My wife already knew about bioluminescence. It's probably because she's from tropical locations where one might find themselves out frolicking in the sea well after dark. Unfortunately for me, I had never noticed the seawater around me swirling with little specs of magical blue-green light - like underwater fireflies. It may of had something to do with the fact that I grew up in the Midwest, conveniently located between two oceans.
I guess normal land fireflies technically count - they have bioluminescence. We didn't have a lot of them but I remember a few getting accidentally squished on the windshield of my first car as I sped out of town to climb forestry towers or perhaps take a nice group of ladies snipe hunting. Glowworms count too. My sister had a stuffed animal one of those. She wouldn't let me play with it.
Well, eventually I discovered my first sea bioluminescence right here, in the Puget Sound aboard my floating home - Kingsley the sailboat. One night, I found bioluminescence in my toilet. That's right. Poor little guys. A local dinoflagellate called Noctiluca to be more scientific. These super small one-celled organisms live in the sea and create light when disturbed. It disturbed me as well. I stood there, staring down at a glittery, glowing, green toilet bowl. It appeared I was pissing magic.
Captain Wifey awoke to me standing in front of the toilet, in the dark, looking down, and giggling at the magical situation I thought was unfolding in front of me. The moment you realize you're some sort of super hero is very special. She quickly informed me of the actual situation. Our head, like a lot of toilets on sailboats, uses seawater. The little guys were getting pumped into the toilet bowl and my...midnight disturbance...was disturbing them.
Later that summer, I noticed neighbors in a dinghy going by the back of our boat just after dark. It was the same effect. There was a trail of bright, magical, green light behind them. The underwater portion of their outboard motor was glowing. Why I didn't throw my dinghy down into the water then and play is anyone's guess, but the next summer I finally organized a simple kayak exhibition.
I invited the friends over, got my gear together, waited for dark, used the back of Kingsley as a kayak launch…and started paddling.
The bad news for any armchair adventurers out there: it turned out to be pretty hard to get photos of the magical green stuff. I tried and failed. Bioluminescense was everywhere beneath us, visible after each paddle. We circled the Shilshole Marina breakwater. It was better on the other side, away from the marina, mainly because the rock wall blocked a lot of the street lights. Yet another vote for less light pollution - not only does it steal stars from the sky but also stars from the sea!
A few tips for night kayakers - take some waterproof/kayak/night-lights for your boats, dress warm, check the forecast for calm water/wind, go in groups - it's sometimes safer (unless your group members are crazy;) and you'll see more bioluminescence when you follow the other boats.
Summer, especially August, is a good time to see the green, although I've noticed it around other times in the year. I stepped out just now (April) and stirred the water around at the dock and there's a little bit, nothing too spectacular. Location matters too. Nutrient-rich waters are said to attract more life and thus more organisms that have bioluminescence. I've noticed a few tours in the San Juan Island's and also on Vashon. Planning a night when it's cloudy or the moon is gone is a plus too - the darker the better. As with every PNW post I've ever written about kayaking - know that the water here is always cold and you won't last long if you're in it and can't get to safety - plan ahead and paddle safe.
I'll be more prepared to catch a picture next time. Until then, check out the links below to get a better view and plan your own bioluminescence adventure!
~Paul, Amber, Vic, Keith ETC
Cool links for more info about bioluminescence!
Description of Bioluminescence with stories from the PNW
How Stuff Works article
Wicked National Geographic video