Friday, September 09, 2005

Swimming in Light

Last Wednesday night, mid-way through my vacation, I had the pleasure of kayaking and swimming in a bioluminescent bay in Vieques, Puerto Rico. It was a truly extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime experience.

After sunset, we drove to to Mosquito Bay (Puerto Mosquito), just east of the diminutive southern town of Esperanza on the island. We walked out into some very swampy muddy water, then got onto sit-on-top kayaks. We took off into the middle of the dark, muggy bay. We'd chosen a good night for what we were to experience, it turned out, since there was no moon above us, only the lights of a nearby village to the east.

As you get closer to the center of the bay, you suddenly begin to notice that your paddle seems to leave--is that just foam in the water? No, it seems to be light trailing from your paddle through the otherwise murky water. Then you look down at the water puddling in your kayak and suddenly it seems alive with twinkling light.

Once deep out into the bay (the water was still only about seven feet deep) we tied our kayaks to the guide's, then we all fell into the warm receptive water. Though it was dark, the water still felt like bathwater - something like 90 degrees or greater - and whenever you moved you left glowing trails in the water caused by the tens of thousands of excited dinoflagellates per gallon of water (as I recall, normally there are only a couple dozen per gallon). These tiny ancient creatures light up by combining two chemicals in much the same way that fireflies do, only they're many times smaller and you really wouldn't see them with the naked eye if they didn't glow.

They only glow six or seven times a night, so you swim around to excite them in different areas of the bay. If you raise your hands from the water, it looks like a stream of tiny stars is falling down your arms, blinking brightly, then flickering out. The water is so salty it makes floating easier, so if you lie on your back, you can look up and see the Milky Way while swaddled in this warm luminescent water. It feels like you could do this for hours.

Eventually, we all did clamber back onto our kayaks and we took the long way back to where we began by hugging the edge of the bay. The idea was to pass through an area where we'd see numerous flying fish, though that night I only saw a few and a others didn't see any at all.

It's said that when Columbus encountered the bay, he thought it possessed with spirits, so he had his men block of the bay by filling its mouth with rocks. Ironically, this only served to increase the effect as the dinoflagellates were then able to reproduce more freely, uninterrupted and in even warmer water.

A truly, truly lovely, peaceful experience. I only wish I'd gone with a friend instead of going alone, so I could've shared the experience.

Thanks to the gregarious folks at Blue Caribe Kayaking in Vieques for organizing this incredible nocturnal adventure.

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