James Egan Layne off Plymouth, in Bigbury Bay, is perhaps the next most dived wreck, having been consistently dived on over a far longer period than the Thistlegorm. After Cousteau left the wreck, having removed the ship’s bell and several other items, (the captain’s safe being one of them), Thistlegorm once again sank into obscurity until around 1990, when scuba diving from Sharm-el-Sheik started to become something of a diving tourist explosion, since then the Thistlegorm has been dived almost continually, it is not unusual to find upwards of 10 dive boats moored over her
But I digress, it was 30th April of 2010 on the Liveaboard MV Hurricane when I was lucky enough to get a chance to dive her at night, and what a dive it was, I had dived Thistlegorm 5 or 6 times before by then but never at night, my log book recalls: “Shab-Ali “Thistlegorm” a night dive on Thistlegorm for my first time on this wreck. Down the shot to midships at the accommodation & round to the Starboard companionway, to the bows & across into the Port door of the rope & chain locker room & round and out the Starboard side, across the decks to the bowser dropping into No 2 hold for a brief look. Along the Port companionway and round the back of the Captain’s bathroom, dropping into the lower deck & out the bomb damage past Snake-lock Anemones & Clown Fish & on to the shot for a couple of minutes deco Viz 10m Buddy Craig/Claire Air In 200 @ 32% Out 150” In truth, although this is, for me, a long descriptive in log-book terms, it still doesn’t give anything like the true flavour of what was a magnificent dive
With my diving being wholly recreational since closing Deep Blue Diving in 2006, my log book entries were thinning out to holiday opportunities and the odd dive trip once a year, the in-between diving was usually Stoney Cove to keep the motor skills functional. It would not be until 2013 that I would get another night dive in, but once again it would be something of an epic wreck and yet another Red Sea location. The story of the Salem Express is one of unimaginable tragedy, which shipwreck tale where lives are lost is not?, but what was an attempted act of kindness on the part of the First Officer, in trying to lessen the suffering of pilgrims out on deck in very poor conditions, became a scene of horror when the Salem Express hit a lone uncharted coral head, bursting the bow door and sinking the ship in under 20 minutes. The Salem Express went down at night, close to midnight in fact, headed for Safaga harbour during a storm, her decks awash with pilgrims returning from the Haj to Mecca after a mechanical fault had kept her two days longer in Jeddah than intended. Figures for the number of pilgrims aboard vary, the local version of “official” is round 658 including the crew, but, as is ever the case in poorly regulated countries the final “guesstimate” is around 850 as, frequently, unregistered passengers find their way aboard in more surreptitious manners. I have always taken the position that whatever the tragedy, diving shipwrecks, even those with loss of life, keeps the memory of those who have passed very much alive, in a truly immediate, visceral manner and, moreover, in a situational and historical context. If I am lost at sea in similar circumstances I would want divers to seek out my resting place, and would welcome my place in history being a place of pilgrimage of sorts. Not everyone will agree with me and I respect their perspective too, but their right to that perspective, not their right to prevent access to such wrecks. I understand some of the families of those lost will not want divers disturbing their loved ones place of rest, I treat all such wrecks with respect and reverence whilst diving them. I do not disturb anything in a wreck, in the same way I would not disturb anything in a cemetery, or garden of remembrance, but I do walk amongst those who have passed and would not fear others doing the same to me, how else does one pay respect to the dead and feel their continued presence amongst us?
My dive log records the dive on her as: “Red Sea – Salem Express – Safaga Moored mid-ships this meant we dropped down the shot & into the Port side of the wreck & went down the companionway to the bows – across the forecastle deck & to the bow door & the damage from ramming the reef dropping past the bent bow we then swam the Starboard companionway bow to stern and exited at the garage to view the props and then penetrate through the garage & up to the Port side exit. Terribly poignant and eerie until we exited and swam a little off from the wreck paralleling the decks to mid ships then into the Port companionway – down into the galley & restaurant area and on out to the stern exit – back to mid ships shot line to decompress & out Air In 180 Out 60 Buddy Craig” I mention the feeling of poignancy and the overwhelming eeriness of the dive, although I have dived Salem Express several times before and since, there is always the feeling I am entering a church of sorts, a space that invokes reverence, and although I feel that in many, if not most wrecks I dive, the Salem Express, especially at night, leaves you feeling very human, very mortal, and with the sense you are surrounded by those history has taken, who watch as you pass almost as if waiting to greet you……..soon my friends…..….but not today
Two years later and I am back on Thistlegorm at Night, 29th July of 2013 and the dive log reads quite short: “Thistlegorm – night Dive – This was on the bows & round the main deck along with No 1 and 2 holds then through Bridge accommodation, round the bridge deck & then on to cover the bikes & the trucks & out at the bow a real treat Air In 200 Out 100 Buddy Craig” I love the bow area on Thistlegorm, it usually attracts less attention from other divers as they are somewhat obsessed with the cargo holds. I too love the cargo holds and have spent many dives looking at the trucks, the aeroplane wings, the endless Enfield rifles and the dozens of BSA motorcycles, all fascinate and all attract the main of a dive party, so it is a wonderful opportunity to spend time in the forward chain lockers and paint stores under the bow deck, which can be swam through and around usually in complete isolation, rather than being descended on and surrounded by other divers…..it isn’t the first time I find myself seeking out the less trod path….I’m just not a social animal
So now to the best of all the night dives I have had the privilege of, and it will be of little surprise to find it is a Red Sea dive, the Rosalie Moller, another victim of the Heinkel HE111 raid on Thistlegorm, but a day later when the bombers of 11 Staffeln, Kampfgeschwader 26, having spotted the Rosalie Moller whilst returning from sinking the Thistlegorm, came back for, and sent the Rosalie Moller to the bottom….. The Rosalie Moller is a deeper dive than Thistlegorm sitting on the bottom at 50m, with her decks at around 40m, so she is more of a challenge than Thistlegorm, and there is nothing like the cargo of Rosalie’s “sistership”, she was carrying a cargo of nothing more interesting than coal….so why is she the jewel of Red Sea wrecks?
I will deal with that in another piece, you know if you have been on this blog before where that will be, here is the log book record: “30/07/13 Night Dive – Rosalie Moller – Red Sea! This is the first time that I know that anyone has done a night dive on Rosie!! What a Privilege it is! Down a shot to the No 4 hold at the stern then round the stern deck house along the Starboard rail the full length of the ship with all the deck rails festooned with Brittlestar anemones & fan corals all out and blazing with colour the whole way. Past the holds to the bridge deck accommodation & the lifeboat davits, past the winches & on to the bow over the fallen mast area & bomb damage to the bow deck house (chain locker) & over those to the bow itself then back to the main for’ard mast where the shot was for ascent. Great view of the bow as we ascended to deco & a whole sky of stars as we surfaced MAGICAL DIVE Air In 200 Out 100 Buddy Craig”
Rosalie has something more than Thistlegorm, she was never supposed to be the star, always the understudy, but her presence on this stage steals the show, sat, upright as if she could continue her journey tomorrow, complete, her funnel upright and her masts in place when I first dived her, Rosalie was off the map of most live-aboards, being too deep for the average diver and being in an area that often has a fierce current running too….Rosalie was considered “too high a risk” for mainstream charters, until technical diving started to feature more on the radar and attracted those wanting something a little more off-piste than Thistlegorm……don’t get me wrong, Thistlegorm is a wonderful and iconic dive…..but Rosalie is her quieter sister….the one that can’t help but draw your eye
For once in this dive blog we are nearly up to date, my very last night dive….I really must do more….is logged in August of 2015 six whole years ago somehow! It is recorded thus: “Night Dive on Thistlegorm, down the shot to the mid-section Starboard Side at the bridge deck. We did the Starboard gangway past the engine and onto the bow. Came round in a running current to the Port side & on to the locker room Paint store/Rope room. Swam through that and out into the forward hold to see the trucks, aircraft wings & engine cowlings below the bowser down a deck to see the motorbikes & the carbine cases along with more of the trucks& a swim round the inner hold decks on the open to water side rather than in the loading bays. Came up & swam the bridge area & round the galley & into the bridge wings. Back over to the shot. Air In 220 Out 100 Buddy Craig” So here, somewhat fitting that it should be on the Thistlegorm, we end the saga of Night diving…. for the moment at least!