Bioluminescent kayaking needs to be on your bucket list! They go bump in the night, swirling soundlessly around your kayak like tiny stars, glittering blue, green, white, and yellow. “They” are bioluminescent creatures, millions upon millions of tiny dinoflagellate plankton – the naturally glowing organisms that light up the waters of Florida’s Indian River Lagoon. And if plankton weren’t enough, there are also glowing jellies – not jellyfish, but just jellies. These creatures don’t sting but glow green and blue when touched.
A bioluminescent kayaking tour is about the most memorable experience anyone, but especially families with young children, can have. There’s no theme park, no artificial experience or ride that can begin to compare with the lights of mother nature. Paddling at night, with the sounds of nature, the drip of water off of your paddle, the murmur of voices, and the slap of water against your boats is humbling and magical. Just as you’re wondering where the light show is, it begins, a sparkle here, a wave of color there. You dip your paddle in the water and disturb some plankton, or a fish jumps out of the water ahead of you – and the light show. Suddenly you’re surrounded by color rising up deep beneath dark waters. Look up! Above you the universe is sparkling too – billions of stars looking down at you.
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If you’re one of the fortunate few to see dolphins, crabs, and other sea creatures swimming through the pools of plankton, you’ll witness more magical lights. And if you paddle into a pool of mullet fish, expect a light show something like fireworks. When disturbed by the slightest sound Mullet fish explode by the hundreds out of the water, thrashing, jumping and causing a water storm around them. It’s quite a show during the daytime, but at night, in the midst of bioluminescent plankton? The mullets who aren’t jumping are fleeing, leaving streaks of light behind them.
Bioluminescent Kayaking: What is Bioluminescence?
The light emitted by a bioluminescent organism, like plankton, fish, or jellies, is produced by energy released from chemical reactions occurring inside (or ejected by) the organism.
If you’ve ever seen a firefly, you have encountered a bioluminescent organism. But not all bioluminescence happens on land. Most types of sea creature, from bacteria to sharks, include some bioluminescent members.
Science doesn’t understand all the reasons for bioluminescence, but they do know animals use bioluminescence to warn off or evade predators, to lure or detect prey, and for communication between members of the same species.
That’s why bioluminescent creatures – whether they’re Comb Jellies, schools of fish, or Dinoflagellate plankton, emit short flashes of light when disturbed. The light is a signal, a warning, or a communication. Each bioluminescent dinoflagellate flashes only a fraction of a second when disturbed by water movement, but its high concentrations in the water create beautiful bluish-white trails of light flowing. Bioluminescent kayaking is the best way to experience this because the flicker of lights can be caused by motion in the water, including swimming fish and paddling kayakers. Even though they don’t normally “glow,” other creatures, like manatees, crabs, dolphins, mullets, and kayaks will appear to glow if they are in the midst of the plankton.
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At certain times of the year, usually May through November, bioluminescence is more easily seen – usually when the water is warmer, or cooler – depending on the month. When disturbed these creatures create a phosphorescent trail through the water of certain rivers. That trail can look like a glowing, sparkling cloud of bright blue or green color in the water. It almost looks man-made, as though someone dropped thousands of LED Christmas lights into the water. But it’s 100 percent nature. It’s beginning to attract more tourists as people become aware of the bioluminescent kayaking tours offered around Florida.
What Should I Expect While Bioluminescent Kayaking?
Depending on the tour you take you can expect to be given a kayak, paddle, and life jacket, along with a flashlight (in case other boats approach or you need a light to see something or signal someone.) Some tour operators also provide a glow stick and whistle to make it easier to keep from getting lost or separated from your group. Tours range from small groups of five to ten kayaks and a guide, to larger groups of 20 boats. You’ll be guided out to an area where luminescence is heavy, and there are fish and other things to see. Tours are all at night, so you can see the lights. If you are afraid of paddling at night, this might be a good chance to try it as it’s transforming! Your guide or guides will periodically count everyone to ensure no one has fallen behind or gotten lost.
Expect to spend about 2-3 hours on the water during you bioluminescent kayaking tour. Most tours have porta-potties on the beach or at their facilities. Swimming is rarely allowed.
Bioluminescent Kayaking—Is It Dangerous? Are the Lights Poisonous?
No, they’re not at all dangerous or poisonous! Bioluminescent jellyfish are really just jellies (NOT jellyfish – they do not sting). These prehistoric sea creatures, called Comb Jellies, have been on the planet for over 500 million years. Later in the season, as the Indian River Lagoon cools down, the Comb Jellies move in.
Although not nearly as effective at warding off predators as the stinging tentacles of a jellyfish, Comb Jellies protect themselves by giving off a greenish-blue glow. They think it will scare any predators that might come their way. It’s kind of like how we campers have a fire at night – hoping the light will keep wild animals at bay. Well, the Comb Jelly thinks light will work too – so it lights up at night when touched.
Can I Take Photos?
You can try. It’s not forbidden, but most cell phone cameras – what the average kayaker would have, won’t take good photos in the dark. So, you can try, but we recommend leaving the electronics at home and just enjoying the experience while it lasts. If you’re a professional photographer, or have a camera with professional level sensors, then by all means bring it with you. Make sure you’ve got a waterproof case to house your equipment as you will get wet. You may not fall in, but with jumping mullet fish, and night paddling, it’s just something to expect.
When is the Best Time to Take a Bioluminescent Kayaking Tour?
The darker the night, the brighter the light. If the only time you can book a tour is during a full moon, well, you’ll still have a good experience and can still see the bioluminescence. However, if you can choose the best time to go for an ultimate experience, pick a time of the month when there is no moon, and a month later in the season when there are more jellies in the water – like October or November.
The best months for tours are May through November. In other months, bioluminescence will be present, but it will look more like sparkles in the water than actual glowing water. Peak season is June through October. Cooler months are better as there are more bioluminescent jellies – often so many you can easily reach out and touch them! They’re not jellyfish, so they won’t sting.
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Early summer is when the bioluminescent algae begin to show. However, by the height of summer it really shines and sparkles bright when it is stirred with your kayak paddle, or your hands. If you’re in a river where mullet fish are flying around they’ll really stir up a light show.
As if the lighted warm water was not enough, on these dark summer nights – look up. On a moonless night you can see a sky filled with its own light show of millions of sparkling stars – especially around Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, where there is no light pollution and the night skies are spectacular.
Where Can I Find a Bioluminescence Tour Near Me?
Unfortunately for the rest of the country, bioluminescence is primarily a Florida, California and Gulf States phenomena.
Questions to Ask Your Tour Company Before Booking a Bioluminescent Kayaking Tour
Not all tours offer the same experience, value, or equipment and guides. Take your time and ask a few questions before you book a tour.
Bioluminescence Tours are as safe as any kayaking or boating adventure in terms of effort, paddling etc. However, you will be paddling on waters strange to you, at night. Take some precautions. Ask your tour company about:
- Insurance – if they’re not insured, keep looking
- Skill and fitness levels you and your party will need to have
- What gear is offered and what do you need to bring (raft, kayak, canoe, life jacket, paddle, water, snacks etc.)
- First Aid Certification and CPR qualifications
- Wilderness medicine certification
- Paddling experience and training
- Length of time they’ve been in operation
- Their safety record
- Guide training
- Type of boats and life jackets – can you bring your own life jacket, or must you wear theirs?
- What is their cancellation policy?
- Do they go out rain or shine – meaning when do they cancel trips?
- If you’re an adult, do they have adult only, no kid tours?
- What does the tour fee include? Rentals? Paddles, jackets?
Some tours offer overnight camping for a full-experience. Others may offer camping on the grounds or nearby. Ask if you can get a camping discount for booking at a nearby campground.
Bioluminescent kayaking is one of the most magical, one-of-a-kind experiences you can have, whether with a friend or partner, family, or even as a solo traveler. Don’t pass up a chance to take a tour while you can.