Cold Light, Black Night

Kayaking Florida's bioluminescent waters illuminates a nighttime kayak trip.

I always knew our waters were incredible but a recent kayak trip gave me new reason to think so. We launched our boats on the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge at Haulover Canal, which connects the Indian River Lagoon to Mosquito Lagoon. We drifted around a bit before dark, relishing the antics of manatees that were rolling around right next to our boats. To have a 2,000 pound animal that's as big as your kayak swim gently alongside is a remarkable experience.

A short time after sunset, we began to see the swirls from our paddles produce a glow in the water that was caused by bioluminescence - essentially "living lights" in the water. In some places in the ocean and estuaries, bioluminescent creatures are so abundant that any disturbance such as a boat, a fish or even a hand passing through the water can produce a shimmering light show.

In bioluminescence, electrons are excited by a very efficient chemical reaction that generates no heat at all, hence the name "cold light." Bioluminescent creatures are beautiful, fascinating and critical to the very existence of most marine life. They are also little known and under appreciated because so few people have the opportunity to see them with their own eyes.

As it got darker we discovered we could see almost everything in the water, from schools of darting fish to manatees and dolphins. Even the flow of water over the sea grass generated a ghostly radiance. Every movement produced a beautiful blue-green light. We slowly paddled east through the canal, fascinated with the brilliant wave patterns that formed as our kayaks sliced through the water.

There were 10 times more mullet in Mosquito Lagoon than there were in the Indian River where we started. As soon as we left the canal and paddled out over the shallow flats, schools of mullet exploded all around the kayaks - it looked like popcorn on the surface and fireworks down below. Mullet hurtled through the air, colliding with the boats, leaping over our bows and on several occasions smacking right into the paddlers themselves.

The combination of pitch-black darkness and emerald green splashes from airborne mullet, the meteoric streaks of fish that chose to swim instead of fly, the profusion of multi-colored light-sticks dangling from exuberant paddlers, the reflections of stars in the mirror-still water, persistent distant flashes of lightning, low rumbling thunder, and the taste and smell of salt-laden air was a marvelous cornucopia for the senses. It was a pleasure to just sit still and listen to shrieks of joy and laughter coming from the delighted kayakers - none, of course, had ever experienced anything like that this.

Looking down into the shallow water was like peering into a fairy land. Tiny luminous organisms scattered through the shimmering sea grass like flickering stars. Touching a floating mass of dead seaweed sent jagged fingers of blue-green light radiating across its surface. When I dragged my hand through the water and brought it out, my skin was covered with green flashing glitter. Sparkling water droplets smoldered in my lap and spilled down my legs. An iridescent stingray swam right by my kayak just under the surface of the water. I could tell it was a stingray because it had the perfect diamond shape of a sting ray, tail and all. Ghostlike, it slowly flapped through the water.

A chorus of screech owls accompanied us on the quiet paddle back. Bottle-nose dolphins streaked beneath the kayaks and burst from the water showering brilliant florescence. Bizarre looking blue crabs scuttled by, swimming sideways in the current with every appendage glowing. The crabs reminded me of Fizzies, a popular bubbling drink concoction from my childhood.

Fallen pines smoldered below the surface as the water streamed over them, forming perfectly outlined spectral tree images. Rocketing overhead, an enormous meteor split the night sky with a long, glittering tail that seemed to last forever. We could hear the echoes of other paddlers gasping in wonder and astonishment.

I would much rather float in a kayak on bioluminescent water than scream down the shore in a powerboat. Now this is truly exhilarating!

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