Vieques Stories and Tips

Kayaking the Bioluminescent Bay

Mosquito Bay Photo, Vieques, Puerto Rico

Even though we had something exciting planned for every day of our short sojourn to Puerto Rico, kayaking the bioluminescent bay was the activity we were most excited about. Visiting the old Spanish forts of Old San Juan and admiring the Flaming Lady in Ponce’s Art Museum were both exciting, but what could beat jumping into a bay and watching it turn from midnight blue to glowing green in a span of seconds?

Since we were such a large group (there were fourteen of us), we had our tour booked long before we arrived on Vieques. All we had to do when we arrived on the island was tell Vieques Tours where to pick us up from—which happened to be Sun Bay, one of Vieques’ Caribbean beaches (which I have reviewed in another entry) that was very close to the bioluminescent bay. Vieques Tours then sent their own driver in a van—which conveniently seated fifteen people—right at 5:30.

To access Mosquito Bay, we had to travel down a dirt road that left the main road very close to Sun Bay. Driving on dirt roads in a fifteen-person van at the best of times isn’t the easiest of tasks, but this was complicated by the fact that the local department of transport had arrived the week before and dumped giant piles of dirt to fill the potholes that pockmarked the roads…and then never quite got around to filling the holes in. It made driving down the road somewhat like doing the slalom, minus the downhill slope. The driver had to bob and weave between each pile, often hitting the potholes instead. We certainly would have done much better in a motorcycle or sports car, although it would have been interesting to see all of us fit on/in either of those!

When we finally reached the curve in the road where three trailers of kayaks were parked, we unloaded from the van and were told to wait for the other group of people on our trip, whom the driver was now off to pick up. We spent quite a while waiting around, to the point that we wondered if we were actually going to have a tour at all. Fortunately, this did give us time to perform "camera surgery," as Cristina’s dad called it. My camera’s underwater case’s waterproof seal had stretched and had rendered my case no longer waterproof, so Emily, Veena, and I spent a surprising amount of time trying to twist and knot it so it made the case just waterproof enough to get bioluminescent pictures. The sun was slowly sinking behind the small hills of Vieques when tour guides and the rest of the group arrived.

After being fitted out with our own paddles and lifejackets, we grouped ourselves into twos and began loading ourselves into double-person kayaks. Emily and I were the second kayak on the water, so we spent a little bit of time trying to learn how to paddle in unison—but we spent most of the time attempting to stay out of the masses of mangroves lining the shore. More than once, we found ourselves frantically paddling backwards in an attempt to not get mired in their roots only to run into another kayak instead!

Once everyone was on the water, the guide gave us a few instructions and then pointed where we should go. All of us took off at quite different paces and angles. My friends Veena and Tiffany quickly earned the title of "borrachas" (meaning "drunks") because they couldn’t paddle in a straight line for the life of them. One minute, they would be paddling next to us; the next minute, they would be at a perfect 90 degree angle to us and cause us to swerve to avoid a collision! Later, many people made fun of Emily and me because of our paddling method—namely, chanting "left! Right! Left! LEFT! LEFT! LEFT!" Clearly, we weren’t very good at paddling in straight lines either—mainly because both of us had much stronger right arms than left arms—but at least we consistently strayed in the wrong direction, rather than wandering around in zig-zags!

The guide was obviously sadistic, because she had pointed clear to the other side of the bay. We were struggling by halfway and cursing the heavy paddles in our hands. Somehow, we all managed to make it to the other side of the bay, to a point where we could see the entrance into the bay from the Caribbean Sea beyond. The guide then began to explain why this entrance was so important to the formation of the bioluminescent bay.

According to her, a great many factors have to converge for a bioluminescent bay to form. First of all, red mangroves are a must. No bioluminescent bays exist that are not lined in the mangrove, which has an especially strong root that grows into the bay and stays firm. Along with providing the essential vitamin B12 for the plankton, these roots also help the land around the bay stand strong in the face of hurricanes, making the bay a favourite for fishermen to moor their boats in during bad storms. They may find their boat on top of another when they return, but at least it would be safe within the bay!

The plankton that light up within the bioluminescent bay are actually dinoflagellates, which exhibit both animal and plant-like behaviour. One of their main plant-like behaviours is performing photosynthesis during the daylight hours. Many people believe that the dinoflagellates light up during the day but the human eye just can’t see them; however, this is not the case. The plankton are actually replenishing by photosynthesizing the sunlight. This allows them to light up as soon as it begins to get dark. It is not known exactly why the dinoflagellates light up like they do, but it is thought that they do this as a defense mechanism to scare away predators.

The entrance mentioned earlier is S-shaped. Since it is narrow and has this curve to it, it allows less flux out of the bay—therefore concentrating both the dinos and their needed nutrients within the bay itself. It seems like having no channel at all would create the best concentrated mixture, but it is important for the bay to be connected to the ocean to moderate the temperature. Along with all of these features, the bay has a higher concentration of salt than the outside ocean because it has a high evaporation and low condensation rate, which leaves the salt but decreases the amount of water.

This entry is continued in Kayaking the Bioluminescent Bay, pt. 2.

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