Recently, I did something I haven’t done in ages. I went night swimming.
I didn’t intend to do this, but an afternoon hike with friends ended later than planned, leaving us dusty and hot. “Let’s jump in the ocean,” someone said. It sounded good. We donned our suits and headed for the beach.
It wasn’t until I got chest deep in the inky water and saw the sky turning black that I remembered why I don’t do this anymore: It’s cold and it’s scary.
Even on this balmy night in 80-degree water, in a minute or two I was covered with chicken skin. Soon, I knew, my lips would turn blue and I would start that miserable shivering.
Since water conducts heat away from the body about 30 times faster than air, this drop in body temperature happens to most swimmers, especially at night when there’s no sun to help rewarm us.
Vigorous swimming helps regenerate this lost heat, but for me, at night, it’s almost always a losing battle. Without the sun, I’m a miserable, quaking mass.
Besides night swimming being chilly, I also find it spooky. Normal objects seem creepy in dark water, even when I know exactly what those objects are.
One time in the Philippines, several friends talked me into going swimming with them on a dark night. The water was amazingly still and clear. “Look,” someone said, as we stood together in chin-deep water. “You can see our feet.”
I looked down and will never forget the almost shocking sight of 40 or 50 wiggly white toes half sunk in the black sand. They looked amazingly like worms. “Mmmm, interesting,” I said. I was the first to leave.
I agree that being spooked by my own toes is silly. So is jumping a foot when a mangrove pod or glob of seaweed touches my skin. But I can’t help it. No matter how hard I resist it, and regardless of how illogical it is, I’m stuck with a persistent fear of being in the water in the dark.
Oh, I’ve tried. Once I forced myself to go on a night dive off a boat in the Great Barrier Reef. Each of us fastened a chemical light stick to our mask, turned on our dive light, then jumped in after the dive master.
I hated the constricted view my narrow beam of light offered and spent the entire dive waving the flashlight around to see where I was. Once during this streaming, I spotted a parrotfish sleeping soundly inside its self-made mucus cocoon. That was wonderful. But the rest of the time, I just followed the other lights, shivering like mad and waiting for the dive to be over.
But this nocturnal wimpiness doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes enjoy the nighttime ocean. I do.
I’ll never forget the night a pod of dolphins came bounding toward our sailboat, their skin covered with greenish bioluminescent organisms.
I was asleep in the aft cabin when my partner called me from the cockpit. I tried to ignore him, knowing it was not yet my watch, but he persisted. “Hurry, hurry,” he yelled. “It’s fantastic!”
I stumbled to the cockpit. “What,” I grumped. And then I saw them off the bow, sparkling and glowing in the dark water like a pack of leaping ghosts.
We watched these day-glo dolphins for about 15 minutes, then they were gone. I don’t know the how, what or why of this phenomenon, but those creatures burned a permanent bright spot in my memories of nights at sea.
I have other good nighttime marine moments: watching the stars during a channel crossing, seeing the prop churn up glow-in-the-dark plankton, enjoying moonbeams on the water. However, these are from an above-the-water perspective, not in it.
Last week, I left the ocean shivering and hurried to the pool area of my condominium building. I’ll take my ocean adventures during the day. At night, I prefer the lighted hot tub.