Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 2: Night Diving at Ocotal

Destination: Playa del Coco

We set out for Playa Ocotal at about 5:00 p.m., after completing various textbook assignments. Less than ten minutes away from the dive shop, this dark stretch of shore is more isolated and peaceful than Playa del Coco. Amelie and Will, my dive instructors, would be accompanying me and another Advanced Certification student, while Pierre waited for our return in the truck. Will briefed us on what to expect, mentioned something about phosphorescence, and told us not to stray from the group. Acutely afraid of the dark, I was far too nervous to pay much attention.

playa ocotal sunset

As the men began unloading the equipment, Pierre started toting my and Amelie's tanks to the beach. As women, we are normally not expected to struggle with all that weight for such a distance. Today, this was not the case -- Will was not going to let us off the hook just because we were girls. Grumbling, we geared up, waddled down to the water in our flippers, and swam into an unbelievably gorgeous pink and orange sunset.

For the first few minutes, there was just barely enough light to explore without our waterproof flashlights. The first thing I noticed was a bright yellow tin can crunched in between two rocks, which I assumed was used as a navigational tool for divers. Then an elegant spotted eagle ray, larger than normal, soared by. After a few moments, my visual field became a bit fuzzy in the dimness; it felt as if we were living inside that television effect where everything is blurred around the edges -- like a romance scene on a low-budget soap opera.

school of king angelfish

Sadly, my escalating heart rate directly correlated with the sun disappearing above us. By 6:30 p.m. it was pitch black -- and had we not been in such shallow waters, where air is consumed at a slow rate, I likely would have run out of oxygen within ten minutes.

Too proud to ask Will to hold my hand, I pulled up my mental bootstraps and tried my best not to cry with relief upon each realization that every rock or sandbar to come into view was not, in fact, a half-starved man-eating bull shark.

white tip reef shark

It took about 20 minutes to reach a relative comfort level in the absence of light. Will motioned us all to circle around him. He pulled his flashlight to his chest, and suddenly started freaking out. His hands began to spasm violently, which lasted for a period of about 10 seconds. Then he paused. Then the spasms started again.

We all stared for a brief moment, shocked into a state of disbelief that was slowly turning into anxiety.

Thankfully, someone finally realized that he was trying to show us the ocean's phosphorescence. These tiny glowing dots became agitated by his jerky hand movements, and glowed like hot embers as he shook his wrists about.

fine spotted moray eel

After that, we all partook in similar mini freak outs, just to watch the phosphorescent sparklers shoot off of our fingertips. The rest of the dive was fairly relaxing, except for one point when I got lost for ten seconds and nearly had a panic attack. Luckily, through the murk and the fog, I saw a flashing red light that we had all attached to our tanks.

Once reunited with Will, nothing could have pried me away from his side. At one point, he floated just inches above a jewel moray eel, which was slithering below, completely exposed on a flat rock.

Fortunately, he was slightly buoyant with no equipment dragging below -- otherwise he may have suffered a bite. "Generally, I am only afraid of the scorpion fish and sea porcupines," he later told me.

When we finally came full circle, I once again spotted the bright yellow tin can -- to say I was relieved would be a huge understatement. While I was glad to have faced the challenge of a night dive, I was not in a hurry to repeat the experience. I much prefer light over darkness.

Day 2: Night Diving at Ocotal in Pictures