I’m in awe. We’ve travelled and experienced so much this year that I’m tachyphylactic to most tourist experiences but our last-minute late-night tour to one of Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent bays made my heart flutter with excitement and I was gasping with excitement like a child does, in wonder at the world.
We had a lazy day today; we slept in then we sun baked on Condado beach. Dan and I walked back along the main road that parallels the beach and ate lunch before I headed back to the B&B for a lie down. We joined Bec & Alastair and Julian for a second lunch, pizzas and drinks before all walking back towards the B&B via Oceano and Atlantic Bar where we got tickets for a New Year’s party tomorrow night and drank cocktails while watching the ocean at sunset.
When we’d decided on visiting Puerto Rico and booked our flights and accommodation about a month ago I’d Googled a list of companies that offered kayak tours of the main bioluminescent bay, an hour’s drive East of San Juan. Dan emailed them all. All were full. His disappointment hung from his face and slumped shoulders like a cloak. We’d had an amazing time in the Galápagos earlier this year, mostly booked on the island, that I still had faith we’d find some way to see it.
Yesterday when we set off to walk around Old San Juan and climbed into the first taxi that drove towards us the driver turned and gave us his card. Julian, being unafraid to talk to strangers and fearless in asking to get what he wants (two things I’ll never be able to do) started negotiating a private taxi ride and dingy boat tour, late at night tonight. By the afternoon we’d confirmed for US$90 per person we’d be picked up from our hotel, driven an hour East in the air conditioning comfort of the people mover, then allowed a seat on the side of the taxi driver’s friend’s dinghy, through the mangroves past the hoards of kayaking tourists and to see what we could see of the bioluminescence bay.
Photos Don’t Do Justice
Granted most tourist photos on Internet review sites are terrible documentation, blurred, poor compositions but from the photos or YouTube videos I found for the experience I was expecting a really disappointing vague blur of photo luminescence trailing past a paddle or stick when we made it to the lagoon.
After having bugs buzzing about my head on the Hudson Bay when we snorkelled with beluga whales in Manitoba I thought the warmer climate in Puerto Rico would result in exponentially more numbers of insects. I wore long pants. We sprayed ourselves wet with Bug Spray. Bec and I scared ourselves silly speculating about alligators. I mean an entire episode of Archer is set in a tropical mangrove lagoon, with alligators.
Our driver showed up exactly on time at 20:45. The journey was an hour long. I started reading my new ebook; the road wasn’t too bumpy so I didn’t get too carsick. Alastair fell asleep and farted. It was silent but deadly. We all looked up at the same time and when my gaze met Bec’s we both knew, “You smell it too. Alastair let another one rip.” We were a little early for the last tour hadn’t finished. It was about half an hour waiting, which was good because our eyes settled to the moonlight. The moon a quarter phase had about 2/3 a circle and the cloud cover had gone so it was a little bright. Bec identified constellations using an app on her iPhone.
8 of us climbed into the little dinghy, including the taxi driver’s wife. She lives in Puerto Rico but never went on the tour.
The boat driver steered with his left hand and scanned the mangroves and the water with a bright torch with his right hand. “Why do you think he is scanning so systematically?” I whispered to Bec. He wasn’t just lighting the path ahead. He was looking for something. Was it tree snakes? We’re our fictitious alligators actually real!? Thankfully it was just iguanas in the branches overhead. I’ve seen iguanas. They eat plants. I sighed with relief.
We passed a few groups of kayaks. Some had white LED lights out the bows, blue on sterns and orange or red on the person paddling. Others had no lights at all.
We passed through a shallow area and hit a few rocks, which made the Japanese woman next to me gasp in fear. It didn’t help to think of the scene in Jaws where the shark rams the boat.
It Was There All Along
The driver stopped under the shade of mangroves where the branches formed a ceiling over the water; we’d been bathed in moonlight and Orion up until now. He explained that the shade have better viewing conditions. He moved the water with his hand. We then realised that the sparkle on the mangrove roots on the shore and the vague light on the rocks we’d floated over was the bioluminescence.
With permission we all put our fingers in the water. It was magical! It seriously looked like the spells of my frost Mage or warlock on my computer. I experimented with different movements to observe their effect.
I placed my hand under water. I kept it still. Where the current flowed past foci only a few mm long would light up briefly then fade. If you quiver your hand the entire surface is blanketed with the sparkles. They stick to your hand.
I realised that if there were alligators we’d see them move. I reached my entire forearm into the water and swept my hand back and forth. A muddy blue white glow lit the wave of kinetic energy, like sand does when you are snorkelling and kick at the ground. The glow didn’t travel far.
If you loved your hand towards you the dark silhouette of your hand stands out from the bright glow of the luminescence behind it. We all giggled with our discoveries.
You could splash a spray of luminescent across the water surface which would create more as it landed. It must be amazing to watch it rain.
The boat man took us into the bay. The moonlight was too bright to see much glow from the wake of the boat, but you could tell the phenomenon was still there looking at the wake at the rudder.
I looked up and appreciated the stars. And then I watched the water surface. Then a spear of light date away from the boat. Then another. Then a couple of divergent lights darted away, like photons that didn’t read a physics textbook on how to decay at 180 degrees. They zig zagged away. They were fish! The lagoon was full of fish!
A school of fish swam under us. You could see the fish shaped glows approach, pass under us and keep going. Sometimes the fish were dark and still until startled by the boat and, like those fizzling fireworks I loved so much as a kid (they’d gently fizzled instead of violently exploding) squiggles of light would erupt from the darkness beneath the moon’s glow on the surface of the water. For the first time I was seeing beyond what I could normally see in my normal existence. It was like when authors try to write about the moment a vampire is turned, or in Avatar when the guy sees the world in a new way. We were all seeing waves and ripples and fish darting about but in a completely new way. It was truly awesome.