Growing up along the Indian River Lagoon, I have always taken the bioluminescence in the water for granted.
As a young man, I was sailing late one night. The wake from my boat glowed from the bioluminescence, a phenomenon that I had never experienced before. What happened next made this particular sail one that I will never forget.
A large tarpon swam alongside the boat. It glowed strongly enough that I could see its scales and large eye. Then it turned away and disappeared into the dark water.
What is Bioluminescence?
Think about how fireflies emit a glow. That’s bioluminescence: light from a biological source. It is not reflected light, but light from within.
In the Indian River Lagoon, plankton that naturally thrive in salt water can produce their own light. The good news is, the algae blooms that bring summer bioluminescence in the lagoon are not a problem. After a few days of still water, the blue light appears.
According to this article from Florida Sea Grant, Noctiluca dinoflagellates create the light we see in the water on some calm summer nights. Why do they glow sometimes and not others? They emit light when disturbed, like when being chased by a fish.
Bioluminescence in Waves
I wouldn’t experience another glowing fish for many years, and this time I got to share the experience with Sandy. We were living in a second story condo when one night I started seeing what looked like waves of light in the lagoon.
The darker the night became as the hours went by, the more visible the tips of blue light on the waves became. When I pointed them out to Sandy, she said that she had never seen bioluminescence in the water in person.
Grabbing the camera, we walked down to the sea wall for a closer look. As we neared the edge of the wall, a small school of fish must have seen our shadow and darted away. We could see their glowing shapes in the water, illuminated by the plankton they disturbed.
With Sandy staying still, I moved away from the edge of the water and moved farther down the sea wall before stepping back to the water’s edge. It worked. When the fish sensed I was above them, they swam towards her, giving her a much better look of them glowing as they swam by.
Paddling through Bioluminescence
We live not far from where the Indian River Lagoon and the Mosquito Lagoon are connected by the man-made Haulover Canal. Mosquito Lagoon is also considered part of the Indian River Lagoon.
Because the waterways here are surrounded by Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore, this particular part of our region is devoid of most outside light sources. That makes it an excellent place to see bioluminescence.
One of my favorite places to see this summer glow is an easy paddle from Bairs Cove, from the boat ramp located on the southwest side of the canal.
From this ramp, paddle east through the canal. It is important to be a strong paddler, since the current in the cut is very strong during tidal shifts.
As you paddle through Haulover Canal, you’ll pass under the drawbridge and past the Manatee Observation Deck. Look for an opening on the north side of the canal, to your left.
This opening will lead you into a large and semi-protected flats area. When the Intracoastal Waterway was dredged, the Army Corps of Engineers created a row of spoil islands. These islands shield these shallows from the deeper waters of the lagoon.
I have been here many times to watch the water glow from the bioluminescence. I have never been here alone. Guides and locals know that this is an excellent place to see this natural phenomenon.
Much like stargazing, I have always had my best experiences later in the night. It begins with a slight glow in the water, often faint enough that you are not sure if that was it. Slowly the illumination grows brighter.
The swirl created by my paddle becomes a glowing spin and just a single drop of water from my paddle forms a glowing ring as the water ripples.
On one of my paddling trips out here, off in the distance a thunderstorm was brewing. Of course the guides were the first to get their groups safely off the water. The rest of the paddlers slowly followed.
My friend and I agreed that the storm was probably north of New Smyrna Beach, more than 20 miles away, and we could see that it was traveling east to west, not south toward us. We decided to paddle close to the canal entrance, where we could make a quick escape if needed.
Then we sat and just watched the storm off in the distance. It was beautiful. To this day I have never seen or experienced anything like it. When the sky and clouds lit up with bolts of lightning, it reflected on the mirror-like water.
Of course, it’s hard to capture any of this with a camera. But some things are better to just experience.