Just as Van Gogh’s famous painting Starry Night captures your eyes and soul with its swirling clouds and blazing stars, so too will a night dive at Wakatobi. You wait as the sun melts into the sea, watching an array of colors dance across the sky, with mirror images reflected by the water’s surface. As twilight fades, you ready yourself for a journey below that liquid boundary layer, into an aquatic fun house of intriguing and captivating creatures that go bump in the night.
It is a different world, but one that is just yards from Wakatobi’s beach; directly below the resort’s Jetty Bar on the famous House Reef. Equipment is double-checked, lights are activated, and you take the plunge into darkness. The shadows are immediately cleaved by saber like beams of the dive lights. You descend with anticipation and out of the darkness the reef appears. It’s as if nature has raised the curtain on the undersea stage, and the show has begun.
The reef comes alive at night with a whole different cast of characters. Night diving offers the best time to see crabs, lobsters, and shrimp going about their nightly business. Octopi come out, bobtail squid glisten in the water columns and cuttlefish swim across the reef creating an amazing array of light and color.
It is during the transformation from day into night that many of the reef’s predators become most active in the hunt for their next meal. Under and around the Jetty Bar lives a small group of red lionfish that make use of the lights from the bar above, which create a perpetual twilight that allow these cunning predators to extend their hunting forays when small fish and other assorted tiny marine creatures are drawn to the glow overhead.
Lobster hide in nooks and crannies in the reef during the day, yet they come out at night to hunt for food. They eat a variety of other sea creatures, including clams, urchins, crabs, and fish. When threatened, lobsters move very quickly by contracting their abdomens, causing the tail to move up and down – but they move backwards, tail first.
In this starlit world you are confronted by creatures, which appear quite different than their daytime counterparts. Under the nighttime sky the flick of a fin, or the wave of a hand produces a bioluminescent trail of twinkling lights. Many marine animals are nocturnal, therefore divers who only dive during the day miss them, because they are hiding or sleeping, like this tiny, vivid squid.
Slithering through the shadowed crevices and crannies of the reef, moray eels feed on any animal dead or alive that they can swallow whole. The reason for their abrupt feeding behavior isn’t greed, it’s just physiology. Moray eels must swallow their prey quickly because they need a continuous flow of water through the mouth to provide oxygen to the bodies. This same characteristic causes morays to display their characteristic teeth-baring grimace, which isn’t actual a threat, but just a physiological necessity.
Though their bodies may blend into the surrounding coral, the Scorpionfish’s glistening eyes betray its presence under the beam of your dive light. Scorpionfish are solitary fish, with nocturnal habits. They spend the day practically immobile, disguised amongst rocks and algae. At night they feed on other fishes, crustaceans and mollusks, which often cannot detect them thanks to their elaborate camouflage. When disturbed, they raise their dorsal fin in order to exhibit their strong and threatening venomous spines.
Crabs are often out and about in great numbers during the night. These voracious, nocturnal predators scuttle about in their characteristic sideways gait, pushing with the legs on one side of the body and pulling with those on the other. When need be, crabs can walk forward or backward with equal ease, and some can even swim. Though used as weapons when fighting other crabs, the outsized front claws are more often used to break through the shells of mussels and clams. When shellfish aren’t on the menu, omnivorous crabs can make due with worms, decaying matter and algae, and many won’t say no to a bit of sea grass salad. When confronted by a perceived threat, a crab may raise its claws in seeming defiance rather than retreat into the safety of a burrow.
One of the more bizzare creatures you may encounter making its slow way across the sandy sea floor is the sea cucumber. Although they do not have eyes, many sea cucumbers are light sensitive, and will quickly retract their tentacles when approached. They can be found anywhere from tide pools to ocean depths beyond six miles down. In fact, scientists have found that 9 of 10 animals seen at depths below 28,000 feet are sea cucumbers. Those that live in shallow waters tend to hide during daylight hours, lying still on rocks or burying themselves in sand or mud, then coming out at night to feed on debris.
One of the most exquisite parts of night diving is watching the coral feeding. Zooplankton rise from the nooks and crannies of the reef and drift past an ocean of mouths that include reef corals, sea anemones, brittle stars, and basket stars. Corals bloom after dark, absorbing nutrients from the water around them and looking truly beautiful.
You may spy on a parrotfish tucking in for the night. In the wee hours, some parrotfish spin a mucous cocoon around their entire body. This mucous ‘envelope’ presumably hides the parrotfish’s scent from potential predators and may also act as an early warning system, allowing the parrotfish to flee when it detects danger. This shimmering fish looks like it is in an oblong acrylic display case tucked into the reef.
All too soon the night dive comes to an end. You emerge from the water, bioluminescence sparkling off your fins. As you gaze at the stars above, the memory has become a painting etched on your brain. This beautiful vision keeps you going, until the next starry night, when you drop in again to visit Wakatobi’s stars of the sea.