Suddenly, everything was silent. I no longer smelled the fumes or heard the rumbling of the dive boat’s engine. The crack of thunder overhead made one final boom. The clanking of air tanks, zipping of wetsuits, and muffled chattering of scuba divers stopped. The splashing of the torrential rain storming down onto the Gulf of Thailand was turned off completely.
Someone had pressed the mute button on the world, leaving me to hear only the sound of my mechanical breath flowing in and out of my regulator.
I’d never been scuba diving in a lightning storm before.
Just before we entered the water, my advanced diving instructor prepped me for the dive. “We’re diving as usual.” He explained in a thick French accent, “Only this time in the dark. And with a flashlight.” He went over a few variations of commands that pertained solely to night diving, such as making an O with the light signing “OK.” Since I enrolled in a French diving school (not intentionally! More on that next week…), my course consisted of just my instructor and I thanks to a low influx of English speakers.
The sun had set well before our boat arrived at the dive site and I couldn’t distinguish between the ocean and the horizon. Fat, black raindrops fell down from the sky and contributed to what looked like an infinite expanse of tar. Every few minutes, we’d hear a rumble and watch lightning illuminate the outline of the increasingly distant island of Koh Tao.
“Alright, we’re going in now!” My instructor smiled and signaled. He stepped off of the boat and into the darkness, and I followed shortly after.
When I pointed my flashlight down towards the bottom of the ocean, I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my mask.
For the dive, I was blind to everything but what my narrow flashlight beam would reveal as a peephole into the ocean. But then, a lightning bolt would strike in the distance and light up the entire ocean for a millisecond — revealing entire schools of fish just a few feet away from me. I’d try to focus on the outlines of hundreds of fish surrounding me but then the next instant they’d be gone. Knowing they were there but not being able to see them gave me the perpetual feeling of being watched.
I hovered above the reef like an astronaut, slowly finding small creatures in the crevices of the coral. Blue spotted eels danced above the sandy bottom, with the sides of their fins fluttering like banners. Always grumpy during the daytime, triggerfish floated while fast asleep, unphased by our lights shining directly onto their motionless rainbow colored bodies.
Whenever possible, I attribute personalities to the fish that I see. It makes the dive more interesting and helps me recall them from memory after the dive. Darting fish are judged as neurotic, while slow moving ones are dubbed lazy or laid back. I blame Finding Nemo for this. We watched a large fish prey on, hunt, and eat a smaller — less fortunate — fish for a midnight snack. Some days we’re the big fish and other days we’re the small one.
Luckily that night I was still considered a big fish-type-creature and didn’t encounter any toothy fellows who fancied a neoprene wrapped snack.
Thin, long, garden eels hung vertically above the sand in a, “don’t mind us — we’re just grass” state of being. As we swam closer, the fish darted into the sand in a panic as if to communicate, “Into the trenches, boys! The divers just realized we’re not grass!!!”
I covered my flashlight and waved my hand through the black water. Bio-luminescent plankton lit up like glitter in a snow globe of stars.
The night dive ended up being the most relaxing of all dives I had during my course — thanks to the darkness and need to stick closely together, my instructor waved off his spontaneous navigation, equipment removal, and out-of-air tests. My dulled sense of sight combined with the sound of only my own breath put me in a meditative state of being for most of the dive (aside when I was playing out fish themed soap operas in my mind).
We surfaced after 45 minutes and in that moment I wished I could take this experience and transfer it to everyone in the world. Scuba diving in general is awesome — but scuba diving at night with lightning striking the water? Phenomenal.