A Kayaking Adventure in the Bioluminescent Bay of Fajardo

It all started with the overwhelming stench of rotten eggs that engulfed my nose the instant I stepped out of the car. Suddenly the mask became helpful, for once, though I still had to hold my breath as rain sprinkled down and we waited in front of a gazebo for others to arrive. We all wore red and black life vests, which looked suspiciously like army bulletproof vests, until the entire group had gathered. Then we sprayed a generous amount of mosquito repellent, slathering it over every free square inch of exposed skin, and even over the clothes that those creatures dove through. The sky was a calming, rich blue, stained with no golden sun rays but blossoming with dark rain clouds, even as the blue grew darker and thicker with approaching night.

After basic instructions from our guides, we headed to the edge of the water, gentle waves lapping against the shallow shore with strewn seaweed. Kayaks, lime, orange, and red, bumped against each other as we lined up to get inside, splashing in the water and heaving oneself into the kayak while it bounces and the guide holds it steady so you don’t topple. The rain started coming down in heavier sheets, casting warping droplets on my glasses’ lenses. Another guide snapped a picture with a brilliant flash as I smiled, probably somewhat grotesquely. We lined up alongside other kayaks, the front of them all attached onto a single line as we gripped onto the rims of the kayaks directly next to my brother Micah and I.

Once the whole group’s kayaks were together and everyone was seated, the guide let them loose one at a time. The rain had gradually stopped falling. Behind us, the harbor opened up into the ocean, but we headed the opposite direction, following a channel of water between arching mangroves.

In single file, we entered a magical world. I took my mask off and breathed in deeply. The sulfur-like stench was gone, replaced by a thick and musty, earthy smell. On either side, long branches of mangrove trees unfurled, forming canopies overhead which silhouetted in front of an ever-darkening sky. Above hushed conversation, the splash and whoosh of paddles entering the water, and falling droplets, a choir of insects sang in pulsing whistles and hiccups. An occasional bird called in crisp, raw tones. Oftentimes the water was shallow, so that my paddle hit a forest of roots tangled underneath.

At first I was afraid that I would get relentlessly attacked by mosquitoes and bugs, but the repellent did its job and I didn’t get a single bite. Instead, my heart pounded as a huge smile stretched across my face. I had never experienced anything close to this before, and it seemed I couldn’t open my eyes wide enough.

Many times the channel bent and curved, widening only to abruptly narrow. At sharp turns, Micah and I saved our kayak from crashing into the tangle of mangroves, lurching from the right of the channel to the left.

In some places, it was so dark that we couldn’t see a thing beyond the occasional yellow-green glow of fireflies and the faint little blue lights at the back of each kayak, dwindling away into the distance like fairies. The darker it became, the more my heart pounded. The closer the branches on either side grew, the louder the insects grew, and the more risky everything seemed to get, the more I grew excited.

At one point, another group heading in the opposite direction passed to our left. A little traffic jam ensued, with people bumping into the trees and trying not to whack each other with their paddles. But soon we freed ourselves and emerged out of the dark, narrow channel into a more dimly lit large bay, which is technically a lagoon called Laguna Grande.

Following our guide, we paddled out into its center. To our right, many more channels of water entered the bay. Far behind us, the lights of the city glowed in thick clouds. But up in front and above, thousands of stars twinkled merrily, like diamonds scattered into the thick black velvet of sky.

Though I looked very hard at the water, I saw none of the bright blue lights that all those pictures had.

Once we had all gathered together again and lined up next to each other, the guide handed us tarps to put over ourselves so we could see the bioluminescence better. Hunched down inside a tarp, one hand gripping it over my head, I lowered the other one into a sliver of water between our kayak and the one next to us. Gasps erupted in other kayaks, and as I waved my hand around, I joined them.

Thousands of golden little sparkles danced over my hand and swirled in the water at my touch. At first, I thought they were just bubbles, but in the darkness of the night and under the tarp, I shouldn’t have been able to see bubbles.

It looked just like the specks on the hand in the above picture, only they were decidedly golden, not blue, and there wasn’t so much glow underneath. Even though there was none of that vibrant sapphire blue as I had expected, the golden lights sparkling at the flick of a finger reminded me of pixie dust.

I later learned that the bioluminescence wasn’t as bright because it had been raining the whole day. Bioluminescence is the result of a chemical reaction that produces light energy within an organism’s body. For a reaction to occur, a species must contain luciferin, a molecule that produces light when it reacts with oxygen. The particular species in Laguna Grande is a type of plankton that thrive on the high levels on salinity. However, rain dilutes the bay, dropping the salinity and decreasing the glow.

Despite this, it was an invigorating feeling to be out there at night, swathed in shadows and underneath the stars. Heading back through the channel of water, it was even darker than before, completely pitch black. We stopped many times to stick our hands in the water and swirl them around. In the heavy darkness, we could see a brighter sparkle, even on the paddles as we dipped them in and out of the water, golden lights shimmering.

One man joked nervously, as he put his hand in the dark water, “I hope nothing bites my hand off.”

Thankfully, the tour guide had assured us that only harmless fish lived in the channel – and millions of plankton, of course.

It was so dark that it was hard to tell if we were in the middle of the river, or closely approaching the mangrove roots on either side. We had a few close calls, once even ramming into the bushes and trees and making our kayak wobble threateningly.

In other words, it was a lot of fun.

Many twists and turns later, we finally arrived back at the docks about two hours after we had left. We repeated a similar process to disembark, then we waded back to shore.

The stench wafting from unknown sources was still present.

The bioluminescence wasn’t as vibrant as it might have been.

But was this adventure still worth it?

New, thrilling memories replayed through my mind. A wide smile stuck onto my face. Definitely.


Notes: You might have suspected that neither of the pictures in this post are mine. You would be correct. Nighttime photography is difficult and complicated, and capturing bioluminescence is even more so. In addition, I had a very real possibility of falling into the water, and my camera is water-phobic.

I can only hope that my mere words conveyed to you some of the awe and excitement I felt. 🙂

Also, I dare you to write bioluminescence five times in a row. 😛

Image credits: https://www.biobayfajardo.com/


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