We ended up in Puerto Rico as the beginning of our Caribbean cruise. One of my best adventures in my past was randomly finding phytoplankton in Santa Barbara, California. When I saw that Puerto Rico is one of only a handful of places in the world with these organisms, experiencing them again was a priority on my trip. Although the illumination of the plankton was not as extreme as in Santa Barbara, my son and I loved the whole experience. I now consider it one of My Best Adventures Yet and highly recommend it!
What is phytoplankton?
Phytoplankton are any number of floating organisms that emit light, most likely as a defense mechanism. The organisms in Puerto Rico’s bays are Pyrodinium bahamense or Dinoflagellates. They live in lakes surrounded with mangrove forests. The organisms are also eaten by jellyfish who then also glow . They don’t float around lit up, that would take too much energy. Rather they light up when they are disturbed or shaken. They appear as large, sparkling glitter. Since their strobe is so short, it was near impossible to get a good real picture.
Where in Puerto Rico can you see phytoplankton?
Puerto Mosquito (Mosquito Bay)
Mosquito Bay is on the southern shore of the island of Vieques, which is about an hour offshore Fajardo. It is said to be the brightest lit of the bioluminescent bays. At the time of this writing, you are still allowed to swim or dive with the bioluminescence, but may get stung by the jellyfish. It is said to feel like a bee sting, but has no lasting effects.
Laguna Grande (Bio Bay)
Bio Bay is in Fajardo, about one hour away from San Juan on the northeast coast of Puerto Rico. It is very easily accessible from San Juan and the airport. It is said to be the second brightest bay, but swimming is not allowed.
This bay in the town of Lajas is the least bright due to a lack of conservation efforts. It is located inland of southeast Puerto Rico.
The best conditions for high phytoplankton activity
The phytoplankton are brightest during a new moon, low tide and during drier periods. It is also best to have a cloudless night to reduce glare from city lights.
Which bay I chose and why
After much research I decided to use the tour company, Pure Adventure for our visit to the Bio Bay. We chose this bay as it is very convenient from Puerto Rico where our ship left us and we only had 24 hours to enjoy Puerto Rico that day before we flew out the next morning.
The tours run as an early tour around 6 pm and a later tour around 8 pm. Even though it shortened our day a little, I am so glad we chose the earlier one. Read on to see why!
Where I stayed
I also really liked Fajardo and would gladly return to the area. We stayed at the incredible El Conquistador Resort, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel, which has a private island for guests to enjoy and enough included activities to keep my family busy for a week.
Where does the tour start?
All the tour companies have kiosks where you meet up in La Parguera Biobay. This park is very active and a great window into Puerto Rican life. You will hear music, see locals fishing and picnicking. There are many food trucks and restaurants right around to enjoy dinner after the tour.
Do you have to know how to kayak?
Before our tour started we were outfitted with life vests and bug spray. There were about 30 others on the tour, ranging in age from 6 to 70-years old. Some people knew how to kayak and some were new to the sport. I took part in the tour with my ten-year-old son. We are both in good shape and like to boat. If you are feeling trepidation about kayaking, there are tours available in glass-bottom motorized boats.
How to get there
As of this writing there is no Uber in Puerto Rico. So, either rent a car to get around or get a taxi and arrange for a time for them to pick you up. There are no taxis driving around for you to catch when you want to leave. The tour company is very good about communicating, including sending a pin to find them among the many companies in the park.
The kayak into the bay is one mile each way through mangrove forests. Even without seeing the light from the plankton, my son and I loved the beauty of this paddle. On the way to the bay you will be traveling with the current, so it is a very easy way to get used to maneuvering the boat. Because we chose the early tour, our paddle in was in twilight and was a unique experience to the trip out. If you haven’t been in a mangrove forest before, the trees form a canopy around you and the roots are visible. It really is a thing of beauty.
On the lake
You will exit the forest into a large lake. If you are on the early tour, the sun will just be setting, so you can relax in your boat and watch an incredible sunset. If you follow me on Instagram, you know that is one of my favorite things to do and this one will remain in my mind as one of the bests.
After the sunset, the marine biologist guide will educate the group on how this phenomenon occurs. They then do some interesting manipulating to get it dark enough for you to really see the bioluminescence.
The trek back
This is really an adventure and it helped to already know how to kayak and be in decent shape. Once you are under the mangrove canopy, the journey back is in almost complete darkness, except for the light on the boat in front of you which you are following. You will be paddling against the current. The darkness, sound of paddles going through water and loud croaking of all the Coqui frogs was so surreal.
There were many people hitting the sides of the canals, but you aren’t in a hurry, so that is kind of fun. I didn’t understand the people who were treating this like a race. People and their idea of being first in line doesn’t necessarily mature since first grade. So be cool. There is always a guide in the rear of the line, so everyone will make it back to the starting point.
The end of our journey
When you get back on shore, the company provided us with water and Puerto Rican snacks. Everything you brought on the boat will be pretty wet, so bring a change of clothes in a waterproof bag. We then headed to dinner in one of the restaurants surrounding the park where we had Mufungo. Mufungo is smashed plantains with meat. Interesting and yummy.
This was definitely my favorite kayaking I have ever done. The sounds and sights of the mangrove forest and lake are stunning. Although the bioluminescence wasn’t as profound or interactive as what I had seen in Santa Barbara, it is very cool and Pure Adventure did a great job at enhancing our viewing and educating us about the phenomenon. I would highly recommend this experience.
If you will also be visiting Old San Juan visit my guide here.