Sunday, March 28, 2010

Go for the glow!

Flag of Puerto RicoWith only the slight glimmer of the moon and a few glow sticks to light the way a half-dozen kayaks slowly snake their way between the boats anchored in the bay and toward a narrow gap in the mangrove trees. Like knurled fingers, the roots of the mangroves grip the banks of the canal and pull it open to invite us in. The splish-swish of the oars break the stillness of the canal. A faint glow begins to wrap around them as they pierce the surface. Soon we'll be in the bioluminescent lagoon.

The light emitted by the dinoflagellates, a microscopic plankton, grows more intense with each stroke of the thirty minutes spent slowly wiggling our way up the canal to the lagoon. Entering the lagoon becomes an other-worldly experience.

The kayak and the slight breeze become afterthoughts as shooting stars appear below the surface. The lagoon is super-saturated with these dinoflagellates and everything, including fish speeding below, agitate them. Their response is to dazzle us with their light show.

The Takeaway ...

What and Where:
Bioluminescent Lagoon
Fajardo, Puerto Rico
+18° 21' 48.13", -65° 37' 32.19"
(18.363370, -65.625608)

Eco Action Tours
Phone: (787) 791-7509 and (787) 640-7385

Bioluminescence is brightest August through October and during a new moon.

Because it's amazing!

The only restaurant in the immediate vicinity is a greasy spoon-like fish place. It was quite busy so that may speak for its quality. Not being a fish eater myself I had to go back up the road a ways to find a small pizzeria on the side of the road. I'd advise either eating well before getting to the lagoon or bring a picnic lunch otherwise you may go hungry.

Bioluminescent lagoons with this level of intensity are rare in the world. Puerto Rico is home to three of them. The Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve surrounds the lagoon in Fajardo, on Puerto Rico's northeastern tip. As a protected wetland it is an ideal place for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of running a hand through the sparkling stardust in the warm waters of the lagoon. Though the park service frowns on people swimming in the lagoon, the occasional kayaker does “fall in” and is thrilled when millions of glowing pixies dance across their body. It is haunting and ethereal.

The warmer the water the brighter the bioluminescence. Though cooler water decreases the effect it can be seen pretty much year round ... with August through October usually being the best time to view. As with any light show the effect is more spectacular during a new moon or when the moon is obscured.

Guides on the tours provide in-depth knowledge of not only the lagoon but also the surrounding wetlands. The environmental sensitivity of bioluminescent lagoons is often stressed and is the main reason that kayaks, not motorboats, are the main form of transportation on the tours.

Bioluminescence, even at its brightest, is far too dim for photography. Images on the Internet are doctored to include the effect, though they do not do it justice. Enjoying the phenomenon can only be done in person and is well worth the trip.

There are numerous tour companies on the island offering treks for various prices. Despite arriving about a half-hour late I still happily recommend Eco Action Tours for the bioluminescent lagoon tour. These are family-friendly tours with all safety equipment provided. Our guide, Dixon, was knowledgeable and friendly ... making the experience one-in-a-million.

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