Paddling Puerto Rico’s Bioluminescent Bays

Bioluminescent Bays Puerto Rico Kayaking
Puerto Rico possesses three of the world’s most beautiful bioluminescent bays (Photo by Pure Adventure PR)

Puerto Rico possesses three of the world’s most beautiful bioluminescent bays: Laguna Grande, Mosquito Bay, and Bahia Fosforescente. In search of something spectacular, Mike Bezemek traveled to The Isle of Enchantment to experience the thrill paddling on glowing water. These are his journal entries.

By Mike Bezemek

Laguna Grande, Fajardo

Through a dark mangrove channel, I navigate amid snaking Christmas lights—blue, green, and red glow-stick stern lamps on dozens of double sit-on-tops. Boats bump; ladies giggle; men groan; girlfriends snap at over-eager boyfriends plowing them into stilt roots. A half-dozen paddlers quit, so my guide Juan lingers to tow them.

Entering a wide lagoon, silhouetted in orange by nearby towns, I paddle through wind-rippled water. Dull whiteness forms around the blade, like froth in moonlight, but tonight it’s new-moon black.

A blue glow spreads around my boat, brightening the further I glide into the lagoon. Nearby a school of mullet fish jump, each splash-landing like paint flicked onto canvas. I slap the water, which bubbles light from dinoflagellate plankton that illuminate as a defense mechanism when sensing movement.

A sweating Juan arrives after depositing towed boaters with the group. We circuitously tour the enclosed bay, making wide blue sweeps with our paddles, initiating hard stern turns that lay down light tracks like rubber on road.

Juan smacks his kayak. Dozens of submerged sparks respond.

“Anchovies,” he says.

A hilltop lighthouse sweeps a beam across the horizon. I dig my blade deep for some extra glow, realizing that, for the first time, that thrill, that buzz felt when taking a paddle stroke isn’t just in my mind, but illuminated across the surface of the water.

Information: Pure Adventure offers marine biologist led trips; if they’re full, six additional companies offer two 30-person tours each night; reserve 1-2 weeks in advance.

Mosquito Bay, Vieques Island

Off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico, in an oceanfront bar in sleepy Esperanza, American expats and locals gossip about Mosquito Bay—supposedly the brightest in the world. The bay went dark from January until June. Next, resource officials declared a moratorium, slashing kayak permits by over half. The New York Times sent a reporter. Theories are more plentiful than Medalla beers. Some blame kayak companies. Others name sunscreen and bug spray, despite the swimming ban. Abe, a dread-locked tour operator, suggests weird winter weather in the northern hemisphere. Here, abnormally sustained north winds led to cooler sea temps. Heavy rains led to fresh water dilution. Perhaps the dinoflagellates were flushed out to sea? An EPA biologist ponders sedimentation from the dirt access road.

“It’s all pseudoscience bullshit,” says one innkeeper, mentioning recently cleared farmland in the bay’s watershed and intimating chemicals.

Without further study, the bay’s longest-recorded hibernation remains a mystery.

“Forget all your expectations,” says one guide at twilight, preparing boaters to enter the lagoon—a subtle challenge to rumors of the bay’s death plus the many photoshopped fakes floating the Internet.

However, once on the water, an electric blue—brighter than Fajardo—skips atop whitecaps, runs under boats, spreads behind paddles, and reveals the bay, for now, has recovered its infamous glow.

Information: Currently, operators are limited to Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night tours (though this may change); reserve in advance. Abe’s Snorkeling & Bio-Bay Tours manages the largest permit which includes biologist lectures.

Bahia Fosforescente, La Parguera

In a waterfront dockhouse with glass floor panes, Captain Ismael Ramos has spent thirty years launching motorboat and intimate kayak Biobay trips, requiring a 1.5 mile approach through mangrove islands.

Ismael explains he was “a scientist in a former life,” but still studies the bay and mentors a PhD student. His simple, qualitative, and grant-funded system supplements sophisticated UBAT lumens-measuring machines which he worries aren’t sensitive enough toward subtle changes in luminosity.

Joining his nightly sampling trip, upon arrival I encounter tiny white flecks of light—not the fluid glow like previous bays—which form around my hand like sparkling grains of rice.

Ismael fills a bucket and dumps it on deck, which glitters like sequins. “An eight,” he says, logging the number, on a scale from one to ten.

I jump in—the last bay where swimming is allowed. An inverted mushroom cloud of light explodes. Ismael explains large specks indicate the single-celled organisms are plumply preparing to divide. Within days, the glow will become more milky blue-green like the other bays.

I tread water and it looks—even feels—like my body is turning to bright sand. My sweeping hand disintegrates into fingers of mottled light.

It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. Resembles none of the photos, fake or real, I came across. Not as bright as the others, but more unique and remarkable. A phenomenon that can’t be photographed with current technology. A place that has to be experienced in person. The rumor for years is that this bay is dying, glowing a fraction of its former glory, but Ismael isn’t convinced. Today, there’s more light pollution from developing towns. Climate change. Weather, wind, rain have shifted.

“There are just good days and bad days,” says Ismael. “Tonight it is good.”

Information: Capt. Ismael Ramos operates Aleli Tours in La Parguera.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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