A billion tinkerbelles

There are three “bioluminescence bays” in Puerto Rico – unique in that the glittery plankton are visible year round.  Last night, the nerd herd at this workshop made the trek to Fajardo, on the northeast end of the island.

Since the workshop is focused on bio-inspired and bio-derived electronics and optics, naturally the final speaker of the morning session was an international expert on natural bioluminescence in water critters.

Gathering in the hotel lobby around 4pm, wearing water sandals and swim gear, clutching boxed dinners to be eaten on the transport vans, we looked like a troupe of over-grown school children headed out on a field trip.  About an hour in the shuttle from San Juan to Fajardo, further east.

We suited up in life jackets, and got a 15 minute kayaking instruction session from Miguel, our guide.  Interesting that the kayak lesson was one third of the time we devoted to the lecture from the marine biologist.  We’re geeks, not athletes. 

Heading out at dusk, we crossed the marina in double kayaks, and entered a narrow channel encrusted with mangroves.  Being dorks, we naturally did a bit of horsing around en route.  Cries of “ramming speed”, bad pirate impersonations and the occasional “But Captain, I’m giving her all I’ve got…” floated down the column of nerd-kayakers.

We reached La Laguna Grande, just at sunset.  We pulled our kayaks close (into a floating mycellium…. Did i mention?  We’re nerds!) while Miguel explained the phenomena of the bay.  Billions of dinoflagellates (plankton) live in the waters, and are fed by B12 from the tannin released by the mangroves.  When you poke them?  They glow.

Darkness arrived, and Miguel instructed us to reach deeply into the water.  Yowza!  It was as though we had super powers!  A trail of glowing neon-blue water around our hands.  Digging the paddles down deep, making swirls and twirls, we scattered across the lagoon to play with the tinker-creatures.

The return trip was fabulous!  Going against a gentle current, it was enough of a paddle to work up a little sweat.  Pitch black in spots, we’d stop to let an incoming kayak troupe pass, grabbing mangrove branches.  The only thing you can really see is the glow in the water as your paddle moves the critters, and the tiny red glow stick on the kayak in front of you…

Poking the roots with a hand or a paddle yielded individual sparkles.  Grabbing a handful of the water in the pitch black night, you could see flashes and pops as the annoyed and disrupted micro-organisms did their glowing best to defend themselves against big, goofy invaders!

Mesmerizing…. i was in geek heaven!  And yet again, on the sleepy return to the hotel, i found myself thinking “damn.  i have a really good job…”

image found here – and was the closest to what i saw last night.  It’s very difficult to photograph the blue glow – and many photos online seem to be enhanced.  My guess is this one was done with a slow shutter speed…

21 thoughts on “A billion tinkerbelles

  1. I was saw a cave filled with a gazillion tiny bioluminescent spiders. Trippy. Makes me strangely happy that this kind of wonder still lives in the world.

  2. another thing to add to my list of things to do, sugar! ;~D xoxoxo

    (paddle in a bioluminescent bay, not your job, i mean. i’m working at doing as little as possible these days.)

  3. that sounds pretty effing cool, shoulda did a bong hit before you left… i like the line about overgrown school children too, made me smile, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

  4. We did that in Puerto Rico last year, too. Isn’t it great? Your description is very good, and it’s hard to describe! And no pictures ever really show it. I wanted pics so badly when we were there, but nothing worked. It rained on us while we were in the lagoon, didn’t matter a whit. Maybe even enhanced it because the raindrops glowed for a second when they hit the water.

  5. dolce – it was a sense of wonderment, rare to this old crusty broad… embassing admission: i cried a little in amazement…

    savannah – it’s near by, relatively inexpensive, and a great tropical getaway… and the people are delicious and fabulous and friendly! i’ll be back to puerto rico. no passport required…

    kono – no drugs (although a little psylocibin would have hit the spot!). the level of nervous chatter was just as high as if it were a field trip! only thing missing? the kid doing the armpit-fart orchestrations…. although i DID think about it, i’m a little rusty!

    writerdood – worth the trip… i’ve seen many amazing things in my life, but this almost defies description. breath taking… and cheap!

    DP – one of my italian colleagues said he’d seen it before in the mediterranean – rare, unpredictable. he says the italians say “the sea is in love”. i about died in his arms at the description… i will never tire of natural miracles!

    beth – i thought this post completely sucked – i can’t find the words to describe this thing! the pictures? not even close! ethereal, creepy, magical. i seriously did cry a bit on the paddle back – through pitch black night, watching magical critters light up for my personal entertainment! when it started raining, we were already back in the harbour – so i couldn’t see the glow, but i’m sure i’d have lost it… again.

  6. wow – that looks amazing! Can I do a crash course in geekdom, I think I want to change jobs.

    PS: I read on Rassles blog that water shoes are OUT. Does that include water sandals I wonder?

  7. I’m jealous, even though I’ve had a couple of nice nature trips in the last year or so. I think the post is excellent. There is just no way to describe magic in words or pictures.

  8. it sounds beautiful and majestic and makes you believe in a higher power of awesomeness to create such amazing things.
    Did you see that Gnu got mad at you and decided you shouldn’t be the only one with grand adventures… He’s one upping you and heading to outback South Africa to be with the Girl…you dared him…didn’t you???

    Both of you left me in this god forsaken place called Ohio where all 4 seasons hit in one day at this time of year..Pfft.. to both of you..=)

  9. unbearable banishment – yes. it was work. i suck. deal with it…

    25bar – it was amazing!

    nursemyra – if something is out? nerds haven’t gotten the message yet. i LIVE in my teva sandals all summer long. i don’t care about in/out, just so long as my toes are happy!

    chris – i’ll never be a travel writer. far from it. i’m a dork, who has somehow managed to maintain a sense of awe at stuff that i can explain, but still rocks me back!

    hisqueen – gnu has earned this adventure! i know the joy of having a kid launched halfway around the world – his is gone for 2 years! can’t wait to hear of his adventures!

  10. I learned to row, as in “crew” on Lake Union here in Seattle. Since it was an evening class we were of course out in the dark. One particularly gorgeous evening while rowing, I was distracted by the glow in the water that our oars left. It was an amazing thing to see, the trails of green in the dark dark water. I totally geek out over stuff like this.

  11. stephanie – this is one for your ‘one of these days’ list… the bay in Vieques still allows swimming. while not great for the ecosystem, there you can make ‘water angels’ and spit out bits of water that glow blue… tempting…

    silverstar – i worry about karma. i’ve done nothing in life to deserve this….

    syncopated eyeball – impossible to photograph. lots of folks were trying and apparently failing. magic.

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