Night snorkeling allows divers to enjoy the dramatic and fascinating changes that take place underwater after sunset. Protective snorkel wear and a powerful light are advised for a smooth night snorkeling. It is also best to go with a friend and to develop ways to communicate with him.
There are few things in the snorkeling world more exciting than night snorkeling. While most snorkelers go on tours during the day, the periods of highest activity on a coral reef are actually at dawn and dusk. This is because the reef community is evenly divided between fish and invertebrates that operate on two different shifts: day and night. At dawn and dusk you see both communities changing places. And. if you never see the reef community at night, you will only see about half the splendor of the coral reef.
As the sun goes down, there are dramatic and radical transformations taking place in the underwater world. The grazing reef fish (parrotfish, surgeonfish, butterflyfish and the like) all head toward safe havens, having completed their daily tasks of searching for food. At night, you can see these fish (the parrotfish actually secrete a protective mucus cocoon around themselves) motionless inside the nooks and crannies of the reef. While scientists debate whether fish actually sleep (as humans do), they generally concede that most fish active during the day enter a state of greatly reduced activity, known as torpor, at night. While they can still respond to threats to their safety, they don’t move much.
While the day shift is inactive, the night shift, those fish with big eyes (squirrelfish, Blackbar Soldierfish and the like) are leaving their daytime hiding places and beginning to roam the reef in search of food. Those large eyes are almost always a giveaway; fish with them are nighttime feeders. The schools of grunts that remain huddled together during the day (they also have large eyes) split up into individual foragers to hunt for food from dusk to dawn.
As interesting as the fish are, the most dramatic change that takes place on the coral reef at night has to do with color. Muted hues of blue, tan, green and yellow during the day, the reef explodes with vivid colors – purples, oranges and deep reds – during the evening hours. Coral polyps are the stars of the show here, as they fully extend to take advantage of the increased amounts of plankton drawn to the surface waters at night. By feeding at night they also escape predation by day shift fish.
The most dramatic of the corals seen at night are the Orange Cup Corals, Tubastrea coccinea, illustrated on this page. Found under over-hangs, on pilings and reef outcroppings, these corals retract their polyps during the day. At night, however, the polyps extend to feed and their bright orange bodies and tentacles are glorious.
The polyps of nearly all hard corals feed at night; sometimes so many polyps are extended it is difficult to tell exactly what coral you are looking at.
With all hard corals, however, the feeding process is the same. The extended tentacles trap plankton that float by and transfer them to the polyp’s mouth. Then the process begins anew.
Many of the night shift fish are after crustaceans. You can always expect to see more shrimp, lobsters and crabs prowling the reef at night – they are also nocturnal feeders – than you will during the day.
Preparing for night snorkeling is easy, except for an underwater light, you don’t need any special equipment. How do you go night snorkeling? Well, particularly for the first couple of times, a guided tour is highly recommended along with the following:
SOME TYPE OF PROTECTIVE SNORKEL WEAR: This can be anything from a Lycra suit to a wetsuit, depending on the water temperature. Although the water doesn’t get cooler at night, when the sun goes down the air does and you will chill faster. Also, snorkel suits are an excellent protection against the very small stinging organisms that are present both day and night at various times of the year. Although most of these stings are less annoying than a mosquito bite, snorkel suits eliminate even the possibility they might happen.
A POWERFUL UNDERWATER FLASHLIGHT: The key to successful night snorkeling is a powerful light, almost always secured to your wrist with a lanyard. All dive/snorkel centers rent them or they can be purchased (along with disposable or rechargeable batteries) at these same centers either at home or abroad.
A CALM, PROTECTED AREA: Conditions should be perfect for your first night snorkel and you should proceed slowly. Not only will you see more but you will acclimate to the water more quickly. It is terrifically different but only takes a couple of minutes to get used to! It’s also a good idea to make your first night snorkel in a place you have recently snorkeled during the day. You’ll remember what it looked like with the sun shining and will find the changes all the more fascinating and dramatic.
At night, it’s pretty common to see an octopus gliding across the bottom, its colors constantly changing as it hunts for small crustaceans. The animal’s eight arms will search all nooks and crannies it passes, hoping for a tasty morsel.
Sometimes you’ll get a glimpse of a Tarpon, a large, four to five foot silvery fish that is drawn to snorkelers’ lights because these lights also attract and illuminate prey. Don’t be afraid, they pose no threat.
Night snorkeling is no more dangerous than day snorkeling and there is absolutely no increased threat from sharks, Barracuda or other imagined (mostly by the media) monsters of the deep.
In addition to the steps we’ve already outlined, here are a couple of other recommendations:
GO WITH A BUDDY: You’ll be happy you did if one of your lights starts to dim.
TAKE A MINUTE TO RELAX AND GET ACCLIMATED WHILE SHINING YOUR LIGHT ON YOUR EXIT AREA: If you start your tour at dusk, remember, it will be much darker when you return.
ATTACH A SMALL LIGHT TO YOUR SNORKEL: This makes it easy to find you or your buddy if you get separated. Chemical lightsticks have been used in the past but currently they are not ecologically cool.
DEVELOP WAYS TO COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR BUDDY: Your natural inclination will be to shine your light in your buddy’s face. This is not a good idea – it will destroy his/her night vision! Get your buddy’s attention by flicking your light on the bottom and then shining it on your index finger to indicate you want to show him/her something. Then, just aim the light on the subject.
Night snorkeling is a fascinating, exciting way to explore the 50 percent of the underwater world we miss if we only explore it during the day. The night explosions of reef color are beautiful to behold. The marine life is entirely different and the feeding corals will help you understand just how the coral polyp, the basic building block of the coral reef, traps plankton and continues the ongoing cycle of life. Night snorkeling can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Local snorkel operations and guides will be happy to give you any special advice you need as you travel the world in search of the perfect snorkeling reef.