Lessons from a Glowing Fish
A luminescence experience in one of the most magical places I’ve been in my life.
It was a slightly overcast day with light showers in Vieques, a small island of Puerto Rico. By dusk, the gray clouds shaped away and a waning crescent moon made itself visible in the sky. I could still feel the cold drops of a drizzling rain touching my face. At a small square by the sea-shore, I was anxiously waiting for Delmar, a tour guide who would navigate us through glowing waters at the Bioluminescent Bay. Delmar was late but came. He was wearing a rain jacket and holding a beer can. His long hair was wet, and he came muddy barefoot.
After a slow and short walk, we got into his rickety old SUV. Delmar’s explanatory part of the tour ranged wildly over energy vortices, the likely locations of earth chakras, microbiology, and Caribean history as we drove toward the bay a few minutes west of town. He was still drinking his beer when said:
— I am the man of the waters. I’ll take you to see the light.
The passengers looked at each other in the hopes he didn’t mean the light of death. We laughed. I was feeling a little skeptical about that tour.
By the time we arrived at the bay, the drizzling weather was gone, the sky was covered with stars and the shoreline was entirely dark. We got our kayaks, paddles, and life jackets. I made sure to carry my goPro to take pictures.
The bay shore is contoured by a muddy mangrove forest which creates a perfect environment for luminescent planktons. Barefoot, we walked over clay and crabs to deliver our kayaks to the waters. The softness of the shore and the darkness of the night helped me ignore the “excessive presence” of mud. We were excited; it was a perfect night. The breeze was smoothly blowing the waters, making the surface to glow. Delmar started by explaining how the planktons produce lights and why the Bay has such high concentration of dinoflagellates.
A combination of factors creates the necessary conditions for bioluminescence: red mangrove trees surround the water; a complete lack of modern development around the bay, the water is cool enough and deep enough, and a small channel to the ocean keeps the planktons in the bay.
He knew what he was talking about. After all, his name, Delmar, means “from the sea.” He was the man of the waters and with him came the first lesson:
Suddenly, Delmar screamed: — “Look at that fish! That was big!”. I did not understand what he meant and ignored it. It was very dark, and it was not possible to see fish out there.
— Can’t you see it? That is going towards you.
What was coming towards me? I looked around and… I finally saw it. There was a large luminous fish next to us. When I looked around again, I saw many of them in different sizes. The water was full of phosphorescent fishes swimming in all directions. I was stunned. I could not believe it. Then, I saw a stingray that, under those waters, looked like a jellyfish. Delmar was right. Those fishes were there, and they were dazzling and gorgeous. They were like seagulls flying under sparkling waters mirroring the sky.
I closed my eyes for a second to feel the energy, and then I looked upwards to contemplate the sky. There I found the Milky way, sublime and bright, in synergy with the luminescent waters. The duo produced the lights that granted us a spectacular night view. That magical moment opened my eyes and my heart to see lights I have never seen before.
I quickly took my GoPro, set it to night mode and started taking pictures of the waters, the fishes, and the sky. Captain Delmar warned me that it was ineffectual.
He told me to forget the camera and live the present. However, I could not resist. I wanted to share this moment with others; I wanted to tell people about it because no words would be able to describe what I was seeing. There is no reference in my world to compare with it. I have never seen something like that before. I spent part of the tour taking pictures and recording videos. Later, I learned that I was wasting precious time.
I noticed that the faster I paddled, the more light I would see. The phosphorescence in the surface layers of water in the bay is caused by a micro-organism, the dinoflagellate Pyrodinium bahamense, which glows whenever the water is disturbed, leaving a trail of neon blue.
Sometimes, I would bring some water into my boat and play with it. I would see bright spots all over that would eventually turn off when settling down.
Holding a little bit of water and moving fast would make my hands to glow. I spent a long time playing with that.
Towards the end of the tour, a fish jumped into my boat. The darkness didn’t allow me to fully see it, even so I could feel the fish frenetically slapping my legs. I wanted to leave immediately, although standing up could turn the canoe. I could not move and I didn’t know what to do. I was a little scared, honestly. It didn’t take long and I started to scoop water into the boat to make the fish glow so I could see him.
It was a small fish that was probably more scared than me. Carefully, I helped the little fish to swing back to the gleaming waters.
The show was over, and we had to return our gear. Back to the car, Delmar offered us beers then, together, we cheered to the beauty of nature. I was inspired by the experience.
While sailing in these latitudes on one very dark night, the sea presented a wonderful and most beautiful spectacle. There was a fresh breeze, and every part of the surface, which during the day is seen as foam, now glowed with a pale light. The vessel drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorus, and in her wake she was followed by a milky train. As far as the eye reached, the crest of every wave was bright, and the sky above the horizon, from the reflected glare of these livid flames, was not so utterly obscure, as over the rest of the heavens.
– Charles Darwin describing the bioluminescence.
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