by Alex Lichtblau

Me and my family, doing some dive travel for the first time together, off the plateau at West End Wall, Roatan, Honduras.

Me and my family, doing some dive travel for the first time together, off the plateau at West End Wall, Roatan, Honduras.

Roatan Family Dive Vacation

I first travelled to Roatan in 2014 on a dive holiday with my parents and brother. At the time I was working for a tech start-up and completing my divemaster course on the weekends. I didn’t intend to work in the dive industry, but I enjoyed the challenge and the feeling of working to master something. I discovered and fell in love with a new kind of diving...Caribbean diving (or as some affectionately call it, the swimming pool). Compared to the cold, swift waters of the Galapagos where I learned to dive, it was a cake walk, but swimming.

After returning from that dive travel experience I was fortuitously laid off from my job, and I took the opportunity to move to Roatan to pursue work in the dive industry. I experienced diving like never before, and found night diving to be one of my new favorites. I had night dived before, but never enjoyed it like I did living in Roatan. Partly, I relished the warm water, excellent visibility and abundance of activity. Mostly, I was mesmerized by the bioluminescent show.

Bioluminescence in Essence

Bioluminescence is a term describing any organism that produces its own visible light through chemical processes. These organisms include things like fireflies, deep sea angler fish, flashlight fish and countless species of zooplankton (any tiny animal living in the open water of the ocean). The best shows of bioluminescence premier on moonless nights, when ambient light is lowest. In the case of scuba diving in the Caribbean, the stars of the show are varieties of the tiny zooplankton.

Lights Out in Roatan

During every night dive in Roatan, especially on a new moon, we stage a “lights out time”, during which the whole group kneels in the sand together and switches off all the torches. Almost instantly you begin to see the ‘tracers’, microscopic zooplankton whose light is catalyzed by movement. The turbulence created by waving your hand through the water switches them on, and every movement (including the ascent of your bubbles through the water column) leaves a trail of glowing blue-green light. These little living lanterns are the same that you see breaking in the waves on beaches, lighting the wake of a boat at night or in this amazing clip from the most recent Blue Planet documentary series. Most divers find their inner child almost immediately, and succomb to a fit of giggles, frantic waving and prolonged staring. Sometimes, it's difficult to get a diver to switch their lights back on.

The sky on a moonless night above Roatan makes for the best conditions to experience night diving and bioluminescence.

The sky on a moonless night above Roatan makes for the best conditions to experience night diving and bioluminescence.

Roatan String of Pearls

If you are lucky, once your eyes have adjusted to the darkness of the darkest nights of the month, you begin to see the ‘strings of pearls’, the crown jewel of bioluminescent diving. This phenomenon is created by the chemical trail of a tiny shrimp-like animal left behind as a defense mechanism, like a strafing aircraft trying to avoid an incoming attack. As the tiny animals swim away, it's trail appears as a glowing string of lights spiraling vertically through the water column. It works very well to lead predators in the wrong direction, and even better to captivate an audience of divers. I have spent an entire dive knelt in the dark looking at the light of the stars and the string of pearls (and I hope to be able to do it again).

How to Find a Bioluminescent Experience

If you have never tried night diving in bioluminescence, I highly recommend it. Possibly only a few other natural phenomena on Earth (I'm talking aurora borealis and erupting volcanos) can compare to this truly surreal experience. Although bioluminescent organisms can be found nearly everywhere in the ocean, the best places to see them are limited to a narrow set of conditions. The visibility in the water has to be very good to allow the light from the string of pearls to reach your eyes. The water should be relatively calm so the show doesn't get swept away. It should also be warm so that you can comfortably sit still in the water at night. Lastly, there should be suitable bottom to settle down onto, such as a nice patch of sand, so that you will not disturb the environment or hurt yourself during your own private bioluminescent disco. Many of the best places to experience optimal bioluminescent diving are in the Caribbean, where conditions are prime. Roatan, the Florida Keys, Bonaire and many others provide the perfect environment to check it off your bucketlist, many times if you are like me. 

Read a trip report from our latest Roatan trip, or contact me for more information on how you can join in on a bioluminescent experience during one of our upcoming trips.

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by Alex Lichtblau

I first dived in the Galapagos in 2011. It inspired in me an unmatched passion...the ocean. Since then I have travelled the world, diving, exploring and building my own dive travel business, Inside Under Dive & Travel. To learn more about me and my passion, see my bio. Also, learn more about dive certifications and courses, or going on a dive trip with me.