Late at night, when the air is thick and darkness covers you like a blanket, tiny sparkles appear on the water. Out of the pitch black, schools of fish trace ribbons of light across the surface. Charles Darwin first noticed the strange occurrence in 1832 when the wake of his boat trailed a path of milky white through the ocean. In his journals he described how the mystical water gave off sparks when captured in a bottle.
This light fantastic is bioluminescence, a glow created by dinoflagellates. When the tiny aquatic “fireflies” are disturbed by fish, waves, or even the ripple of a paddle, their fight-or-flight instinct kicks in to produce a blue-green shimmer. What makes it so special is that it is incredibly rare. Bioluminescence requires ideal conditions found only in a handful of places around the world, such as the Indian River Lagoon on the central-east coast of Florida.
“Few people know about this,” Jessica Cichra of Wave of Wellness paddleboard tours, says. “Even those who have lived in Florida their entire lives may not be familiar, but once they’ve seen this spectacular display of nature, it stays with them forever.”
Jessica describes the reaction of first-timers as having “childlike wonder.”
“It’s fairy dust on water,” she says. “People cup the sparkling water in their hands and paint arcs across the lagoon. They giggle as glowing fish jump beside them and slap the surface with their paddles to make splatter paint.”
Just an hour from Orlando, the Lagoon offers the ideal conditions for the “sea sparkle,” thanks to shallow water which stays relatively warm. For the best chance to see the glow, visit between July and September during a new moon and in a location with few man-made lights to disrupt the spectacle.
“Even after years of doing this, it never gets old,” Jessica says. “Not only are you treated to the visual beauty of nature but to the euphoric feeling of a miracle as well. It’s magic every single time.”
For the best experience of this spectacular light show, keep these tips in mind:
- Go with a group. Experienced guides know the best times to paddle, which areas produce the greatest glow, and how to avoid unwanted aquatic animals.
- Stay together. The currents can be swift, especially on open water, so stay close by the group and avoid being carried off by wind gusts.
- Paddle safely. Only strong swimmers and those comfortable in the dark should pursue this activity. It’s also helpful to have basic paddle skills.
- Use bug spray and wear long sleeves.
- Wear flip-flops or water shoes to protect your feet when approaching the landing.
- Dress for the water with moisture-wicking athletic gear.
- Fuel up! Most boards and kayaks have straps for drinking water, which helps you stay hydrated. You’ll also want snacks and liquids for after the float.
- Paddle possibilities. For those with small children or guests who are nervous about a stand-up paddleboard, ask for a kayak. The clear-bottomed ones are amazing on a night when the bio-lum is plentiful.
- Plan for bathroom breaks. Since most launch areas don’t have public restrooms, make sure to find a spot before your departure.
- Bring a towel and change of clothes. It makes the ride home much more enjoyable.
- Don’t bother with a camera, since photographs don’t do the bioluminescence justice.