Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Trip 51: Bioluminescent kayaking

State Parks visited: 41

Well, here's my challenge:  We took a couple of nighttime paddling trips recently, and I didn't take a single picture.  I have no images to share with you of some of the most magical moments I have ever spent in my entire life...and I am rather happy about it.  For you see, now I am forced to use my creativity and paint you a mental picture.

First of all, allow me to explain bioluminescence (as I understand it).  Basically, millions of microscopic critters live in our coastal brackish waters during the hottest months of the year.  These critters, called dynoflagellates, light up when they feel threatened.  Think of fireflies, only underwater and on a much smaller scale.  Neat, right?  What's even neater is that they consider anything that disturbs them to be a threat, whether it be a fish swimming by, or waving sea grass...or a hand...or a paddle. 

So, we got a group together and met up in Titusville for a nighttime trip to a small island.  Rob, me, Olivia, Randy, Xandra, Chris, and his brother Matthew...we launched as the sun went to sleep for the night, and no moon to guide our way.  Fighting mosquitoes and jumping fish (that's what I told myself the sounds were since I couldn't see anything...), we paddled around the edge of this little island less than a mile off shore and let the darkness settle around us.  We had packed a cooler of beverages and just sat there, relaxing, socializing, losing Randy, and having a damn good time. 

Eventually we started sweeping our hands through the water, hoping to see things light up.  And eventually, they did.  Imagine, if you will, a 4th of July sparkler, with a greenish tint, held underwater.  That's what it looked like to me:  One swift splash brought out some sharp points of light, only to fade away until the next splash.  Xandra showed us how she made something of a whirlpool in the water, quickly agitating the dynoflagellates until eventually there was one big flash.  Static electricity-esque, I guess?  It's how I see it in my head!

Pretty soon we tired of the fun and headed back to shore.  It was extremely neat to see such a phenomenon, but the experience seemed to be incomplete.  There are many companies here that offer guided tours to see bioluminescence, and I got the feeling they saw something greater than what we had seen.  And so, I started doing a little research.  I found what appeared to be a better location for greater 'bio' sighting, and we started planning another trip.

The next trip, a couple of weeks after the first, was very different.  This time it was Rob, me, Olivia, Xandra, Chris, his coworker Tony, Tony's wife Candace, and my friend Denise and her fiance James.  Mind you, Denise and I haven't seen each other since the day we graduated high school (just a couple years ago, right?!?), so there was something of a reunion when we met at Bairs Cove boat ramp at the Canaveral National Seashore.  After a whole slew of introductions, a little kayaking instruction, and lots of bug-spraying, we launched.

This time we paddled around the channel, hugging the shore until we came to a little cove.  Along the way we saw some of the wildlife Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is known for (Roseate spoonbill?  Check. Gator?  Check.).  We paddled into the cove and waited for darkness to fall.  We waited...and waited...and waited.  The mosquitoes were pretty bad the closer we got to the mangroves surrounding the cove...but we all got so caught up talking that we didn't realize the current was taking us so close to them.  It was so much fun catching up, telling stories, laughing, hanging out. 

Once it got pretty dark, we started testing the water.  Knowing the animals present, I didn't keep my hands in the water too long.  Just long enough to sweep through and look for the fireworks I remembered from the last trip.  And for the longest time...nothing.  I started to get worried that our outing was a bust.  I was starting to feel kind of guilty when...I saw it.  It felt like my eyes were playing tricks on me, but there it was...bioluminescence. 

It wasn't like I had seen before, and maybe that's what was throwing me off.  Still, once one person started seeing it, we all started seeing it.  Imagine seeing ripples in the water on a moonlit night, only you look up and realize there is no moon.  Every touch of the water...your hand, your paddle, the water dripping from the tip of your paddle...creates this green mist...only within the water itself.  It isn't a bright light.  Think of the dim glow of those glow-in-the-dark stars and moons we stuck on our ceilings as kids.

And then we all became children again.

At least, we all started giggling like children.  We all realized the magic of what was happening around us, and it seemed like our cares just melted away.  It was serendipity, and it was ours. 

Fish had been jumping all around us.  Once we started seeing the bio, we started seeking out the fish.  Scaring a school of mullet was like watching heat lightning on a hot night:  First the glow of the fish streaking through the water, then a small flash of it leaping out.  Another flash when it landed, and another streak as it sped away.  Only...ten-fold, twenty-fold.  Amazing and magical, and yet I was 35 the first time I saw it.  How does that happen?

We paddled around giggling, laughing, enjoying ourselves for, I don't know, 15 minutes or so when I realized we were no longer alone.  From a distance I saw what looked like candles dancing across the water, all in a row.  Not some different kind of bio, of course, but one of those guided tours I mentioned earlier, the chem lights hanging from the bows and sterns of their kayaks serving as an eerie beacon of their presence.  When I saw them coming, I knew we had chosen the right place.

Once the tour group came into the cove they scattered and had their own fun.  We took that as our cue to leave.  As we were paddling to the outlet, a fish jumped into my kayak.  In the darkness it sounded huge, flopping around somewhere behind me.  James turned on his headlamp and saved the day, and the tiny little needlefish found his way back home.   Xandra made a (brave) pitstop on one of the small islands, and that's where our group unintentionally broke up.  It was not something we had really prepared for, and I felt bad for the failure in communication.  Eventually, though, we reunited and found our way back to the ramp.  We packed up, said our goodbyes, and headed home.

As we were paddling out I heard one woman from the tour tell her paddling partner, "I feel like Tinkerbell!"  And quite honestly, I do, too.


  1. You succeeded in painting a very magical mental picture! I felt as though I were along for the ride... which, God willing, will indeed happen one day!

  2. What a wonderful description! I almost felt like I was there. The first time I heard about this was from a friend who went on a paddling trip in Puerto Rico. She said putting her hand in the water made it appear to be covered with the light!
    Evidently this is one of THE best places to see it. It's something we want to do, but never seem to!

    In answer to your question on my blog. We have never been to Highlands Hammock SP. Let us know what you think. Big rig friendly?

  3. I think you described it very well.