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Tips for Better Night Diving and Snorkeling: How to Minimize Panic and Stay Safe

Night diving is scuba diving done at night from the shore or a boat, the purpose being the observation of nocturnal marine life, including animals like eels, crustaceans, cephalopods (squid, octopus, and cuttlefish), sharks, rays, bioluminescent plankton, sleeping fish and more.

To dive at night, you need special gear, an understanding of night-time water safety and an ability to control your emotions. 

Night diving is one of those things that takes a bit of courage to work up to, and most divers and snorkelers don’t ever feel completely comfortable in the water at night, but once you’ve done it, it’s often more exhilarating than daytime diving. 

A lot of marine life, and particularly reef life, is nocturnal, which means when you go snorkeling or scuba diving at night, you see things you are far less likely to see during the day. Many of the species I mentioned above hunt predominantly at night, so you’ve got to go night diving to see them. 

Night scuba diving and snorkeling are a lot different than daytime diving. It can be be quite intimidating your first time and even more so if you’re doing it on your own (which I have done). 

Here are some tips for better night diving and snorkeling to keep you safe, calm and happily immersed in the beauty and weirdness of the underwater world after dark. 

Invest in the right gear for night dives

If you are serious about diving and snorkeling, especially at night, you need good quality gear.

I look at skimping on diving gear like skimping on hang gliding or skiing gear. Why would you cheap out on stuff you’re entrusting your life to?

That’s not to say that you need to go and buy the most expensive things on the market. There are price ranges, and there is great quality stuff at the lower end of the “professional” gear market. 

When it comes to night diving and snorkeling, in addition to your standard dive gear–BCD, mask, fins, wetsuit, dive computer, etc.–you are also going to want at least one good quality dive flashlight. You might even feel more comfortable with two (a primary light and a backup). 

I’ve put together a guide to the best dive flashlights on the market that only focuses on good quality lights from reputable light manufacturers like SEAC, Orcatorch, etc. 

Quality in a dive light means

  • Something that uses at least one rechargeable lithium-ion battery cell
  • Is made with rust-resistant metal
  • Has various easy-to-cycle power and light modes
  • And lets you know when your battery is low. 

You can get a good, sturdy, reliable dive flashlight from a reputable light manufacturer for around $100 that produces enough lumens to navigate safely and spot critters, is lightweight and easy to hold (and stored in a pocket or BCD, if necessary).

**It’s a good idea to check out some YouTube videos of any dive light you are contemplating buying beforehand.

In my review, I chose the Orcatorch D710 as the best all-around dive light out there right now (in terms of quality, price, power, weight, size, different light beam power modes, etc.). Here’s a video from the manufacturer of the light in action: 

I’ve snorkeled with a cheap light and had it go out on me a hundred metres or so off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, and believe me, it is not a good feeling. At that moment, I would have gladly parted with an extra 60-70 bucks if it meant I didn’t have to swim back to the jetty (around coral, sharp volcanic rocks and who knows what nocturnal creatures) blind. 

In addition to a good underwater flashlight, you will also need a tank signal light (a bright light that identifies each diver in the water).

Pay attention to your breathing

Whether day dive or night dive, how well you control your breathing affects your buoyancy, your air consumption and how long you are able to stay in the water. 

At night, your mind races, which produces adrenaline, which in turn increases your heart and breathing rate. You can end up burning through a tank of air quicker and having to constantly adjust your position in the water. 

If you are muck diving, for example, which you often do at night because many of the creatures you find in sand and sediment areas are nocturnal, not being able to control your buoyancy could mean constantly kicking up the substrate and ruining your dive (for yourself and your dive buddies). 

Try to develop a breathing rhythm and stick to it while .

Always night dive with dive buddies

I mentioned that I had snorkeled many times alone at night, but I would never night dive alone (you should never dive alone, anyways). Most night dives will be with an experienced dive guide who knows the area and its dangers.

The stakes are higher while night diving. The idea of going out into the ocean alone and night and having a problem with my regulator or BCD or getting tangled on something should terrify most divers.

Multiple people mean multiple dive lights, multiple hands on deck just in case there is an issue and moral support. 

I’ve been night diving on my own and with other people, and the psychological difference is huge. I always feel so much more comfortable when I know another human being is out there with me. 

Most of the time, you will be doing your night diving with a dive centre or as part of a liveaboard tour. 

Of course, if you own your own gear and feel like taking the risk, there’s nothing stopping you from diving at night on your own. But most scuba divers wouldn’t do it. 

Mark your exit point with lights or establish a landmark

If you’re night diving from a dive boat, the boat will, of course, stay illuminated the entire time. It might even have lights on the hull that can be seen from underwater as well. 

You should be able to surface and immediately see your dive boat (provided there isn’t an issue with the lighting onboard or you haven’t drifted far off course). 

If your night dive is a shore dive, however, then you will need to either mark your exit point with lights, or establish an illuminated landmark that you and the other divers can use as a reference. 

This could be a building, a telecommunication tower or anything else that will remain permanently illuminated throughout the night. 

Bring a whistle

Whether you’re night scuba diving or snorkeling from shore or from a boat, bringing a waterproof whistle with you is a good idea for a couple of reasons. 

If someone is watching you from the shore, and your light dies while you’re underwater, and you need to surface, how are you going to signal them? 

If you’re quite a ways from shore, your voice likely won’t reach them, unless it’s exceptionally calm (no wind, no surf). Even a small amount of wind or surf, however, can completely drown out your voice. 

Ideally, you will have a waterproof whistle in your pocket (or built into your snorkel) you can use to get someone’s attention. 

The same goes for boat diving at night. 

If you surface away from your exit point, are having problems with your light, and the boat is too far away for you to call out and be heard, a whistle is a good backup plan. 

You can pick up a really good waterproof whistle for under ten bucks, and it could save a lot of hassle and possibly a life. 

Know how to signal on night dives

Underwater communication is a crucial part of general dive safety (as well as letting people know about interesting things you might see). 

If you don’t have the luxury of diving under a full moon, it’s pretty much pitch black out there a night, so signalling works a bit differently. 

You use both light signals and hand signals to communicate with other divers in the water. 

Below are some standard light signals on night dives, and here is a good video demonstration of how to use these signals. 

Moving your light up and down

You do this to get the attention of your dive buddy. Maybe you want to check your buddy’s air. Maybe you want to want to point something out to them. 

Moving your light in a circular motion

You do this when you want someone to follow your beam of light. Usually, the idea is to stay quite compact when you’re night diving so that you can easily keep track of everyone, but of course, people tend to drift a bit. 

If you have spotted something cool or you are trying to draw someone’s attention to a potential hazard, moving your beam in a circle lets them know that you want them to pay attention to what you point your light at. 

Moving your light back and forth horizontally repeatedly

This signals an emergency. You might be caught on something, feeling sick or lightheaded, having trouble breathing or experiencing a major equipment malfunction and need immediate assistance. 

Always make sure that, whatever light signal you are using, do signal in a calm, controlled fashion. Rapid movements are easily mistaken for an emergency on a night dive. 

Hand signals

Hand signals are trickier on night dives because it’s dark. You need to illuminate your hand using your dive light, but you don’t want to shine it in other divers eyes, temporarily blinding them. 

The best way to use hand signals while night diving is to shine your light diagonally across your chest, pointing your light over your shoulder. Bring your free hand to your chest and signal in the beam. 

Know how to read diving compasses

Compass reading skills and practice are often things that new divers neglect. 

Being able to navigate a dive site underwater with a compass is important regardless of what time of the day you’re diving, but it is of paramount importance on a night dive. 

You rely on your compass at night to orient yourself underwater and to help you find your entry and exit points. 

If you don’t know a lot about underwater navigation, the below video provides a great beginner breakdown: 

Knowing how to read a compass underwater is an important part of scuba diving safety whether day or night diving. 

Know the animal threats

This is a harmless Nurse Shark in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, but there is always that split second of panic when something first appears out of the dark. 

The ocean is both painfully beautiful and potentially just painful as well. 

Nothing makes you feel like more of a vulnerable alien visitor in the sea than being there at night, and your imagination can run wild. You are only able to see what your light illuminates; everything else is unknown at night. 

Knowing what is out there that could potentially hurt you is necessary for peace of mind. This usually comes down to sharks and fish with venomous spines in most places, but in parts of the Indo-Pacific, it also means saltwater crocodiles. 

Nothing induces a sense of dread, like wondering whether there is a hungry salty in the vicinity. 

Typically, you stay out of the water in saltwater croc territory, but I’ve been to places in Indonesia where, despite having been told saltwater crocodiles haven’t been spotted in the area in a long time, you nonetheless worry about it. 

Divers do come across salties.

Scuba diving or snorkeling at night requires you to stay calm and in control of your emotions. You can put your mind at ease by studying up on both the non-threatening and potentially threatening nocturnal marine life you might come across. 

If you go out knowing that sighting a tiger or bull shark is an improbability, you can spend your time focused on all of the fascinating stuff in front of you, rather than checking your six every 30 seconds to make sure nothing is pursuing you. 

Know the currents and tides 

Understanding what the currents and tides are doing before is basic safety 101 anytime you step into the ocean, whether to dive or snorkel. 

This information lets you know how and where to exit the water, how much time you have underwater, and what areas to avoid. 

I’ve been caught out while shore snorkeling on a couple of occasions, not realizing that while I was spending 20 minutes trying to get the perfect shot of a moray eel, the tide was slowly going out, and I was being cut off from the beach by a kilometre-long stretch of reef. 

Having to take an hour detour, against a current, in order to find a deep enough channel to exit the water without shredding yourself on coral (and damaging the reef) is no fun during the day, but it’s even more nerve-racking in the dark. It can mess up your entire exit strategy and really put you in a bind. 

You also don’t want to get into the water on a night dive to find yourself in the midst of a current that is rapidly dragging you far off course. 

Know the water conditions before setting out on a night diving adventure. 

Night scuba diving is a life-changing experience

There is nothing like your first night dive. 

The realization that there is a night shift on the reef that is just as, if not more interesting than, the cast of sea creatures you find during the day is a life-affirming one. 

For me, there is something profoundly comforting about diving at night and knowing that life never stops. 

Special considerations such as a dive and tank light (and possibly a backup light), how to interact with your fellow divers, and how to plan your entry and exit can definitely up the stakes when you’re in the water at night. 

But any anxiety and discomfort are well worth it for a chance to see what happens underwater when the sun sets.