Arriving in Vieques Puerto Rico
Vieques is located on one of the small islands of Puerto Rico, about an hour east by ferry. I had first learned about Mosquito Bay while teaching a 4th grade reading group on bio-luminescent animals. I became obsessed with seeing this natural wonder and planned to travel there on my next break, which was over Thanksgiving, with my friend Terry.
Pre Kayak Roll Call and a Van Ride
We made it to Vieques and had our glass bottom kayak trip booked. At 9pm, we walked out into the warm humid night. No bug spray on our arms or hands was our instructions, and we swatted our way through thick mosquitoes down the street, along the beach to the meetup spot. Looking around, we spotted a painted van on the road by the sand. It was brightly decorated with the logo of Jak Water Sport on it’s side. The woman in charge of our tour, Kat, was in her early 20’s and thin, with a cropped blue spandex tank top and black spandex shorts. Her red hair was stacked on top of her head as she yelled out a roll call. Terry and I, plus 5 other pairs got in the van with Kat and she drove us down the windy path to the place where we would kayak. We turned off the main road onto a pitted gravel road thick with trees. Branches scraped the van windows and the roof as the van bounced towards the water and we strained to look out into the wooded darkness.
Arriving at the launch spot, everyone piled out of the van between the thick trees onto a sandy area near the shore. We followed Kat’s voice as she led us down the path to our kayaks, shining a flashlight on the ground in front of us.
“Now it’s going to be a half an hour paddle to Mosquito Bay, approximately 2 and a half miles. We will stay around an hour and paddle back. It is very dark out there so I will be calling out and checking in frequently to keep our group together, you need to respond. I want each group to tell us now where they are from.”
“Los Angeles,” man’s voice rang out.
“Atlanta,” chimed a young couple.
“Chicago,” Terry called.
Paddling in the Dark of Mosquito Bay
After China, Indianapolis and Italy called out, we all climbed into the double kayaks and a young man from the kayak company shoved us across the sand and gravel and out into the inky water. There was no visible shoreline ahead of us, only darkness. It was quiet except for the paddles sloshing in the water. My heart fluttered with nerves and excitement, my stomach tense. There were few lights on the shores and straining our eyes only revealed more darkness.
“Can you see Kat?” I asked.
“I can’t see anything.” Terry’s voice came from behind.
“Are we going the right way still?”
“I hope so…”
We paddled blindly in unison, to avoid clacking our paddles together, following the splush-splush water sounds. I kept waiting for my eyes to adjust. I struggled but failed to see our fellow paddlers, an occasional dim outline appearing and disappearing from view.
“Hey Italy, you still with us?” Kat’s voice rang out from somewhere ahead of us”
“Yes, Italy here.”
We adjusted our course to follow the sound.
We continued to paddle into the blackness, following Kat’s voice and the sloshing paddles. A couple of stars were peeking out of the black velvet blanket of the sky.
“Indy…you out there?”
The Magic is Starting – Bio-luminescent Bay
I looked down at the reflective surface on the floor of the kayak and caught a glimpse of what I thought was a dim reflection from a star but then it was gone. Then another…and another. My heart speeds up…it’s not stars, I think it is happening, but it is too dim to tell.
“Look down!” I instruct Terry. “We have a glass window on the floor! I think it’s starting!”
“I see something!” Terry’s exclaimed.
“Atlanta …China…you out there?”
“China?…anyone have eyes on China?” Kat called in a tense voice. China!?”
From our far right, a response sounded. Kat instructed us to slow our paddle and verbally guided China back to our little group.
“You guys may have noticed, we are getting closer to the bay. You will start seeing the dinoflagellates algae through the glass and around your paddles.” I could hear Kat and the soft waves sloshing against our boat, but even straining my eyes, could see nothing else but one or two faint lights in the distance and a handful of stars. I squinted in the direction of her voice, but could not make out her figure.
“The microorganisms in the bio bay react to movement. The more the water is agitated, the brighter the light they emit. The highest concentrations are still ahead of us. Watch for swimming fish…their bodies are illuminated by the flagellates as they move. China, you still here?”
“Yes, yes we are.”
“Atlanta, Chicago, Indy…Italy, LA…we all here?”
A chorus of yeses sounded in the darkness as I peered over the side, trying to make out a glowing fish but seeing only murkiness.
Kat’s voice announced, “We will be in the bay in about 10 minutes…we are lucky…no moon tonight. The best viewing in the bay is during the new moon. Follow my voice…stay together.”
Wild Splashing at Mosquito Bay
We all resumed paddling through the inky blackness. As we glided through the water, a tiny blue spark zoomed beneath us, visible through the glass…then another…brighter this time. This WAS really happening. Shouts of excitement rang out from around us.
“Did you see that!?”
“Look through the glass!”
“Move your paddles really fast!”
Eyes searching wildly, more bursts of peacock blue began appearing beneath us. Our paddles were dripping in glowing glitter. Underneath us, the bright streaks of light were moving fast under the glass. I was reminded of the Millennium Falcon shifting into hyperdrive in Star Wars, hundreds of illuminated sparks against the darkness.
“We’re almost there, Atlanta, L.A., China, you read me?”
“Indy, Chicago, Italy…you with me?”
“Yes… over here…yeah”
Love that Bioluminescent Glow in Vieques
“We are just entering the bay, over on our right is another tour…we will have to hang to the right till they move on. The bioluminescent glow you are seeing is caused by flagellates, which are tiny micro-organisms. They live in the areas near the mangrove roots, which provide them nutrients. Mosquito Bay is the brightest bio bay in the world”
We quietly paddled in circles with the group, an occasional glowing blue fish looming below the surface.
“Ok, we’re up, follow me…do I have everyone? We are moving into the most active area of the bay. Remember, the more you agitate the water, the brighter they will glow.”
Water splashed and sloshed and glowed as the group began churning paddles back and forth…each yelling out the better technique for optimal glow.
“Check it out! Do back and forth!”
“Woahhh…look…twist it around!”
“Get together over here …let’s all thrash our paddles together!”
Iridescent blue glitter illuminated around every paddle, furiously frothing the water into light. Screams of laughter and wild splashing all around us. Kat advised us to gather around as she took a scoop of water between her palms and luminous cobalt sparkles melted through her fingers and down her arms.
“Remember we washed our hands before heading out? The bio bay is a delicate ecosystem. Oils from our hands, bug spray and sunscreen could cause damage. There is no swimming allowed in the bay to preserve this natural wonder.”
Kat gave the go ahead to scoop water with our hands and we wasted no time…splashing…scooping and stirring
through the cool liquid. I was breathless with excitement, gathering handfuls of the magical fairy dust water…watching the sapphire sparks oozing down my arms. Transfixed by the surreal glow, I could not stop my maniacal laughter from bubbling out of me. The faceless paddlers around me forming illuminated pools of glitter around their kayaks. There was wild splashing and screams of laughter all around us. Dozens of radiantly glowing fish below us were shooting gleaming sparks with their tails and swishing a glowing path. All around us was darkness. All below us was a surreal phosphorescent world of fairy lights and enchantment.
Back into the Puerto Rico Dark Night
Kat’s voice broke the spell of laughing and splashing.
“Alright, the next tour needs to access the bay, follow me and we will start heading back.”
All the air sagged from our elation balloons, as we began paddling back out into the open water. My head was spinning with images of the wonder I’d just witnessed. The sparks underneath us and around our paddles grew dimmer and the darkness welcomed us into it’s gloomy black cloak. The only sound was paddles sloshing. I shivered as the night wrapped its arms around my goose fleshed skin, I was suddenly aware of my clothes being wet and sticking from the splashing.
“Chicago, L.A.,Atlanta…do you copy?”
“Here, yes, here.”
” Indy, China, Italy, everyone with me?
The cool night swallowed us in as we paddled in silence back to the shore. We followed Kat’s voice and caught glimpses of her small figure standing on the base of her kayak, leading us through the darkness. We sloshed through the cold water, squinting into the shadows. Finally arriving in the tiny cove, flashlights on the shore became visible. We lined up in single file in the water, as Kat and the others dragged the kayaks out, scraping them across the sand.
Back in the light of the van, we could finally see the faces of Atlanta, China, LA, Indy and Italy as they excitedly recounted the magic we had witnessed. And Kat, our fearless guide, drove us confidently back to the beach.
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