Kayaking on a Bioluminescent Bay

This post is going to be a bit of a departure from my typical photo-heavy entries because when I signed up for a bioluminescent bay kayak tour on Vieques, I decided to leave my camera behind for once and enjoy the experience without documenting a single moment. I knew that properly capturing the bioluminescence of the dinoflagellates would require the low-light capabilities of my SLR, and there was no way I was going to attempt balancing on a sit-on-top kayak with the 5DMIII in my hands. My waterproof point-and-shoot doesn’t have manual controls so I opted to be completely present and out from behind a camera for the tour.

This is all to say that I have no photos to show you.

After failing to see a bio bay two times on previous trips, I had my fingers crossed that the third time would be a charm. The first attempt was in 2000 when my friends and I took a Caribbean cruise and signed up for a bio bay kayak tour at the Puerto Rico port of call. Sadly, a storm made the waves too choppy for kayaking and the tour was canceled. The second time was in 2013 when Chris and I stayed in San Juan for a week, but the exact same thing happened: storm, waves, choppy water, canceled tour. I was determined to see the bioluminescence this time, and I even consulted the moon phase chart to ensure we picked the darkest night to see the bay. Astronomy for the win!

On the night of the new moon with no storm in the forecast, Stephanie, Arne, Chris, and I took the 7:30pm Bio Bay Glass Bottom Boat Kayak Tour with Fun Brothers located in Esperanza. We met our guide near the bamboo hut shown below (photo taken during the day) where we boarded a very small school bus for some off-roading on a narrow dirt path through the dark forest.

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After the bumpiest ride I’ve ever experienced, we arrived at the sandy entrance to Mosquito Bay. Despite the name, I don’t think any of us felt any bug bites that night, but we might have been lucky with a dry day and a good breeze. Here’s the part I didn’t expect – we were instructed to remove our shoes and leave them on the bus. And here’s the other part I didn’t expect – we walked in the dark through shallow muddy water to enter the kayaks.

Bare feet + darkness + black water with mud and other things in it = me shrieking uncontrollably.

I managed to make it into the kayak right away without capsizing, but it did take me a good five minutes on the water to settle down and feel comfortable. I’ve only been in a kayak one other time (in Alaska) mind you, and that was in the middle of the day. Our guide, Nelson, set out paddling ahead of us and we followed him. Our tour group of ten people met him in the middle of the water for a brief overview of the dinoflagellates before free time to explore. We stayed together for Nelson’s briefing by holding onto his kayak, which meant we were all clustered together quite close. I didn’t get to enjoy his information and jokes because I was concentrating on not tipping over while the other kayaks bumped into mine.

Once he gave us the green light (no pun intended!) to go off on our own, we paddled away from the group, noticing a faint glow as our oars dipped into the water. I’ll be frank: at first I thought, that’s it?! I walked through creepy sludge and paddled my way out into the darkness just to see a bit of light when I paddle?! But as we let our eyes continue to adjust, we started to see other things happening: glowing bubbles under our glass-bottomed kayaks, the luminescent outline of each gentle wave forming and breaking, and shimmering schools of fish darting past. I noticed that the farther we paddled away from the lights of the town nearby and the more I stared at one dark spot in the water, the better I could see the glow. Something pretty big and glowing swam underneath me and gave me a startle, but I managed to stay in the kayak or else this post would have a very different it-was-the-worst-thing-ever tone.

We spent at least thirty minutes on the bay experiencing this natural phenomenon, and in the end I decided that it was definitely worth the unpleasant barefooted moments. If you’re planning a trip to Vieques, this really is a neat experience and you’d do well to book with Fun Brothers. They kept us safe and informed, and we all had a great time. Plus the glass-bottomed kayaks do add to the experience. If you are on the fence about this tour because you’re not crazy about the idea of being on the water in the dark, we’re in the same boat (pun totally intended!) and I had fun so you can absolutely do it, too.

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  • Amy MJuly 5, 2015 - 3:44 pm

    Gutted that there aren’t any photos, but completely understand why you didn’t take your camera! What an incredible experience! xo

  • SusanJuly 6, 2015 - 9:25 am

    Me, too, Amy! It was so weird not to have my camera with me, but it turned out to be a good decision given my wobbliness in the kayak.

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