Laguna Grande, Fajardo
Through a dark mangrove channel, I navigated amid snaking Christmas lights—blue, green, and red glow-stick stern lamps on dozens of double sit-on-tops. Boats bumped; ladies giggled; men groaned; girlfriends snapped at over-eager boyfriends plowing them into stilt roots. A half-dozen paddlers quit, so my guide, Juan, lingered to tow them.
Years ago, I might have dismissed Puerto Rico’s bio bays as too touristy. But lately, I’d embraced the idea of stepping down my paddling to expand my experiences. Instead of debating which of three bays to see, in July 2014 I visited all of them.
Entering a wide lagoon, silhouetted in orange by nearby towns, I paddled through wind-rippled water. Dull whiteness formed around the blade, like froth in moonlight, but tonight it was new-moon black.
A blue glow spread around my boat, brightening the further I glided into the lagoon. Nearby, a school of mullet fish jumped, each splash-landing like paint flicked onto canvas. I slapped the water, which bubbled light from dinoflagellate plankton that illuminated as a defense mechanism when sensing movement.
A sweating Juan arrived after depositing towed boaters with the group. We circuitously toured the enclosed bay, making wide blue sweeps with our paddles, initiating hard stern turns that laid down light tracks like rubber on road.
Juan smacked his kayak. Dozens of submerged sparks responded.
"Anchovies," he said.
A hilltop lighthouse swept a beam across the horizon. Digging my blade deep for some extra glow, I realized, for the first time, that thrill, that buzz felt when taking a paddle stroke wasn’t just in my mind, but illuminated across the surface of the water.
Note: I joined Pure Adventure, which offers marine biologist-led trips into the Laguna Grande bio bay; if 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 gossiped about Mosquito Bay—supposedly the brightest in the world. The bio bay went dark between January and June 2014. Resource officials declared a moratorium, slashing kayak permits by over half. The New York Times sent a reporter. Theories were more plentiful than Medalla beers. Some blamed kayak companies. Others named sunscreen and bug spray, despite the swimming ban. Abe, a dread-locked tour operator, suggested weird winter weather in the northern hemisphere. Locally, abnormal 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 pondered sedimentation from the dirt access road.
"It’s all pseudoscience bullshit," said one innkeeper, mentioning recently cleared farmland in the bay’s watershed and intimating chemicals.
Pending further study, the bay’s longest-recorded hibernation remains a mystery.
"Forget all your expectations," said one guide at twilight, preparing boaters to enter the lagoon—a subtle challenge to rumors of the bay’s death and the many photoshopped fakes floating the Internet.
However, once on the water, an electric blue—brighter than Fajardo—skipped atop whitecaps, ran under boats, spread behind paddles, and revealed the bay had recovered its infamous glow.
Note: I joined Abe’s Snorkeling & Bio-Bay Tours which manages the largest bio bay permit and includes biologist lectures about Mosquito Bay. Over a dozen other operators offer tours. In the past, the resource department has limited access to the bay, so reserve in advance.
Bahia Fosforescente, La Parguera
From a waterfront dockhouse with glass floor panes, Captain Ismael Ramos has for 30 years launched motorboat and intimate kayak bio bay trips, requiring a 1.5 mile approach through mangrove islands.
Ismael described himself as "a scientist in a former life," but still studied the bay and mentored a PhD student. His simple, qualitative, and grant-funded system supplemented sophisticated UBAT lumens-measuring machines which he worried weren’t sensitive enough toward subtle changes in luminosity.
Joining his nightly sampling trip, upon arrival I encountered tiny white flecks of light—not the fluid glow like previous bays—which formed around my hand like sparkling grains of rice.
Ismael filled a bucket and dumped it on deck, which glittered like sequins. "An eight," he said, logging the number, on a scale from one to ten.
I jumped in—the last bay where swimming is allowed. An inverted mushroom cloud of light exploded. Ismael explained large specks indicated the single-celled organisms were plumply preparing to divide. Within days, the glow would become more milky blue-green like the other bays.
I treaded water and it looked—even felt—like my body was turning to bright sand. My sweeping hand disintegrated into fingers of mottled light.
It was like nothing I’d ever seen. Resembled none of the photos, fake or real, I came across. Not as bright as the others, but more unique and remarkable. A phenomenon that couldn’t be photographed with current technology. A place that had to be experienced in person. The rumor for years was that this bay was 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," said Ismael. "Tonight it is good."
Note: Capt. Ismael Ramos operates Aleli Tours in La Parguera, which offers a variety of tours to the nearby bio bay, including with kayaks or paddle-boards.
More from Mike Bezemek’s ‘Regular Paddler, Remarkable Waters’ series