Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Puerto Rico's Bioluminescent Bays

I would say that of all the cool things I've done in Puerto Rico so far, my favorite was probably kayaking in the bioluminescent bay in Fajardo. A number of tour companies will take you kayaking or boating through Puerto Rico's bio-bays, where microscopic organisms known as dinoflagellates actually glow as you move through the water. These tiny creatures are found in all of Puerto Rico's waters, but are most highly concentrated in a few secluded bays that are best accessed by kayak. This adventure is very high on my Puerto Rico "to-do" list, so keep reading for more info!

Why does the water glow?
The waters surrounding Puerto Rico are filled with tiny microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates, which are essentially plankton, that emit tiny bursts of bioluminescence when disturbed. The specific name for these dinoflagellates is Pyrodinium bahamense, and as you can guess by the name, Puerto Rico is not the only place in the world where you can see such a phenomenon. To make a bio-bay, you need not only these specific plankton, but also a lagoon surrounded by red mangroves, whose roots release tannins and vitamin B12, a key nutrient for these critters. The bay should be warmer than the surrounding ocean, and I can tell you that the one in Fajardo was like bath water. There also needs to be relatively low levels of pollution in order to protect both the plankton and the endangered mangroves, which makes the less-polluted Vieques bio-bay one of the brightest in the world. The dinoflagellates produce light when disturbed by converting chemical energy (from luciferin, the same thing fireflies use) to light energy. Our guides told us this chemical was called luciferin because people who "discovered" the bio-bay thought the mysterious light was created by the devil. Stupid Spanish, af-waid of a wittle dino-plankton! Just kidding, I think Spanish people are perfectly smart. I don't really buy that whole "lucifer" story anyway. Can you imagine C. Columbus being like, "Sweet Jesus, this water is evil! I shall name the chemical responsible for this reaction 'luciferin,' and its corresponding enzyme 'luciferinase' based on our age old colonial tradition of naming enzymes after their substrate with the suffix -ase! Now stick a Spanish flag in this beast and let's go mingle with those hot Taíno mamis!" ?
Quite unlikely, I'm sure it was named way after Columbus and his cronies kicked the bucket.

Where are Puerto Rico's bio-bays?
There is a bio-bay called Laguna Grande in Fajardo, which is about 30 miles (a 50 minute drive) from San Juan. I highly recommend this company, Akuadventures, which provided a powerpoint presentation before the tour, all of the equipment, a brief kayaking lesson, support from cheerful guides, and lots of food (hot dogs, ice cream, cookies, chips, water, etc.) after the tour ended. Plus, the kayaks are glass-bottomed (cool!) and Akuadventures offers framed photos of your kayak for $10 (see above). The staff was friendly, helpful, and very enthusiastic about their jobs. All in all, it was an amazing experience, and I recommended it to several people at my hotel, who also thought it was a favorite highlight of their Puerto Rico vacations.

Getting to Fajardo from San Juan is a tricky business. I promise to one day write a blog (rant) about the horrendous public transportation in Puerto Rico. You can take a cab for at least $60-80 one way, which is okay if you are traveling with a group of people. You can try and take a "public car" from the "public car station" in Rio Piedras, but good luck with that. It may not be worth it. Or, you can do what I did and go with a tour package. I did a day trip with Ecoquest tours, and we hiked through El Yunque to see all the waterfalls, took a break at Luquillo Beach (and ate a lot at the kiosks), ate dinner, and then headed to Fajardo for kayaking. Plus we got picked up and dropped off at our hotel, all for $145 per person. I thought it was worth it, although it was definitely an exhausting day. Ecoquest also has all sorts of more "hardcore" adventures, like zip lining, rappelling, and spelunking, but the trip I took was much more appropriate for the less athletically inclined (me).

There is another bay called Mosquito Bay in Vieques, an island off the east coast of the main island. Most people agree that the bay in the Vieques is the best for bioluminescence. To get to Vieques, you will need to take the ferry from Fajardo (which is very difficult, people camp out at 3 a.m. to catch the 6 a.m. shuttle) or you can take a short charter flight from the Fajardo airport, which is actually cheaper than you would think. I paid $35 to fly to Culebra, another island. Some airlines will actually fly out of San Juan. This company offers bio-bay tours in Vieques, has some cool photos on their website, and seems to have better "tripadvisor" reviews than others.

The final bio-bay is called La Parguera in Lajas. Lajas is in the southwest corner of Puerto Rico, and I am really not sure how to get there without renting a car. This town has built their tourism industry around the bio-bay, so you will be certain to find lots of options once you arrive.

1. Check the moon schedule on this website to find the best time to visit the bays. The bays are best when there is minimal moonlight, and some companies won't even take tours out if there is too much light, so be sure to call ahead.
2. Wear a bathing suit and bring some insect repellent. If you use the repellent though, stay inside your kayak and don't go swimming. The chemicals in the repellent are harmful to the plankton.
3. If you are kayaking, be sure that you are healthy enough for at least an hour of kayaking. Traveling against the current can be tough, and your arms and shoulders may be sore the next day!
4. If you are planning to go to Vieques for the bay, make all arrangements (including travel) ahead of time. You may also want to do this for the other bays, especially if you are going during a busy weekend or holiday.
5. Start taking care of your planet. Studies show that the bay in La Paguera now glows at only 1/10 its original strength due to destruction of plankton by pollution. And the other bays aren't doing too well either. For info on how you can help support conservation at the Vieques bio-bay, click here.


Speaking Boricua said...

Good stuff.

You mentioned that they have these in other places... well... really, there are only 8 in the world that actually shine, and the only really decent ones are, yeah, you guessed it, the ones in Puerto Rico. I think that's worth noting.

Anyways, I still haven't actually gone, although I have been a victim of the Fajardo ferry chaos :( We're trying for Culebra again this year and I hope we'll have more luck this time.

Right Now I'm Thinking... said...

I remember being 15 years old when my parents brought me to La Parguera and me being completely clueless as to why were we all going on a boat in the middle of nowhere at night. Once we got to our destination (no mans land) they shut off the boat and people started diving into the ocean! Then it was obvious and completely AMAZING!!

Ed said...

I was 8 when we first went (wow that was back in '83!) and i'll never forget how magical that experience was watching the water glow as the boat moved through the waters...it was absolutely amazing and an experience i shall never forget!

Sergio S. said...

During low-season, you wouldn't need to camp out to visit Vieques. During summer and occasionally Christmas/Winter, the ferry gets quite busy. :)

Trivia; We call the big boat that carries cars 'Ferry(s)', while the other big boat that only carries passengers are the usual 'Lanchas'

I've been reading your blog, and it's quite fun and interesting to read someone's opinion of Puerto Rico in such vivid detail. Especially considering you are not native to Puerto Rico, and thus unbiased by patriotic pride. :P


I'm from Rio Grande, if you ever have any questions or need some help with some spanish, let me know!

rosita716 said...

It was a beautiful experience!!