Swim with Bioluminescent Plankton in Puerto Rico? Check.

We hop into a pickup bed filled with sandy, damp life jackets, and they bump against our shins on the dirt road to the beach.

Melissa and I are headed to Mosquito Bay in Vieques, one of most dense bioluminescent bays in the world. It’s teeming with microscopic organisms that light up when they’re disturbed. There are only eleven “biobays” in the world, nine of which are in Puerto Rico.

Ricky, one of the guides, is riding in back with us. He says his job never gets old.

He tells us about raindrops that seem to spark as they hit the water, how schools of fish leave light streams in their wake. I imagine a giant, glowing shark silhouette swimming toward our tiny kayak. Hmm.

We arrive at the beach, and don our gritty life jackets.

The air is suddenly spiky. “What is that?” I ask Melissa. She points to a tiny grain of sand on my forearm. It bites me. We’re covered in vicious, biting mites. Does the guide have any insect repllant? He does, but we can’t use it if we want to swim, it kills the plankton. Baby oil is fine though, and it works great! Does he have any of that? No.

We wade into the water to escape while our guides ready the kayaks.

I’ve adventurously stuffed all my camera equipment into plastic trash bags inside my backpack. Climbing into the open-top kayak, I decide not to think about what might happen if we tip over, because we aren’t going to tip over. Right, Melissa? Melissa, has never been in a kayak before, but we’ll be fine. I’m certain we’ll be fine. Right, Melissa? Melissa avoids eye contact.

We paddle out to the bay and tie the kayaks together to wait for nightfall. Our guide tells us about the dinoflagellates we’ve come to see, single-cell organisms that have the ability to photosynthesize. They’re technically neither plant nor animal. Cool.

I ask the guide if he’ll take our photos when we get in the water, maybe a little video. He warns me that it’s nearly impossible to capture the glow on film. Now he tells me.

We climb out of the boat, and gradually a soft glow gathers around our limbs as we tread water. A few moments later there are sparks and glowing bubbles flying from our fingertips. It looks exactly as you’d imagine pixie dust would look if you were to encounter Tinkerbell in the wild. “I can fly!” I say. I can’t stop laughing. Melissa sweeps her arms through the water and whispers, “I’m a priiiiincess!” We make light saber sounds, hum dramatic overtures as we conduct under water. I lift my hands above the surface, and loose-diamonds tumble down my arms.

As it turns out, our guide was right about the photos. I lightened one so you could get an idea of what the glow looks like. I’m going to blow this up to wall-mural size and hang it above my bed:

I want so much to show you what it was like, but you have to see for yourself. It is amazing. Here’s a little video of us riding back in the truck:

If you can, you have to do this. Go find your swimsuit. Get in the truck.

(Our tour was through Vieques Tours. They were nice, and one of the guides bought the two of us popsicles while we waited for the cars to arrive. Aww. 787.447.4104)

Many thanks to the folks at Intel. They’re making my site more interesting by sponsoring my Mighty Life List over the next few months. They paid for this trip of a lifetime, and I can’t thank them enough.

37 thoughts on “Swim with Bioluminescent Plankton in Puerto Rico? Check.

  1. Here’s my question of the day. How did you KNOW this was among the 100 things you most wanted to do before your life was over?


  2. I traveled to Vieques a few years ago and this was an experience not to be missed. Glad you got to go, and got it paid for. I’m envious, of course.


  3. Too fun! Go Maggie!

    I have swum with luminescents near a small island off of Massachussetts, not far from Martha’s Vineyard. It was soooo beautiful, but the water was so cold and dark that this southern girl was quite worried about the possibility of sharks – but not enough to get out of the water.


  4. I never even knew about this until you mentioned it. Thanks for *illuminating* me! 🙂

    I will consider doing this, but getting in dark water is a bit intimidating. That imaginary shark silhouette follows me around to!


  5. Too bad the photos didn’t turn out. I’ve seen bioluminescent plankton around the Gulf Islands on the West Coast of Canada. It’s pretty cool to see the water light up when you touch it, I imagine the whole bay must have been awesome.


  6. first of all, props for taking posting pictures of yourselves in swimsuits on the internet! you ladies look fabulous, and what an amazing adventure!

    this trip is going on my life list, but so is the bit about being photographed in my swimsuit. 🙂


  7. when i lived in encinitas, there were times when plankton plumes would come through and you could swim like this. it was absolutely amazing. it’s definitely one of those moments that makes you feel just like a kid again!


  8. I started planning my Nov PR trip back in Feb and this was one of the top things I wanted to do, this just seals the deal AND eliminates the work of finding a tour, etc. Sweet!!!

    Can’t wait to swim with the little non-animal, non-planty things!



  9. Awesome. I would have loved to hear your guides talk about it later when you were gone. Light saber sounds (grin). Ms. M your skin and taste in bathing suits are EX-actly like mine. I salute you fellow non-sunbather. Keep rolling down your list, this is fun.


  10. i seriously can’t believe you put pictures of yourselves in bathing suits ON THE INTERNET. you are far braver than i will ever be.


  11. jealousy!!!! too bad about the pictures, though maybe that’s the appeal. 🙂 i need to go myself! i love your descriptions! diamonds! light sabers! so sweet. 🙂


  12. I love your spirit, girl! This is so inspiring – I wish I could be as creative as you are when I’m writing things on my Life List. I’d like to know, too – how’d you ever come up with this one?


  13. Another place to go swim with the glow is Southern Maryland (at least in the St. Mary’s river) – in late May/early June there are comb jellies that glow when “disturbed” as well. And they do not sting, so you don’t have to worry about that.

    But yes, definitely something worth doing wherever you do it!


  14. P.S. The other plus about swimming in a river (the St. Mary’s river is mesohaline, so that’s probably why there are comb jellies in it) is NO SHARKS! 🙂


  15. My life will not be complete without this experience! I have heard about this in a few science classes before, it sounds completely enchanting!


  16. Ohhhhhhhhhh gooooooooooooddddddddddddddddddddddddd. I can’t believe you can’t get it on film. I’m (sad). But, I’m really really glad you got to do this. And tell us about it. And I can’t wait for the next thing. Hooray.


  17. Well, as you’ve ticked off another notch on the life list, I’ve just been inspired to add one more to my own. I love those “you just had to be there, man!” moments!
    Your photo makes me think of The Little Mermaid where Sebastian is singing “you gotta kiss deh girl, wooah woah!” as their little boat goes through the glowing water. Very cool!


  18. i’ve seen dinoflagellates right here in NH. at night scuffing our feet in the dry sand we left our glowing footprints behind.


  19. I took scuba lessons in college, swimming in the Hood Canal in Washington — cold water! We did a night swim there and the bios were everywhere. It was a bright, big moon and you could see it shining down through the water — the bios sparkled like stars coming off our hands and feet. It was truly magical.


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