HAV­ING A NIGHT FRIGHT IN TUBBATAHA

Scuba Diver Australasia - - Contents - By Tommy Schultz

“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

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