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Embracing the Night Dive: Adventures in the Red Sea


red sea nights
Red sea nights

Richard Aspinall is a long-time visitor to the Red Sea, and while his interests have changed over the years, his love of night dives remains – and here he explains why he loves the dark.

Photographs by Richard Aspinall

The Allure of The Red Sea

The red sea is a much loved destination for divers
The Red Sea is much-loved destination for divers

The Red Sea is much-loved destination for divers of all skill levels and all interests. Relaxed shore diving, exhilarating drift dives, deep wreck exploration, friendly dolphins on occasion and with luck, a shark passing by in the blue – it is an amazing destination within easy reach of the UK. No wonder many of us return year after year.

The Fascination of Night Dives

Yellow Sun Coral
Yellow Sun Coral

I’ve been on plenty of Red Sea trips over nearly 20 years, each with a slightly different focus. I’m now less interested in wrecks and more interested in shark encounters. Some photographic subjects don’t interest me as much as they once did and I’m now more willing to spend a little more travelling to the remoter reefs of the south. Yet one thing remains – my absolute love of fitting a macro lens, and as the sun goes down, slipping beneath calm sheltered water for a night dive.

The Transition from Day to Night

It’s worth thinking about what is going on during the transition from day to night. The day shift is ending and many fish species that eat coral polyps – such as butterflyfish with their delicate mouths and parrotfish with their tough ‘beaks’ – are retiring into crevices and cracks in the reef. Individual coral polyps are safe to unfurl their tentacles into the current to feed on plankton. Animals such as small crabs – more easily picked off in the day – are climbing into the coral branches to capture food and across the entire reef, a whole host of softer, more delicate, and occasionally bizarre-looking animals are waking. Some species such as squid are emerging from the depths and some specialist hunters are seeking out prey. A reef at night is a very different place to one during the day – the scenery is the same, but the cast and crew are very different.

Lionfish: Nighttime Predators

Young lion fish prowls across the thristlegorm
Young lion fish prowls across the thristlegorm

Most fish are tucked up and resting – some like parrotfish sleep within a cocoon of their own mucous to mask their scent, while others just dive into a crack and hope for the best. Night-time is when lionfish are most active and seemingly, they enjoy our presence. Shy during the day and reluctant to do anything other than keep their dorsal spines between you and a good photograph, lionfish on many popular night-time dive sites welcome divers. It can be common to have one or even more follow you, hoping your presence and torch will spook a slumbering fish. Some divers illuminate small prey items for the lionfish to help them. This is either fun or just plain wrong, depending on your point of view.

The Enigmatic Morays

moray roaming the reef hunting
moray roaming the reef hunting

Morays are a common feature of night dives. Much has been written of the Barge at Gubal. It’s a remarkable site and if you only do one night dive on a northern itinerary, this is the one you absolutely must do! It is shallow, easy and full of life, including some very large giant morays. I love a good moray, but over the years I’ve become more interested in the rarer species.

There are several I’ve never managed to spot such as the dragon moray, but I think the honeycomb is a striking beast and capable of reaching over two metres. Smaller species such as the grey might be seen hunting during the day in shallow waters, but it’s a great fish for a portrait as is the yellowhead, which has quite a ‘manic’ look about it.

Fascinating Octopus Encounters

Morays roam the reef hunting for crustaceans, fish and often octopus and if my reef guide is correct there are eight octopus species in the Red Sea. An encounter with any one of them is magical. I use my spotting light on my camera rig as my primary illumination (I have a spare torch in my BCD, just in case). I sometimes think divers choose lights which are far too bright, with the effect that all life in the area is stressed, in retreat or both. My personal experience is that a gentle light makes for better encounters with wary animals like octopus and cuttlefish. I’ll also leave them be without ‘zapping’ them too many times with my strobes.

I usually I have a macro lens fitted at night, so I have to take a portrait rather than a ‘whole animal’ shot.

Delightful Cuttlefish Performances

Large hermits
Large hermits

Cuttlefish are a great animal to encounter on a night. Often, they’ll be hanging over the reef, but on occasion they will display some fascinating behaviour. Being soft bodied and on the menu of morays, they are great mimics and will ‘hunker down,’ holding in their arms and doing a fine job of pretending to be a hermit crab. They will even draw in their central arms and wiggle them about like a hermit crab’s ever-moving mouthparts. It really is quite a performance.

Cuttlefish mimic hermits for a very good reason. They are largely indestructible and some of them, especially the large Red Sea anemone hermit crab come with their own stinging anemones. Each time it upgrades its home – moving from one shell to another – the anemones are plucked off and repositioned. It is quite a formidable beast. The anemones feed on scraps from the crabs’ scavenging and the crab has a ‘cloak’ of stinging cells to keep predators away.

Nocturnal Crab Discoveries

basket star
basket star

Night-time brings many crab species out into the open. Some are scavengers roaming the reef, while others are actually fishing for their supper. Researchers have shown that some crab species choose tiny hydrozoans to grow on their carapace. They then climb into the coral where the currents are strongest and use their hydroid covering to catch food. The hydroids have stinging tentacles that can capture plankton. It’s quite a unique form of mutualism only discovered in the last few years.

The ‘fuzzy’ bits on this crab are hydroids which capture passing food. The crab then picks off the captured morsels.

Look closely and you can find other crabs hiding within the coral branches. While you can see coral guard crabs during the day, they do seem more easily spotted at night. They spend their lives within the branches of the coral and will defend their homes making for good macro subjects. Clearly getting so close to live coral means you absolutely must maintain excellent buoyancy and never damage the reef for an image.

Seeking Nudibranch Treasures

Details of rhinophores
Details of rhinophores

While fish and crustaceans are all very well, for many people the real goal of a night-time ‘critter hunt’ is a nudibranch. These colourful bags of gloop with their fascinating biology and mating habits inspire and frustrate in equal measure. There is nothing worse than a nudi you’ve never seen before with its head tucked into the reef and only its back end on display. If you’re taking photos of nudis you need the front end and the delicate chemo-sensory organs known as rhinophores or ‘bunny ears’ – take your pick – to be visible.

I find the commonest nudi in the Red Sea to be the Pajama Chromodoris, they’re easily spotted with those bold colours that advertise their unpalatability to potential predators. The toxins are stored up in their bodies and derive from the flesh of the sponges they eat. Wart slugs, which have some of the most unpleasant names in marine biology – varicose wart slug is surely an insult? – are another common group. They’re also quite large at around four centimetres so again an easy photography subject.

Did you know?

Basket stars are an incredible sight, like something out of a sci-fi movie, as their outstretched arms reach out for food.

Clearly though, the real monarch of the Red Sea collection of nudis is the blood red Spanish dancer which revels in the wondrous scientific name of Hexabranchus sanguineus, the latter part of the binomial referring to blood of course. There is nothing quite like the first time you spot one of these.

Your torch is flicking across the reef seeing greys, blues and muted colours, then all of a sudden – red! Not a common colour underwater! Spanish dancers as everyone knows are named after the swirling skirts worn by flamenco dancers – specifically when the animal is swimming. As I understand it a swimming Hexabranchus is a stressed and vulnerable animal, so do not make one swim! It may not find its way back to its daytime shelter.

I particularly enjoy the detail within the animal’s six gills – hence Hexabranchus – if you’re lucky you’ll find tiny Periclemenes shrimp hiding among these feathery structures. I have yet to find these, which is just one of the many reasons why I always relish a Red Sea night dive, I’m still a long way from spotting anywhere close to the number of animals in the night shift.

This article was originally published in Scuba Diver UK #68.

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