Wednesday, February 25, 2015

USVI 2015 Day 7, Part 3 - We Visit Vieques' World-Famous Bioluminescent Bay And It Is Amazing

Glorious, glorious, glorious. There were a lot of high points and very few low points on this trip, but our 1/22 evening visit to Mosquito Bay with the very nice and very knowledgeable folks at the Blue Waters Caribbean Adventures was definitely among the highs.

It was sort of funny the way this got planned.  I think I had first heard about these bioluminescent bays from my old friend Diane (Motherhood is Painless); she and her husband Dave (also an old friend, I met both of them in my early days of kayaking, which is getting to be a rather surprisingly long time ago) went to Puerto Rico in 2007 when she was pregnant with their first baby, Claire. They'd quite sensibly decided it would be a good idea to go have one last nice quiet vacation as a couple before becoming parents (eek), they chose Puerto Rico, and they came back with some good stories, including going out in this amazing bioluminescent bay. I don't really do the bucket list thing as in "Oh I must do this before I die or my life will not have been complete", but there is definitely a list of things that I think would be neat to do if the opportunity arose (that's actually how I ended up doing my solo paddle down the Hudson last summer, I'd had that in mind as something I'd like to do for years and all the sudden things just fell into place for it to happen last summer, so I did it) and after hearing Diane talk about this beautiful lagoon in Puerto Rico, seeing one of those for myself was definitely on that list. So there we were planning our trip in the back end of 2014. Capt. Kat was the one who was putting together our itinerary, and when she mentioned that one of our stops was going to be Vieques, not far from Puerto Rico, I went to google bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico, and I think I'd typed about as far as "Biolumines..." when "Bioluminescent bay Vieques" popped up as one of the suggestions. Holy cow. Here was the funny part - here I'd discovered that one of the world's best bioluminescent bays was right there on the island we were going to anyways, you would think that the next thing I would do would be to run squealing to my fellow travelers about this, right? Nah, wrong, I sort of froze up - Kat was doing such a wonderful job of planning the trip, you can't really just park a sailboat anywhere you want to, I didn't know if the bay would be anywhere NEAR a decent anchorage, and I didn't want to complicate things for her, even though it sounded really, really neat. Well, I think I would have suggested it eventually, but fortunately Kat beat me to the punch with a email to the whole gang saying "Hey, look, kayak trips on a bioluminescent bay, doesn't that sound really, really neat?"

Well now that you mention it - WHY, YES IT DOES! WOOHOO! yippee yippee yippee!

Anyways - it worked out great. My concerns about asking to do something that wasn't convenient were totally unfounded - here was the layout:

Less than 2 miles from our boat to the bay, as the crow flies. A bit longer as the van drives, because that ended up being how we got there - the bay is a prime tourist attraction, there are several companies offering trips there and they'll all pick you up in a van right on the main drag in Esperanza or at a park closer to the bay. You don't really want to drive in yourself, the road to the put-in is rough, and I'm not sure you'd be allowed to if you wanted to, access to the bay is pretty controlled as they want to keep it healthy and glowing. Our guides told us they had a pretty bad scare a couple of years ago when the bay went dark for a couple of months during a particularly cold winter, and you are also no longer allowed to just jump in and go swimming as research has shown that suntan lotion, bug repellent, and even just the natural oils and sweat on human skin can all be bad for the tiny creatures that create the glow. 

Seeing it by kayak was THOROUGHLY satisfying, though.

We ended up with Blue Waters after a bit of hunting around on smartphones - someone (was it Chase, or someone earlier in the trip? I have to speed up these trip reports, details are already getting fuzzy) had told us that one of the outfitters used clear kayaks and that is was worth the extra money; we'd found them but they were already booked up for the evening. This actually worked out well because Blue Waters was really good - their guides knew a lot about the ecology and history of the bay, and in addition, they gave a nice overview of the local constellations and planets (which had been dazzling us every night of the trip).

We signed up for the earlier of their two evening trips. After our afternoon snorkel, we went back to the boat to get ready (for me, that was mostly putting on my sunshirt and packing up a jacket in a drybag in case it got cool), then we all hopped in the dinghy to head to shore to meet our van. They'd asked us to be there at 6, which was a nice time to be going in - I know, I shared this picture yesterday, it was just so pretty!

There were a bunch of people hanging out on the town dock, and there were also some lovely creatures hanging out under the dock - I was so excited to see this spotted eagle ray, they are such handsome animals and I'd never seen one outside of an aquarium. Lenore and Dave had spotted one while we were snorkeling that afternoon, but I'd missed it, so I was just so happy to see this one! Also, can you spot the green moray? I didn't realize I'd gotten him in this photo as well until I was looking at it back in Brooklyn. Click on the picture for a better view, as usual. Lower left-hand corner. Hint: He's green. 

The Blue Waters van met us right on time. We made one more stop to pick up more paddlers at Sun Bay, and then we went on the very bumpy ride to the put-in at Mosquito Bay. 

We got to the bay at twilight, so not too many more pictures. They got us into our lifejackets and handed out paddles right away, and then after a quick instructional session and review of what we were going to be doing (I thought they did a very nice job on their group management, it's hard keeping people together in the dark, especially when there's something really exciting and fascinating and wonderful to look at, plus a lot of other groups out there doing a lot of different things, and talking us through what we were going to do and where we were going to go before we got into the boats was helpful), 

they popped us all into Ocean Kayak Malibu 2's and off we went! 

Our first stop was at a monitoring station a little ways out in the bay. Being lit, this was a nice clear destination, and also a good spot for our guides to start talking about the ecology of the bay. The station is there to measure pH and other water quality factors that are crucial to the health of the dinoflagellates that create the glow; the existence of a bioluminescent bay only happens when a certain set of requirements are met, and if those requirements stop being met, so does the beautiful glow. The dinoflagellates glow when the water around them is disturbed -- they don't know why, but they do, and it's amazing. 

It was still twilight as we paddled out to the monitoring station, but I was already beginning to see an odd shimmer around my paddle blades as we paddled. At first I thought it was just bubbles, but as it got darker, the glow got more pronounced. Sorry, I did try to take pictures, but it just wasn't something my little Optio could capture, you'd have to have a much more sensitive camera. The picture below was my last photo of the evening - our group's tail-lights as we paddled on out towards the narrow inlet to the bay. The guides' lights were blue, so you could see them easily, and they struck a good balance between letting the group relax a bit when we were on our own and tightening us up when we were passing other groups (would have been the easiest thing in the world for somebody to get mixed up and go off with another group but our guides were on top of things at all time). They were always calm and comfortable with their instructions, made for totally pleasant paddling. Good guiding! 

I knew, from Diane's stories, that this was going to be beautiful, but it was more spectacular than I ever imagined. As twilight faded into night, the blue shimmers became more and more pronounced. Early on in the tour, they had us raft up to explain what was going on here. They had some great history. Two I can recall off the top of my head:

1. The bay is called Mosquito Bay not after mosquitoes - we were afraid we were going to get eaten alive when we saw the name but I don't think I got a single bite - but after the boat belonging to a pirate who used to use the bay as a hiding place. 

2. When the Spaniards came to Vieques, they thought the bay was haunted by an evil spirit; they tried to choke the spirit by filling in the already narrow inlet, not realizing that a narrow inlet is one of the things that makes a bioluminescent bay possible. Their efforts just made the bay shine brighter.

What else - the dinoflagellates flash in response to water pressure changes, but scientists still have no idea why. The mangroves that line the shore of the bay also play a big role in creating the conditions in which the dinoflagellates thrive - clear those out to put in a resort and you'd kill the bay. Other bays have gone dark after their inlets were widened, and our guides mentioned that there'd been one that was ruined after a bar was built on the shore. Fragile things! There was more but I have to admit that I got sort of distracted playing with the water.

Our guides started it, though!

While we were rafted up, they told us to scoop up a handful of water, put the hand up in the air, and let the water run down your arm - your whole arm just glittered. The water bouncing in the scupper holes as your boat bobbed in the the water glowed as it splashed. I amused myself to a ridiculous degree by pretending to be a magician, closing my fingers in a loose fist underwater and then springing them open to create puffs of blue light - Alakazam! Sculling strokes became things of fiery glory (TQ and I were thinking what a wonderful way this would be to teach strokes - every motion of the paddle was traced in light!) and when I stuck my whole paddle underwater and stirred, it was a blue torch. As we began to to paddle towards the inlet, paddle strokes were punctuated with phosphorescent swirls, and when TQ briefly raced our head guide at a point when we were well away from other groups and could relax a little bit, our bow waves and wakes were an absolute fireworks show. Even better were the fish living there in the lagoon - when they would dart away ahead of us they would flash like streaks of lightning. Some of our group saw a small shark that put on a particularly good light show (I was sorry to miss that), and the ballyhoo were spectacular when they skipped themselves across the surface of the water (and in fact it was our guides who told us what the skipping fish were, we had thought they were flying fish when we'd seen then in Coral Bay).

We paddled out to where the glow began to fade in the inlet, and then headed back, with a quick stop for the promised constellation review, which was also very good - got all the basics, plus several I either hadn't known or hadn't been sure about.

After that, they took us back to the put-in, took our picture, and drove us back to Esperanza, with snacks and water in the van on the way back.

What a great, great, GREAT way to spend an evening!

We toasted the day back on the boat with rum (that's right, the rum turns out to NOT always be gone) and ginger ale and wine.

And just to repeat - to follow David's totally correct suggestion for how my journal for this day should start -

A pretty damned good day!

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