Fajardo, Puerto Rico
As the current picked up speed, our two-man kayak hurtled through a narrow mangrove passage on Las Croabas Lagoon. We dug our paddles frantically into the churning water to keep from losing control. Then we saw the magic for ourselves. Each stroke of our paddles unleashed a burst of frothy white light that whooshed up from beneath the water's surface. Fireflies of the sea.
It wasn't until that moment that the whole wacky night seemed worthwhile. My fiancé, Doug, and I had just spent two frantic, wet and cold hours on a kayaking tour on a bioluminescent bay off the eastern side of this Caribbean island. At the time, we thought they should have paid us to go. In retrospect, the experience was unique and we'd probably never duplicate it.
On an earlier trip to Puerto Rico, we had heard about the island's "bio-bays" and the water's eerie glow, created by single-celled microorganisms called bioluminescent dinoflagellates, which emit a flash of bluish light when agitated at night. Some guidebooks claim -- I don't believe it, though -- a high concentration of the plankton can produce enough light to read a book by.
Fajardo's Las Croabas Lagoon is one of three environmentally sensitive bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico, one of the few places in the world to see the natural phenomenon. The others are Mosquito Bay, off the eastern island of Vieques, and La Parguera, near Guanica in the southwest.
Doug and I were curious enough about the experience, which some have described as "floating through stardust," that we booked a tour with a Fajardo company that offers several types of outdoor excursions.
It was 7:30 p.m., and a dark lid of rain clouds shrouded the city when our guide, Peter, pulled up at the hotel where we were staying, the Fajardo Inn. We squeezed into a van packed with couples, teens and parents.
Then Peter drove at full tilt toward Fajardo's waterfront. As he fielded cellphone calls and swerved to avoid oncoming traffic, we passed around a clipboard with a sign-up sheet releasing the company from liability for any mishaps. Ten minutes later, we pulled up to the curb along a busy street across from several open-air fish restaurants. A van was already parked there, and a man was off-loading kayaks from a trailer.
As we piled out of the van, the stench hit us. The noxious odor from the lagoon was the result of a chemical reaction that occurs when rain hits mangrove leaves, Peter said. But I was skeptical, because the smell had hints of sewage and wastewater.
Peter distributed damp life jackets to our group. Then under a streetlight, he gave us a hasty lesson on how to use a paddle. Keep to the right, he told us, because other groups of kayakers would be coming toward us as they returned from Las Croabas Lagoon.
Just as Doug and I stripped off our outer clothing and shoes and slipped on our life jackets, we heard thunder and saw bolts of lightning. The wind picked up, and a cold January rain began to fall, chilling us. We gingerly picked our way barefoot down the dark embankment through oozing mud (we hoped) and over the pebble-strewn shallows to our kayak.
Was it too late to turn back?
But we didn't want to wimp out after spending the $90 excursion fee for the two of us. Once all 11 kayaks were afloat, Peter told everyone to proceed single file, using the small reflective circle on the stern of the kayak in front of us as a guide. Not every kayak had the circle, so we often paddled blindly.
Our group headed for the opening of a narrow channel through a mangrove swamp. Ahead, paddles flailed wildly in all directions like spastic windmills as our fellow kayakers spun in circles while trying to keep their craft moving upstream. Several crashed into the mangroves.
In the distance, we heard someone yell "derecha" (right). Thinking it was Peter directing us to turn right (rather than stay to the right) one kayak team made a 90-degree turn and ending up crosswise in the channel. That precipitated a five-kayak pileup. As I tried to push our kayak away from the jam, I inadvertently speared another kayaker in the ribs with my paddle, nearly knocking him out of his seat.
What Peter initially had described as an easy, 15-minute paddle to Las Croabas Lagoon stretched into 30 minutes of chaos, panic and commotion, punctuated by claps of thunder. By the time we reached the lagoon, we were soaked and exhausted.
At that moment, the storm eased and the clouds parted, allowing moonlight to penetrate. Peter tied all 11 kayaks together and then launched into a rapid-fire spiel, interrupted by cellphone calls from his office, on how bioluminescence works. As Peter asked for any questions, someone called out, "Will there be a quiz now?"
Mine was simple: "Where is the bioluminescence?"
Peter replied, "Well, it was here last night, but it must have moved."
For the next 20 minutes, Peter used a paddle to pole our flotilla of kayaks around Las Croabas Lagoon in search of the critters. The moonlight created a glare that made it impossible to see the luminescent light emitted by tiny plankton under the surface.
Eventually, he dipped his hand into the water, roiled it and was rewarded by a faint milky glow.
Peter urged everyone to jump into the lagoon. Nobody budged at first, then a few slipped out of their kayaks into the water and began moving their arms and legs to produce faint, underwater shimmers of light. It was unimpressive.
Peter untied our kayaks and directed us to head back to the launch area. More bumper-boat collisions ensued, and the swift tide accelerated our speed. But by now we knew what to look for, and our bioluminescent buddies didn't disappoint us.
It was like paddling through seltzer water, and we made wide arcs with our paddles to unleash the glow from hundreds of thousands of plankton.
It was almost, well, exhilarating.