By Lauren Tjaden
Imagine a paddling journey through an enchanted land of shimmering blue-green water where dolphins, rays and manatees are mysteriously illuminated under Florida’s vast, starry sky.
While bioluminescence feels like a bit of magic, it’s not. But it is Mother Nature at her spectacular best.
Bioluminescence is simply light created by living organisms-- like fireflies, comb jellies, or in this case, too-tiny-to-see plankton called marine dinoflagellate --manufactured by chemical reactions inside the organism.
In the right places at the right times in Florida, the unassuming dinoflagellate are as thick as 200,000 to 300,000 in a single liter of water, making the water glow the color of a fluorescent blue-green glow stick. Any movement excites the organisms and causes them to shimmer, from a swimming fish to swaying sea grass to the movement of your hand through the water.
That’s where the magic comes in. When an enormous manatee glides by, lit up like a Christmas tree; or a school of fish looks like bright blue bottle rockets going off under the water; or you go for a swim and turn into a fairytale creature, you’ll understand what I mean.
Here's what you need to know to experience this epic Florida adventure.,,
Preparing for a Neon Florida Night
Sultry Florida nights that are ideal for bioluminescence are also a favorite with bugs, so wear lightweight long pants and a long-sleeved shirt for protection, and remember to bring insect repellent. You may get a little wet, so quick-drying clothes are a must, as are water shoes.
Timing is Everything
For a blockbuster bioluminescent experience, you need to go at the best time of year and on a night when conditions are right. The seasons listed below here apply to Central Florida, as that’s where you’ll find the most and brightest bioluminescence. Note that as you go further north or south that the seasons may differ. Even in Central Florida, always check with a guide or with local kayakers for current conditions, as they can vary.
Depending on how warm the weather is, you may start to see glowing plankton as soon as March, but they’ll be much dimmer at that time of year, perhaps just a sparkle in the water. May through November is dinoflagellates season, with its peak from June through October and July and August being the prime months.
A second bioluminescent event occurs in Florida during the colder months, from November through May, when Comb Jellies flaunt their vivid colors. These brilliant, oval-shaped animals use their rows of minuscule, comb-like plates to propel themselves through the water, creating a shimmering rainbow effect. They produce a dazzling, flashing blue-green light when they’re touched, and they always create unique colors, so each time you see them, it’s different.
Despite their name, these prehistoric sea creatures aren’t real jellyfish and they don’t sting.
For either kind of bioluminescence, the darker the night the better, so check the moon calendar before you book. During peak season, from July to August, the dinoflagellates are so bright that almost any night is fabulous.
A Word to the Wise
While you can access some areas without a guide, it’s smart to go with one – at least for the first time – even if you’re an experienced paddler. They’ll know the water conditions, the launches, and the best places to see bioluminescence.
Facebook groups for paddlers in each of Florida’s regions can provide a wealth of knowledge about local conditions and hotspots, and they’re usually more than happy to help with questions. Here are three groups:
A happy paddler is a paddler who plans ahead. Make reservations early, particularly during the prime viewing months.
Where To See Bioluminescence in Florida
Out-of-the-World Escapades on Florida’s Space Coast
The majority of Florida’s bioluminescent paddling takes place on the northern reaches of the Space Coast, famed for being home to Kennedy Space Center and its legendary missions to the great beyond. Situated against the Atlantic near the state's midsection, the area includes destinations like Cocoa Beach, Titusville, and Port and Cape Canaveral. It promises the longest stretch of beaches in the Sunshine State, a whopping 72 miles of them. A haven for nature and outdoor lovers, the Space Coast’s lack of development means less water and light pollution, making it easier to see bioluminescence.
Prime areas to see Space Coast bioluminescence include Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, comprised of some 140,000 acres of saltwater estuaries and hardwood hammocks that provide habitat for 15 federally threatened or endangered species as well as a spectacular array of birds.
Another beloved area is The Indian River Lagoon, made up of three waterways: the Banana River, the Indian River and the aptly-named Mosquito Lagoon. Hugged between the barrier islands of Florida’s eastern coast and the mainland, it holds bragging rights as the most biologically diverse estuary in North America. Designated an Outstanding Florida Water and an Estuary of National Significance, it’s brimming with mangrove wetlands and salt marshes sheltered from city lights.
Not to be outdone, north-central Brevard County’s Banana River Aquatic Preserve, bordered between Merritt Island on the west and the beach barrier island on the east, features a surface water area of roughly 30,000 acres. If you want to see manatees, this is the place to go.
There are a multitude of ways to experience these areas, so you’re sure to find the tour that’s just right for you—whether you’re looking for the most spectacular lights, an easy paddle, or something once-in-a-lifetime, like a swim in the bioluminescence.
For instance, BK Adventure offers a slew highly-acclaimed of bioluminescence tours into the area’s serene waters, including a tandem expedition, perfect for families, couples and friends; a tour in clear, glass-like kayaks, an experience so mind-blowing that it’s often described as ‘mystical’; and a sunset-bioluminescent combination paddle, where you’ll see nature light up in two radiant, different spectacles. It also delivers a raft trip for groups of six to eight people, or folks with kids; as well as an island tour, an easy paddle that gives you the chance to swim in the bioluminescence.
Here’s a list of area tour operators:
- Fin Expeditions
- BK Adventures
- A Day Away Kayak Adventures
- Cocoa Kayaking
- Calypso Kayaking
- Adventure Kayak of Cocoa Beach
- Wildlife Watersports
- Sobe Surf
- A1A Beach Rentals and Outdoor Center
- Banana River Boat Tours
Here’s a list of Space Coast kayak and canoe launches from Space Coast Paddling.
Swing into an Above-Par Adventure in Ponte Vedra Beach
North of St. Augustine in Ponte Vedra Beach, a destination synonymous with golf, you’ll find North Guana Outpost on Mickler Road. It boasts direct access to the Guana River and is only a short stroll to the beach at Mickler’s Landing, about two miles from the Intracoastal Waterway. It offers bioluminescent tours—rated as excellent --as well as stand up paddleboard and kayak rentals and sales, guided eco tours, SUP Yoga, fishing charters by kayak and paddleboard, and full moon paddles. Follow the links to find area kayak launch sites as well as information about prices, tours and hours.
Brilliant Bioluminescence in Tampa Bay
Wandering Adventures Kayak Company, operated out of St. Petersburg, offers bioluminescent tours into Safety Harbor from late June through late August three to five nights a week. It’s very bright, some nights just as bright as the space coast. Coopers Bayou Park, south of Safety Harbor, is another Tampa Bay location where paddlers report glorious bioluminescence.
Luminous Nights in Naples
The Naples Kayak Company offers the only bioluminescent paddling tour in southwest Florida, and it’s a doozy. Their Guided Kayak Sunset Bird Watching-Bioluminescence Tour starts with an intriguing journey into Rookery Bay, where approximately an hour before sunset birds from all over the area fly in from every direction to a particular island where they like to spend the night. Once the sun plunges down past the horizon and the sky darkens, the bioluminescent show begins. The trip is hallmarked by spectacularly beautiful, meandering mangrove trails and frequent appearances by dolphins.
And There’s More!
Bioluminescence occurs on coastlines in every corner of Florida, from the lagoons of Destin in the Northwest part of the state, to the flats of the Florida Keys on Florida’s southernmost tip—but often, it’s not widely advertised or consistent enough to find tours or hotspots that you can explore yourself.
If you’re interested in a trip, check with kayak rental and tours in the area in which you’ll be visiting to see if anything is available.