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Underwater Photography and a lonely night-dive

24 February 2012


Whilst wandering downtown during our visit to Pnom Penh, Cambodia, we happened upon the Pnom Penh office of Scuba Nation (  We were considering going to Sihanoukville, where they were based, but we were not convinced that the visibility would be that good and so decided to pop in and quiz them.  We were pretty certain that we were going to head to the Thai islands later on in the trip for Anna to learn to dive but I quite fancied getting a Cambodia stamp in my dive book.

Fortunately for us, Vicky, a co-owner of Scuba Nation, was manning the Pnom Penh shop that day.  She spoke very competently and confidently about the diving in Sihanoukville and put Anna so much at ease that she ended up contemplating doing the open water course with them.  We were initially tempted by an overnight live aboard option on which I could do five dives (including one night dive) for $220 and during which Anna could either snorkel (about $120), do a try dive, or perhaps do the four option water dives for her open water certification (about $350).  Anna was very nervous about the prospect of diving but Vicky assured her that they could do a pool trial session first and then take the pool sessions at her own pace to learn the skills and review the book learning whilst sunbathing.  Anna was very tempted and provisionally signed up for it, with the caveat that she would drop down to the snorkelling if she didn’t get on with the pool session.


The four hour bus to Sihanoukville from Pnom Penh took closer to six hours but we checked into the charming Coolabah Hotel for three nights and relaxed with a $3 barbecue on the beach.  The main beach in Sihanoukville is a little bit of a disappointment, with numerous beggars, children selling fireworks and older Western men with Asian ladies who don’t seem “natural” pairings…

The Sihanoukville office of Scuba Nation is not as impressive as the Pnom Penh office and the Dive Shop operation there seems to have more of a monopoly on the local advertising but we were met by resident Scottish Dive Master Alan who continued to put Anna at her ease and said that a pool session had been booked for 1pm for $10, no commitment for the on-going course.  Anna was then introduced to her instructor, Fabrice, who was French.  This was the first problem…Anna is not great with accents and when I had checked that Scuba Nation had Western instructors I should have specified “Welsh Instructors” for Anna to feel fully at ease.  Fabrice, with his Gallic brusqueness, did not make the best first impression on someone nervous to dive.

Nevertheless, over the course of almost two hours in the pool he won Anna’s confidence and, after a few tears, got her to the bottom of the pool and convinced that she should plough on with the course, with Fabrice as her chosen instructor.  I have to say that the training pool was not the best as it was surrounded by sunbathing Brits and had even worse visibility than in the sea.  I understand that they often use a different pool, but this one was pretty poor…

Scuba nation continued to impress Anna although the classroom sessions were more intensive than she had been led to believe and I don’t think she ever did get to read the manual by the pool – I was off learning to windsurf with a Frenchman on Otres beach (see related post) who turned out to be Fabrice’s friend.

Underwater Photography

However, I also felt like I wanted to improve my diving skills and discussed the various advanced specialities with Fabrice.  Although I have heard these described as PADI “moneyspinners” I really fancied working towards Divemaster status, for which you need five specialities and the rescue diver course.  I also wanted to add to my skills on the trip.  The perfect choice seemed to be Digital Underwater Photography which would teach me, over three dives, the basics of underwater photography.  This would be $150 on top of diving but includes camera rental (normally in the region of $30-50) and tuition.  Apparently you also get an extra certification card…

So I paid my money, received a manual and tuk-tukked off to Otres beach to learn to windsurf (also taking the time to extend our stay at Coolabah hotel because everywhere else claimed to be booked and getting a discount suite for $40 into the bargain!).  Unlike Anna, I was able to read my manual while sitting at the beach and later completed the knowledge reviews sitting by the crystal clear pool at Coolabah.

The Live aboard

The morning view...

Scuba Nation boast the only purpose built live aboard dive boat in Cambodia.  It actually works pretty well, converting a second deck sun lounger into a fully enclosed area complete with camp-beds.  As the only couple staying over Anna and I even had a double bed.  It was really the best view we have had of any room on our trip, as the covers were curled back in the morning we gazed across the blue waters and to the nearby islands.  I wouldn’t want to spend too many nights on there but it was a good communal spirit.

The boat

There were a variety of people on-board the boat.  Five were doing the Openwater module, two doing the advanced openwater dives, one experienced diver coming back after a couple of years off and several other divers doing fun dives, some of whom returned on the Scuba Nation day boat that evening and didn’t stay for the night dive or day two.

Fabrice was also to be my photography instructor.  For the two fun dives at Koh Rong Saloem Lagoon and West on the first day I was given the camera to experiment with, an Olympus TG-310 (the I think it was that model, definitely that brand, I need to take better contemporaneous notes).  The current proved to be quite strong and whipped up a lot of sediment (we were staying at a shallower dive site because of the learner divers needing shallow water for their dives) and this made staying with the group and photographing quite challenging as visibility was about 5-7 metres.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed experimenting with the camera but found it quite challenging getting stable pictures without the flash in the current.  There was a good variety of fish and coral and I was able to take plenty of macro shots which will be a good change for my Dad from the thousands of safari pictures!  The Olympus had an impressive array of settings for underwater photography, two for general action or landscape and one for macro.  This is important for underwater photography as the white balance needs to be adjusted to account for the loss of light at depth.  Unfortunately, the battery life proved to be very poor, I don’t know if it is this particular model (as suggested by Fabrice) or because these batteries had not been as carefully looked after as I try and treat my own camera batteries.

The night dive

Four of us then planned to do the night dive, with the beginners and one experienced diver taking the evening to relax.  We were briefed on the dive by Ollie, the Instructor taking the Advanced Course and two of his students going down as well.  I had my buddy from the day dives and was recommended to take the camera as well, although obviously I would have to use the flash.  We were all given high power torches and, although there was some discussion as to whether I should take a torch given that I was supposed to be using the camera but thankfully it was insisted that I should do so.

I’ll be honest with you, I was quite nervous about a night dive. Although I’ve reached over 20 dives now I still have a few anxieties about sharks and my main rationalisation has always been that I have not ever dived in dodgy conditions where sharks may confuse me for food (they generally don’t opt for diver, or man generally, but when they do it’s sampling from a blind menu on a murky day).  Weren’t sharks more active at night and less likely to be able to review the menu?! Still, as this dive goes to show, human error is always more of an issue than sharks when you’re diving.

Ollie was pretty adamant that we would all leave our torches on (turning them off only gave them a chance not to come on again), that we would swim around pointing the torches ahead of any subjects and trying not to confuse the fish into thinking that there was an early dawn. However, rather than just ending the dive at the usual 50bar, we would all settle down at 70bar, dim the lights against our bodies and enjoy the phosphorescence (the underwater light show).  Then surface again with a standard safety interval. That was the plan. Hand signals would also need to be more carefully thought through…

It was quite surreal jumping into the dark water at night but the torches were a comfort as they were handed down, their powerful beams penetrating the depths and lighting up the island as well.  Unfortunately, the unreliable battery in the camera gave up the ghost on the descent but I had already decided that it would be better to focus on the torch than the camera!

The descent was more serene and peaceful than ever and I marvelled at the beams strobing around as we began to swim.  Again, it was very strong current and there was a lot of sand and other particles in the water but the torches actually made the visibility penetrate deeper than it had during the day and it was easier to keep track of divers because of the beams of light than it had been during the day.  Unfortunately, it was impossible to tell one diver from another unless you strobed them with the light so I repeatedly lit up my buddy to ensure that I was sticking with the right diver.

The fish certainly seemed more inquisitive because of the light, I struggled to recognise types but have never been hit in the face or body by so many on a dive, probably stunned like rabbits in headlights.  The multiple torches stretching down into the depths reminded me of all those wartime films of the blitz in London with the searchlights reaching into the skies.  Ollie tried to light up various crabs and shrimps but to be honest I was to focused on the unusual sensations of a night dive to take much notice of what we saw (thankfully no sharks, although they are welcome on any other dive!). 

Earlier than expected (I was still on about 100bar), Ollie indicated that we should settle down after clearing a patch of sea urchins, kneeling in a rough semi-circle.  I made sure I was close in, accidentally sitting on one of the advanced student’s fins and shuffling away so that she wasn’t uncomfortable.  Then we all darkened our lights against our bodies (conscious not to turn them off) and so I pressed it firmly against my thigh.  As I watched the phosphorous develop I was conscious that I keep loosening my grip on the torch and so ensured that I pressed it hard against my leg and stopped any light escaping.

The phosphoresence

I was not immediately overwhelmed by the phosphorous.  I have occasionally seen glimmering trails from yachts when sailing at night and the phosphorous underwater started as vague flashes in the distance, brightening as we waited and time seemed to suspend, despite the slight luminescence from the air gauge.  After a short while I recalled that movement activated it and so waved my spare left hand in front of my face. Lazy dribbles of fairy dust lit up the wake of my hand.  This was pretty cool, like a cold sparkler from bonfire night, I tried (and failed) to write my name as the trails did not light up for long.  Looking to my left I was surprised that Ollie and the others weren’t also participating but instead focused on making my own shapes and keeping my torch dark.

The phosphorous brightened as we waited, more flashes in the distance as the sea life must have activated it in a similar way to my hand.  After a while I checked my air gauge, still comfortably at 80 and Ollie must be really letting it develop, he had said that this was one of the best spots for phosphorescence that he had experienced and perhaps he did not want us to be disappointed. My dive watch lights up by pressing the button but lifting my right hand to do this would have sent a shaft of light ruining the show.

I was comfortable and relaxed, but was my nervousness at the night dive starting to make this feel like longer than it should have been?  I was at 70 bar, and 20 bar of air will last for quite some time if you’re not moving.  I am quite a large guy and always conscious that I use air more prodigiously than my fellow divers but we were at least sitting still so this should not be a problem.

Still, it would be nice to check the time on my watch.  But that would involve ruining the night vision of everyone else. And anyway, Ollie would be monitoring the time, I should just stick with my role and not spoil it for everyone.  The phosphorescence was good, but not that good, and growing slightly boring, and there was beer on the boat which the open water students were enjoying.

Something brushed against my knee.  I let a bit of light escape from the torch and realised that it was the spines of a sea urchin.  Not good!  They could penetrate wetsuits and earlier on Ollie had been telling us stories of having to cut wetsuits to painfully remove their barbs.  This was enough!  I flapped away from it in a semi backwards swim (not an easy or official move, I was still kneeling after-all) and in the process shone my torch around with my flailing hand.  Sorry everyone, Jeremy has spoiled the fun, so I swept my torch along the ground to the left to apologise.

But no one was there.

I swept my torch wider, and then in a full circle, there was still no-one.

Standard dive procedure when you lose your buddy is to search around for one minute, then to surface and make contact on top.  But if my buddy was still enjoying the phosphorescence, would he be searching?  Now that I could use my torch, I could check my watch.  54 minutes.  Hmm, that was pretty long for a dive, although I was still at 60 bar I began to get the feeling that he may have started searching.  But what now?

I swam around for about 40 seconds doing a token search and then figured I should ascend.  It was possible that they would then turn their torches on, realise that I was missing but guess that I had freaked out and then surface to find me bobbing along.  Perhaps I should search longer? No, I had made my mind up.  I began to surface, quite slowly, in case I would then see the torches below, and waved my torch around in increasing circles so they wouldn’t panic that I wasn’t there.

My watch beeped at 5 metres, safety stop.  Do you do a safety stop when you’ve lost a buddy?  Did my buddy know he was lost?  In the circumstances, I figured that I should do a safety stop.

The first two minutes of that safety stop was an incredibly long amount of time.  Maintaining depth in normal circumstances for a safety stop is not over easy and best done with a line.  Holding my torch on my watch and breathing so carefully that I stayed within a metre of 5 metres, all the time concerned that everyone on the boat would be surprised to see a lone diver who had freaked out, took a bit out of me.

But then there was a light, and Ollie appeared at my shoulder, we had found each other again!  He gestured to surface.  I shone my torch on my watch, one more minute to go, and I may as well finish my safety stop now.  He gestured, perhaps a little too emphatically, that I should surface.  Well, he’s a dive instructor so I obeyed.

“You don’t do a safety stop when you’re lost mate,” was the first thing he said, with a strong French accent – hold on, it was Fabrice, not Ollie!

The lessons

So, it turns out that the dive group had not enjoyed the phosphorous for quite the length of time as I had.  I must have been turned aside or drifted away in the current (I was, and still am adamant that my knees were on the ground) and when he signalled an end, Ollie tells me that he counted 4 torches (not counting his own of course, and the spare).  He realised at the safety stop that there were only three (plus his own and the spare).  He realised he was a man down and called an end to the safety stop.

Anna, on the dive boat, was aware of divers surfaced and floating in the water.  However, they were made to turn off their torches and float quietly.  Fabrice kitted up and grabbed a torch. It became apparent that there were not sufficient divers on the surface.

As I was serenely playing with phosphorescence, Anna tells me that she witnessed how professional a dive boat can be.  Ollie and Fabrice began search patterns and searching for lights.  Eventually, mine was seen hovering in the water during my safety stop and Fabrice dropped down to get me.

Ollie was admirably openly pretty upset about it, I got him a beer and gave him a pat on the back but I don’t think he’ll be relaxed on a night dive for a while now, perhaps not a bad thing but not an experience I’m glad to have given him.  Ironically, I was the most relaxed person there, Anna’s nerves were frayed, the other divers had had to float guiltily in the water, the whole boat had been shushed into a nervous silence, Fabrice had had to don his gear, but I had just been down enjoying the phosphorous.

It was certainly an experience, I would like to do another night dive and have wracked my brains as to where/how I went wrong and it could be improved.  I think it’s an inherent risk in hiding the lights and tell myself I simply stuck to the plan, but perhaps I should have questioned the length of time sooner and missed out the safety stop?

The next day I did my proper photography dives, but I think that should wait for another telling…

Anna looking a lot more relaxed the morning after the night dive!



From → Diving, Travel

  1. That sounds terrifying! I completely freak out with anything underwater- the thought of the things that could go wrong. . . I guess I just have too much of an over-active imagination for these types of things- can’t turn the worrying off!

    The phosphorescence does sound gorgeous. If I ever do get up the courage to try diving, that sounds like it would be definitely worth seeing! Or. . . maybe I’ll just ask someone braver than me to take some pictures.

    I really like your blog- you have a great writing voice (and very interesting subject matter) 🙂

    • Thanks, that’s very kind of you to say so. You should try diving, it’s much less scary than people think. But if you’re not quite ready for a night dive, I have some pictures going up tomorrow, including a pretty cool octopus! So check back! Thanks!

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