Google- Image of Mosquito Bay
Everything has to be right for the magic to happen in Mosquito Bay, on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico. The bay has to have access to the ocean to bring in salt water, but the passageway to the open ocean has to be small enough to restrict the flow. The bay must be shallow enough so that the water can evaporate and reach a much more concentrated salinity than the ocean itself. The bay has to be surrounded by mangrove forests, for the shed leaves provide the perfect nutrition to feed the magical creatures living in the bay. These leaves feed the billions of single-celled aquatic microorganisms called dinoflagellates (Pyrodinium bahamense) that are trapped and then thrive in Mosquito Bay. They cannot be seen with the naked eye, but at night, the concentrated billions in one place produce a magical blue-green glow when agitated, disturbed or touched in any way. These dinos are bioluminescent- their bodies react by producing light by a chemical reaction.
You cannot see them with the naked eye. They are so tiny that 200 to 300 of them could rest atop the head of a pin. They are so concentrated that 160,000 are contained in one liter of water! The dinoflagellates contain chlorophyll which captures light from the sun during the day through photosynthesis. Only a handful of places on the planet have the right conditions for these dinoflagellates to thrive but the Guinness Book of World Records in 2008 officially declared Mosquito Bay on Vieques Island the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world.
My husband, Todd and I did not come to this somewhat primitive island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, where life is similar to how life in the Caribbean once was before tourists discovered them, solely because of these microorganisms, but seeing them became the goal shortly after I learned of their existence.
I did not know at the time how challenging it was to even see this bioluminescence once you arrived in Vieques. First off, the moon phase has to coincide with your travel dates. The moon’s cast light makes seeing the creature’s magical glow almost non-existent and kayak tours do not even depart when the moon is big and bright- at least a week or two. Any changes in the delicate ecosystem can disturb the healthy balance of the bay. Wind disturbs them. A hard rain dilutes the salinity level and could take a week or two until they will glow again. Hurricane Maria made the bay go dark for two years!
There are half a dozen tour companies that offer evening kayak trips into Mosquito Bay, which is named after a legendary pirate ship, “El Mosquito,” not the annoying insect. The companies are supposedly monitored and limited to a certain amount. Each company has their designated area in the bay to lead customers so it doesn’t get crowded. I chose the company, Travisias, in the nearby town of Esperanza, as it received high Trip Advisor ratings.
Since everyone on our trip was a couple, and in a two-person kayak, our guide, Raul, asked who was interested in taking him along in a three-person boat. No one was quick to offer so I jumped right in. I knew having a guide in our boat would be advantageous- we would learn more, it would be easy to ask questions, and our experience would be enriched with his presence. I also booked slots on the 9 pm tour as opposed to the 7 because I knew the sky would be darker. Turns out, it was a better choice, Raul said. And our particular night, was the exact date of a new moon. “It was perfect,” Raul said. Sitting in the middle of the kayak, I did not get to paddle, but I did get to look and play in the water, which turned out to be a brilliant decision.
Raul loved the bay with all his heart and every night leading a trip into this magical place was not too often. It never got old. He was like a delighted child, showing us his favorite ways to light up the dinos. He took his kayak paddle and when he made long sweeps underwater, a beautiful, phthalo blue color glowed in its path, and lit up the water like stars. He dipped his hand in the bay and held it in the air as stars trickled down from his fingers, and the water ran across his forearm. I played in the water by my side, with fingers separated. I pulled my hand through the water, back and forth, lighting up the dinos. Then I noticed that the water sloshing in the cup holders on this sit-on-top kayak had stars in them too!
Overhead, the night sky was very dark, except for the amazing display of stars. The Milky Way was so visible and packed with stars that the sky looked blurry. Stars above and stars below. Because I was the duffer in the middle, all I did was play in the water, pulling my hand through as the dinos lit up. Fish swam by and stars trailed their path. The other kayaks around me looked as if thin gauzy fabric of blue glowing lights trailed from their bows. A few times Raul got our group of 8 double kayaks to “raft up”- hold onto each other’s boats’ gunwales in a large group while he taught us fascinating facts about the bay and the dinos. Most of the homes around the bay are sensitive to the need for darkness and so have red outdoor lights, which preserve better night vision, as opposed to white ones.
Raul said that during a hard rain, Mosquito Bay is a wonder to behold. The raindrops pounding the water make the dinos light up, in the bay and in the splashing water above the bay’s surface. Afterwards, however, the bay is ruined for the rainwater dilutes the saline content and drives the dinos lower where the heavier saltier water sits.
The 45-minutes we paddled around the bioluminescent bay passed far too quickly. I could have remained there in that wonderland all night long, multiple nights even. As Todd and Raul paddled me back to the land, my hands trailing in the star-filled water, I understood how this natural wonder has been compared to a walk on the Great Wall of China or a gaze at the Great Pyramids of Giza, which I have done both. I’ll take these magical dinos any day over a manmade wonder, and I consider myself so much richer for having trailed my hands through this magical bioluminescent bay. Put it on your life list, but like booking a trip to above the Arctic Circle in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights, everything has to be perfect to have the magic happen and no man has control over that whatsoever. When the magic does happen by chance, it sure makes you feel blessed.
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