Story by Hunter Haskins
It takes a lot to push my fear meter to “terrified,” but my first black-water dive did the trick. Maybe I’m jaded when I say that I’m bored with diving in Hawai‘i. As a divemaster and freediving instructor, I’ve spent enough time underwater to call fish by their first names, and I know some reefs better than the streets of Chinatown. So I was looking for a new thrill, something to give me the kind of adrenaline shot like I used to get when I flew helicopters in Afghanistan for the military. When I called Kona Honu Divers on the Big Island to sign up for their famous (and famously tame) manta ray night dive, the guy on the other end must have sensed my latent death wish. Otherwise why would have said, “Care to go on a black-water dive?”
Black-water dive: If that phrase conjures an image of floating in a dark, featureless void in the middle of the sea, it’s because that’s what it is. During the day the pelagic zone, located far from reefs or wrecks or the bottom, is called “blue water,” a vast prairie where tuna and whales roam— and where big predators cruise at night. At night blue water goes black, and unless you’re a shipwreck survivor bobbing in a life vest or an adrenaline- starved diver, black water is a place you do not go.
Around 10 p.m. the boat dropped the chatty, happy-go-lucky manta divers off at the dock and motored back out from Honokohau with the few comparatively morose black-water divers. On the Big Island, deep places are close to shore. The spot we were going was about five miles out, i.e., really deep. When the captain cut the motor, two miles of water lay beneath the hull. During the day the blue water is mostly empty. But at dusk the zooplankton begin their long journey to the surface where, like nightmares, they show up around midnight. Few people have witnessed this migration, which was discovered when Navy sonar detected a “false bottom” of the ocean that would rise at night and sink during the day. The phenomenon was a mystery until it was discovered that swarms of zooplankton were swimming up from the deep at night to feed. The boat’s tattered copy of the Encyclopedia of Zooplankton had pictures of some of the creatures we were likely to see. They looked like late-period Picasso: bizarre forms and non-Euclidean architectures. Nothing about them made sense.
The divemaster broke the dark silence with a cheerful, “Who wants to go first?” I didn’t say anything, but apparently everyone seemed to think I had because they were all looking at me. In such moments it’s best not to argue or think and just do the damn thing. I back-rolled over the side, kicked to the “down-line” and clipped on to the thin tether that would keep me from getting lost in the void. Descending alone into the abyss, my eyes the size of billiard balls, I kept thinking: I can’t believe I paid for this.
I dangled at fifty feet wishing I were back in the bright, cozy cockpit of a chopper over Helmand Province. The first thing I saw, and the most unnerving, were “the eyes.” A squid’s eyes are reflective, like a cat’s. When you turn your flashlight toward them, they scatter. The squid remind you: You’re being watched. But once my brain stopped tweeting me about the giant open mouth that was about to come rushing at me from the darkness, I could relax and watch the parade of oddities drifting by. Imagine a six-foot gossamer snake trailing a string of bioluminescent pearls. Imagine a tiny bell made out of transparent gumballs, a fluorescent shrimp curled inside a diaphanous cell, a tube of clear Jell-O lined with rippling rainbows. Now imagine everything is a lot weirder than I just described. Finally, imagine turning off the light to watch unnameable life forms flash like phantoms in the depths of an unspeakable darkness.