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
4/9/2014 06:45:43 am
in 1963/64 when I was a senior at Franklin High School in Seattle I took Biology. We were required to research project to complete the course. I picked bioluminescence. I learned all about dinoflagellates, luciferin and luciferase (the chemicals that when mixed create the light) and other things that go blink in the night. I collected samples from various places in Puget Sound and Hood canal. Like you I could never get a photo but I did get to see them under a microscope after I dyed the little buggers purple. Of course that killed them. But they did light up when I shook the jar in a dark room but to keep them alive I had to refrigerate the bottle. Warm water kills them. It was all great fun as well as a learning experience.
7/16/2017 12:48:59 pm
Ahoy! I found your post this morning after starting a new book last night called "The 100 Year Miracle" by Ashley Ream. It's fiction, and speaks about a light show every 100 years in the San Juans. I've lived in Seattle all my life, and even spent 2 weeks in the San Juans each summer of my youth, on a Tolly with my folks, and had never heard of this occurrence. So, a quick search, and your post appeared. My husband and I both laughed hard at your telling of your nighttime toilet sighting. Hysterical. Then we went on to check your links. Fascinating stuff. I'm going to make sure my daughters experience this wonder. I still don't know if the "every 100 years" light show happens in a specific location.
6/11/2021 09:52:51 am
The other day my wife mentioned that she is looking at booking a nighttime bioluminescent kayak tour. I do appreciate that it is important for us to look at the tour package. I will definitely consider all our options before choosing a tour.
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