Sometimes, things that happen are just “so Roatan”, and if you’ve ever been here you know what I’m talking about.
I was walking to meet my friend for ice cream one evening when I passed West End Divers, and co-owner Gary (more commonly known as Bugs around these parts) stopped me in the street.
“Have you been drinking?” was the first thing out of his mouth.
I wondered if my (100% sober) gait was deceiving people, and responded with a, “no I haven’t, thank you very much!”
“We’re doing a blackwater dive in 5 minutes. Wanna come?”
How do you say no to an offer like that? I had heard rave reviews from the first few trial runs of the dive, and I was seriously intrigued. Of course, I called my ice cream date and said sorry, can’t go, and ran to my house to change into a swimsuit and grab my mask. I was back at the dive shop in 5 minutes flat, out of breath and a little anxious about what I had just gotten myself into.
Blackwater dives are very different from the traditional night diving on Roatan. Instead of heading out at sunset, jumping off the boat and exploring the reef, you leave much later (at 7pm) and the boat goes 1-2 miles OFF the reef, out into the blue – which is out into the black at night. West End Divers has developed a unique and safe tethering system, so that the divers are attached to the boat via an individual 40ft anchor line and personal tether at all times during the dive. Your 10ft tether rope can swing 360 degrees around your anchor line, but you can’t pass 50ft down and the divers spend the dive neutrally buoyant between 20-40ft.
What’s the point of a blackwater dive? Well, it’s mostly for the insane little creatures you can see that far off the reef! At night, many deepwater marine creatures come up to feed on the phytoplankton that lives near the surface. Lots of little weird gelatinous/jellyfish-type things, tiny squid and fish, larval eels, and generally just bizarre things that we don’t see during a night dive on the reef. No big guys (mantas, sharks, etc.) have been spotted yet, but the emphasis is on the yet – I am confident that the more blackwater dives West End Divers does, the more divers will see! [Edit Jan 9: silky sharks were spotted on the latest blackwater dive! YEAH!) The bioluminescence in the water is also much, much more visible during the lights-out part of the dive than it is during a reef night dive, just due to less light pollution (when we night dive on the reef, the lights from resorts, etc. on shore affects us underwater because it’s so close).
As West End Divers large boat Delfin rumbled us away from Roatan, my fellow instructor dive buddy and I sat together quietly with a little bit of apprehension as we weren’t quite sure what to expect. The other three dive pros with us had all done a blackwater dive before. The boat had several extra staff on it as this kind of diving requires more surface support than a regular night dive. The speakers were pumping happy music and there was a definite air of excitement as the divers got their underwater camera setups ready. When we got to the spot, the boat dropped a sea anchor and each diver was given an individual line-handler and a high-intensity underwater torch. After a thorough briefing from cheery divemaster Courtney, our line handlers attached our anchor line over the gunwhale of the boat and our tether lines were clipped to our BCDs. We dropped in and our line-handlers directed us to the correct position on the sides of the boat (there is a max of 6 divers, each on their own line about 10 ft apart). We got the ok to descend, and down the lines into the dark we went.
It’s definitely a weird and disorienting feeling the first few minutes. Not having the reef around you for any reference was a new thing for me, and I remember thinking, “wow, I’m really breathing hard – I must be nervous!” and checking my dive computer constantly because I had no idea what depth I was at. There was a little bit of current, so I just got myself neutrally buoyant and let the tether line hold me in one spot so there wasn’t any resistance and I didn’t have to kick. You can see all the other divers around you because everyone has lights, and you can see what they’re seeing in their beams which is kind of cool if they’ve spotted something. I was able to reach my buddy by kicking over to her and scare her by grabbing her leg (we had an emergency hand holding plan in place in case we got scared, but we didn’t end up having to use it – haha). With the current, my buddy and I were in front of the other three who all had cameras, so if we noticed flashes going off behind us we just turned around to see what they were looking at. I spent a lot of time just resting with my beam pointed out into the dark, seeing what creatures were whizzing by me. I squealed with excitement when I spotted a tiny squid, and my buddy and I caught a few things that were cool but we had no clue what they were. As dive pros with thousands of dives on Roatan’s reef, it’s a lot of fun for us to see new things.
The time passed quickly for my buddy and I as we figured out the best positions to get in and tried to make sure we weren’t bothering the photographers with our lights. We showed each other weird jellyfish. We watched the camera guys doing their thing. We did somersaults on our lines. We bravely turned our lights off and hung out in the residual light from the other divers. We pretended we were Superman flying around. I spent a while picturing giant squid or a mako shark suddenly coming at me out of nowhere but sadly I have to report neither happened. At the 55-minute mark, we received the audible signal from the boat that we had 5 minutes left and to turn our lights off for a truly dark deepwater experience. As the camera strobes and torches turned off, we were in complete darkness….for about one second, until our eyes adjusted and the bioluminescence started. If you haven’t ever seen this, picture everything being completely black, and then anything moving (us, our tether and anchor lines) having millions of green sparkles coming off of it. All five divers were waving their hands around, kicking and doing spins, so with our lines moving and us too, it was like seeing a sea of tiny fireworks EVERYWHERE. It was beautiful. I’ve never seen that much bioluminescence, even during the darkest of reef night dives. Absolutely amazing.
Finally, we got the audible signal for 60 minutes and to come up. My dive buddy and I slowly surfaced and started WOOHOO-ing – we still had an incredible adrenaline rush going. As our line-handlers got us back on the boat and unclipped, everyone was talking animatedly about what they had seen and the photographers immediately got their cameras out and started showing photos of the strange and wonderful little things we had found down there. Our captain, Nelson, started maneuvering Delfin back to shore as we all happily chatted about our dive.
Of all the things I’ve done diving around Roatan – night dives, seamount dives, well over a thousand reef dives – this was by far the most interesting one I’ve ever done. What a way to start off 2016! (And for someone who is still kinda scared of the dark, that’s saying a lot!)
West End Divers is currently the only dive shop on Roatan offering this exceptional experience. To participate, you must be an advanced open water diver with an absolute bare minimum of 25 dives under your belt (personally, I would recommend more but just chat with the staff there so they can assess you) and previous night diving experience. Blackwater diving is not for inexperienced divers, or divers with anxiety or claustrophobic tendencies. It’s also definitely not for anyone who has trouble with vertigo. You can read more about West End Divers blackwater diving here, and their terms and conditions here. For those adventurous divers who tick all the right boxes though, I highly recommend you check this off your bucket list! Tell ’em Rika sent you, and say hi to the deep for me. I hope you see a shark!
|me and lanita on our lines – by mickey charteris
A massive thank you to Shawn Jackson, Mickey Charteris and Courtney Blankenship for letting me use your photos for this post. Thanks to Bugs for catching me on the street with the best invite ever, and to the shop for loaning me gear. Also thank you to Lanita, my favorite dive buddy of all time who didn’t question me when I called and said “get your ass down here in five minutes dude we’re going blackwater diving” – always good to check off another adventure with you my friend!
Disclosure: West End Divers generously hosted me for this dive but it was not in exchange for a review. I just happened to be walking by the shop after people canceled last-minute so I was offered the spot. Right place, right time. You guys know no matter who is taking care of the bill that I’ll always give you my honest opinion!