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The Bioluminescent Bay of Laguna Grande in Puerto Rico

by Silke Elzner

We glide over the pitch black surface of the bay. All around us along the shore, tiny lights jump up and down in the darkness, neon signs of restaurants, car headlights. Our oars make soft splashing sounds as we follow the line of kayaks down the coast. With each pull, tiny droplets of water splash onto my naked legs. It is warm and balmy on my skin.

With every metre that we move forward in this black nothingness, the excitement becomes more tangible. Right now, there is still a red streak of light on the horizon over the sea. But once the sun has set for the day we expect the black sea underneath our boat to change into a sparkling phenomenon like no other.

We are just metres from the famous Laguna Grande in Puerto Rico, and this is the home of the bioluminescent plankton.

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We are all set and ready to explore Laguna Grande!
We are all set and ready to explore Laguna Grande!

Laguna Grande in Puerto Rico: Home of the Bioluminescent Plankton

The bioluminescent plankton makes it especially easy for us today. Normally, a kayak trip to see this nature phenomenon in Puerto Rico’s Laguna Grande involves a start from Seven Seas beach and a longer kayak trip down the coast to the neighbouring bay. We would have then to beach the kayak again and carry it over a muddy flat into the lagoon to find the sparkling plankton.

Since a couple of weeks ago, this is no longer necessary. For some unknown reason, the bioluminescent plankton has entered the open sea in high concentrations. This saves us from carry the kayak to the lagoon and means we can just stay put and wait offshore for the sun to set.

Waiting for the sun to set is actually the worst part of the experience, because we are impatient. To this moment, I have to no idea what I am actually waiting for at all. This is quite unlike me, because normally I do a lot of research before I commit to a tour. But this time I didn’t look at a single photo of the bioluminescent plankton because I want it to be a surprise.

And so we are waiting with our guide and the group, paddling this way and that way in this dark Puerto Rican bay and not knowing exactly what to expect next.

The wait is the worst part of the experience. What is that we are going to see?
The wait is the worst part of the experience. What is that we are going to see?

A Sparkling Shower Under Water

It feels like eternity that we are waiting in our kayaks with nothing exciting to see. But then, all of a sudden, there are single tiny sparkles in the sea under our boat. Tiny specks of light are rising up from the deep darkness like shiny bubbles as soon as our oar cuts through the water. It looks a little bit as if somebody had lit a sparkler underwater. And it is over so quickly that you are tricked to believe that the light had only been a dream.

We paddle on and get some distance between us and the group, searching for even more bioluminescent plankton on the way. The further we go, the more the sea lights up around us. We stop paddling and let our kayak come to a halt, dip our hands into the water to trigger more of these delicate sparkles. The light flows through our fingers like liquid star shine, it is just beautiful.

It is impossible to take a picture of the bioluminescence. I try filming with my GoPro, but to no avail. I am not adequately equipped to capture this soft light in complete darkness, it is so fleeting like the battling of an eyelid. Without the distraction of camera equipment, we are here to simply enjoy the moment. This little miracle under us in the deep black sea is just for us, and only for this brief moment.

Bioluminescent Bay Puerto Rico
Millions of sparkle light up as we dip our fingers into the water. The touch triggers the plankton to glow in the dark. Photo by Alvaro Bejarano on Pixabay

Leaving This Life With a Final Burn

A wise man once said: “It is better to burn out than to fade away.” By the looks of it, this is the motto that the plankton of Laguna Grande is living by as well. Because as they come in touch with our oars, with our kayak, or fingertips, they die, and when they die they give off this one final sparkling light. A last pulsating sign of life before it slips away.

This is why we have to stay in constant movement, always on the quest to find more sparkle. Of course, it is not our intention to kill the plankton, but there is nothing we can do about it, as the organisms are so fragile that they burn out with the slightest touch. We don’t need to worry though: tomorrow, there will me millions more, illuminating the bay with new light.

It is believed that the bioluminescent plankton is neither poisonous nor dangerous to humans, at least studies cannot prove that there was a reason for concern. The tour guide even suggests that we jump into the water from our kayaks to swim in the sea of light. But we don’t wear swimming costumes and thus prefer to stay dry. Instead, we drift in our kayak for a little while longer, just enjoying the darkness of the night, the warmth of the breeze, the smells of the forest, and the light flashes in the water.

As we are waiting for the sun to set
As we are waiting for the sun to set we are headed for the area close to Laguna Grande where the bioluminescent plankton was last seen.

What is Bioluminescence Anyway?

First of all, bioluminescence is one of these words which I find really hard to spell. So many weird ‘s’s and ‘c’s and expected ‘e’s… This is why I will now copy this to my clipboard, so I can simply copy and paste. Done!

Anyway, bioluminescence in layman terms means that there are tiny organic lifeforms and fungi that may be able to emit light based on certain biochemical processes. They do this for various reasons, mostly to attract mating partners, but also as a warning signal for predators. The best known example is probably the firefly, but we also saw beautiful glow worms doing the same simple trick in New Zealand’s Waitomo Caves.

Not just plankton and very small lifeforms make use of their bioluminescent abilities. There are also a number of jellyfish, corals, deep sea fishes and mushrooms who can glow in the dark.

Not long now until the the world around us is wrapped in complete darkness
Not long now until the the world around us is wrapped in complete darkness.

A Very Rare Phenomenon

There are only five places on this planet where you can find bioluminescent plankton, three of which are located in Puerto Rico. Apart from Laguna Grande, which is in the north of the island, there is also La Puargera in the southwest as well as Mosquito Bay on the neighbouring island of Vieques.

You can also find bioluminescent plankton in other countries, namely in Jamaica and in the Maldives.

The species who creates the sea sparkle in Puerto Rico is called dinoflagellates, tiny organisms that resemble a little bit the letter T. These dinoflagellates actually live all over the world, including the bioluminescent varieties, but there can rarely be found in such highly concentrated quantities like in Puerto Rico.

The Bioluminescence in Laguna Grande, Puerto Rico is a very rare spectacle.
The Bioluminescence in Laguna Grande, Puerto Rico is a very rare spectacle. Photo by Alvaro Bejarano on Pixabay

An Unforgettable Experience

It doesn’t happen very often these days that we feel one with nature, but this evening just off the coast in Puerto Rico was pretty special. The warm water, the salt in the air and admittedly the Margarita from the bar before we boarded our kayak set the stage for this once-in-lifetime-experience.

Just a word of warning: The bioluminescence of the plankton is not as blue or as carpet-like as seen in many photos that you can find on the internet. Since I couldn’t take pictures myself, I had to rely on stock photos, and the ones you can see in this post are the most accurate ones I could find. The only difference is that the light extinguishes in an instant.

If you are looking for more information about this fascinating nature experience as well as current information on local conditions in Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent bays, check out this very good article over at blog Workationing.com.

I recommend you book your bioluminescent bay tour well in advance to avoid disappointment. Check out the following tours by our partners:

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