HAVING A NIGHT FRIGHT IN TUBBATAHA
“Another one,” I thought to myself as a threelegged sea turtle swam lopsidedly past. Its bird-like eyes warily scanned the expansive coral garden on Tubbataha’s South Island atoll. This turtle could consider itself lucky. For many others, the first glimpse of the striped torpedo of a tiger shark barrelling out of the deep would have been the last thing they ever saw.
I saw my first Tubbataha tiger yesterday. In the misty light of early morning, we spotted a dorsal fin knifing across the mirror-flat sea in a scene straight out of Jaws. Under the cover of a moonless night, the shark could easily ambush unsuspecting victims, but in the gathering daylight of dawn, it sensed its own vulnerability. As we drew closer, the tiger vanished into the safety of deep water with a few powerful sweeps of its tail. The rays of the late afternoon sun sparkled across the coral reef. It would be dark soon.
Tonight, the moon is just a thin crescent, casting the faintest glow of silver light across the Tubbataha atolls. My legs are dangling helplessly beneath me, submerged in the inky black sea where I know the sharks are prowling again. I’m hastily checking my regulator just before I dive beneath the waves with my dive buddies – a visiting Danish photographer couple who are also documenting the amazing biodiversity of Tubbataha Reef for this survey expedition.
Enveloped in a curtain of silvery bubbles, we submerge. The seabed is just 10 metres below us, but with the tiger sharks at the back of my mind, the descent seems to be taking forever.
Reaching the shelf of the atoll, I am feeling more comfortable in the safety of the corals than when we were bobbing helplessly on the surface for a passing tiger to swipe at.
Without the light of the moon, it’s completely dark underwater, so I fumble for my flashlight. The lamp casts a powerful glow around me as I look for night animals to photograph. Just to be safe, I point the flashlight towards the drop-off to the open Sulu Sea depths.
The light casts a narrow beam into the inky sea, but enough to illuminate a one-metre reef shark ghosting by, its eyes gleaming unblinkingly back at me. Bad idea, I thought.
Nervous, I swim closer to my dive buddies, who are photographing a large coral formation. Without realising I’ve strayed too close, one of them gives an unexpected kick and knocks my regulator out of my mouth. Bubbles surround me. I can hear the air gushing from my tank as it is in free flow, but they are oblivious to my danger.
Trying to recall my scuba training, I fumble to grab the hose and put the regulator back in my mouth. The camera strapped to my wrist prevents me from easily reaching behind the tank to find the regulator. I’m worrying that the flashlight and camera might get tangled in the hoses.
Thirty seconds in and I’m trying to calm my thoughts; don’t use up this one breath too quickly. Forty-five seconds and it feels like the dark sea is closing in, my lungs are beginning to burn from the effort and lack of air.
Sixty seconds and I’m beginning to think that I won’t find my regulator. Is it safe to swim to the surface? Probably not, we’ve been down for more than half an hour, and then there’s the sharks.
I don’t know how much longer I can hold my breath. Fighting to calm my heart rate and burn less oxygen, I try to will my dive buddies to look over and help me, but they’re too focused on their cameras to notice my desperate attempt.
More than a minute has passed and I’m feeling the first hint of panic. Dropping the camera to the sandy sea floor below, I reach my right arm as far as possible behind my tank.
Finally, I feel the bubbles from the wildly gyrating regulator – impossible to grab without a full arm extension. I fumble for the regulator and hastily shove it into my mouth.
The first breath of air comes as a huge relief. I quickly calm down but decide to leave the camera on the seabed as it is.
Back on the surface, everyone is unusually quiet. I’m wondering if anything happened to Claus or Lene while they were underwater, too.
The following afternoon, our divemaster asks if we’d all like to do another night dive. Oddly enough, nobody raises their hand.
I can hear the air gushing from my tank as it is in free flow, but they are oblivious to my danger