Tarpons are big fish, with some measuring more than eight feet long. They have an industrial appearance, with glassy eyes and shiny scales that make them look armor-plated. They’re also at the top of the food chain in Bonaire (Netherlands Antilles), where they dwarf the barracuda, and sharks are scarce. These prehistoric predators spend their days hanging motionless under ledges and do their hunting by night. This can make for a thrilling and sometimes unnerving experience when diving after dark.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, our small group slipped into the water off the beach just across from Flamingo Airport’s sole runway. We switched on our underwater lights and kicked out toward the reef 100m from shore. I pressed the lens of my light against the sapphire crystal of my Panerai Luminor Submersible and held it there for 20 seconds. When I removed the light, the dial markers and hands glowed with nuclear intensity, living up to the Luminor name. I twisted the bezel to align the descent marker with the minute hand and kicked hard to catch up with the group, which was rapidly disappearing into the darkness.
Like the tarpons, Panerai’s Submersible dive watches also have an industrial appearance, their singular purpose apparent even to a casual observer. At 47mm, these watches make no illusion that they are intended for topside diversions. In fact, the massive size follows the specification laid down for the original Panerai dive watches of the 1930s and ’40s by the Italian Navy — large, legible under all conditions and extremely water-resistant. These watches – one of the first purpose-built dive watches ever – were studies in minimalism. They had cushion-shaped cases with welded strap bars, sturdy handwound Rolex pocket-watch movements, and lacked even a sweep seconds hand. Yet there is a certain steampunk aesthetic to most of the watches from Officine Panerai. The stenciled-out sandwich dials and half-moon crown protection device look whimsical, yet brutally functional.
Night diving is disorienting. Navigating on a dive can be a challenge even in daylight, due to the 360° nature of the environment. But at night, your world is reduced to the cone of light from your handheld torch. In Bonaire, the reef wall runs parallel with shore, so the trick is to use a luminescent compass and swim straight out from shore to the reef and then turn one way or the other, keeping the reef on one shoulder going out and on the other coming back. Landmarks that are useful during the day are nonexistent at night. Then again, it’s worth it because a whole world of sea life wakes up after dark — octopuses roam the bottom like ghosts; pale spotted eels that look like vipers slither among the rocks; and the coral itself wakes up, waving fronds to catch fish eggs floating on the current. And the tarpons are out hunting.
The Luminor Submersible 1950 3 Days, known more commonly, and succinctly, by its reference number, PAM 305, follows a string of preceding Submersibles that varied by depth rating, case material, dial configuration and size. What immediately distinguishes it from the rest is its dial, which, rather than featuring Panerai’s familiar rounded numerals, relies on more sober hash marks and dots. The dial itself is a matte black and, upon closer inspection, is found to be of a bead-blasted finish, which continues the watch’s almost severely functional appearance. The date cutout is no-frills also, a simple rectangular cutout in the dial revealing the number beneath. This is a watch that means business, and Paneristi who think their favorite brand has strayed too far from its “tool watch” roots need only look to the PAM 305 for reassurance that it hasn’t.
At 47mm across and almost 18mm tall, I expected this Submersible to be a chore to wear. But the sculpted “Luminor 1950-style” case with its relatively short lugs and smooth corners lies nicely on the wrist, and the use of titanium as a case material keeps the watch downright comfortable. The PAM 305 comes fitted with one of the beefiest rubber straps I’ve ever seen: lug width on these watches is a whopping 26mm, and the strap itself sports Panerai’s massive bottle-opener buckle. Accordion-style ribs near the case form vents that serve to take up the slack in a compressed wetsuit underwater. Pull the strap tight over a neoprene sleeve to stretch out the vents at the surface, and as you descend and the sleeve shrinks due to water pressure, the vents relax and take in the excess.
I sense my first tarpon before I see it. Even underwater, there is the primal sixth sense when something big is nearby. Sure enough, mere feet away, a meter-long tarpon silently cuts across my beam of light and I draw on my regulator in a sudden, startled gasp. The big fellow is hunting by the light of my torch. Small fish scatter and dart for the safety of coral heads as the silver giant cruises slowly, but watchfully, overhead. By now, we’ve all seen the tarpon and it’s not just one. Two, then a third, appear out of the gloom, crisscrossing in front of us, brushing alongside us like a pack of dogs that has taken us on its nightly excursion.
Of course, the feature for which Panerai is best known is the levered crown guard that is screwed prominently to the side of the Luminor case. While this may have been an innovative solution in the 1940s, it seems oddly superfluous and inelegant for a dive watch in an era when screwdown crowns are ubiquitous and nearly fail-safe. But the crown guard has become such a symbol for Panerai that it would be sacrilegious to remove it from the Luminor watches. I got over my skittishness about diving with a watch without a screwdown crown and learned to love fiddling with the locking lever.
Historically, Panerai has played to its strength as a maker of luminous instruments for diving, and its expertise in rugged cases and highly legible dials. When the navy came calling for watches, Panerai naturally turned to the best watchmakers available, sourcing from Swiss brands like Rolex and Angelus. Even into the 1990s, Panerai followed this tradition, fitting its timepieces with venerable ETA movements such as the 6497-1 pocket-watch caliber and the ubiquitous Valjoux 7750 chronograph works. It wasn’t until fairly recently that the brand started creating its own movements.
The self-winding movement that powers the PAM 305 is the P.9000, a relatively entry-level in-house caliber, if it can be called that. Besides a date function, there are no further complications, and the finishing of the movement is decidedly Spartan. While the bottom plate, visible below the balance assembly, is perlaged, most of the movement is hidden from view, and the top plate and weighted rotor are expanses of brushed steel. It is a fitting lack of flourish for such a utilitarian watch’s movement.
It is one thing to watch animals hunt. It is quite another to actually help an animal hunt, to be drawn into the predator-prey dynamic and tilt the odds in favor of the hunter. I felt a twinge of guilt as I aimed my light at a small silverside caught out in the open, its whereabouts suddenly laid bare to the pack of swift tarpons. A scaly giant gave chase as I illuminated its prey until the moment of capture. With no acknowledgement or gratitude, the big fish lazily turned and resumed its endless quest for calories. For the next 15 minutes, the tarpons zigzagged in and out of the blackness, following our lights as if on leashes.
As if navigating isn’t challenging enough at night, keeping track of one’s time, depth and remaining air pressure is also difficult while night diving. Doing this requires one to constantly refer to a veritable array of instruments – and to frequently recharge the lumes of said instruments with a dive light. However, the Panerai and its dial and hands still glowed brightly 30 minutes into the dive, as indicated by the lumed pip on the bezel. Though we all had well over half a tank of air left, it was a good time to turn for shore. I charged up the lume on my compass with the dive light and reoriented myself. The tarpons, now accustomed to our hunting help, followed us like faithful labradors, weaving in among us as we finned for home.
As we neared shore and the water became shallower, the tarpons reluctantly gave up on us and turned back into the inky depths to continue their nocturnal feeding. We emerged roughly where we had set out 45 minutes earlier, the outline of our pickup truck visible up on the beach. We all surfaced exclaiming and laughing, buzzing with adrenaline after our night of hunting with the tarpons. I glanced at the still-luminous dial of my Panerai and reset its bezel to 12. It was close to 9:00pm and time for a well-deserved beer.