I was born in Philadelphia, though I spent every summer break along the New Jersey shore. The sand is littered with shells, there is always a hundred or more people running around, kicking sand on blankets, and the water is reliably freezing. Regardless of the season, or the weather, the water is consistently a limb-numbing 60°F.
Going to the beach, I was always tempted to swim, but turned off by the water temperature. After several attempts, I would end up somewhere along the wet-sand/dry-sand line where the outer limits of the crashing waves would destroy my hopes, dreams and sand castles after pushing me out of the thick of the frigid waves.
I had never experienced naturally warm water until I arrived in Puerto Rico. It was unnatural. But, as I learned on my first full day in Puerto Rico, anything is possible.
Puerto Rico was everything I had expected and more. The culture, the people – their sincerity and stubbornness – the history. The beaches and the rainforests.
But as gratifying as it was for this Philly girl to dip her toe into a warm Atlantic ocean, the temperature was not the most fulfilling aspect of the water.
In Puerto Rico, a dwindling number of extraordinary bays have developed. Coves hidden both by the mangrove forests that border them and their relative obscurity from public knowledge.
Certain plants and animals that have the specialized ability to glow is known as bioluminescence. This illusion of luminescence makes Laguna Grande a unique destination in Fajardo, a town running along Puerto Rico’s northeastern coast, about an hour drive from the capital San Juan. While bioluminescence is seen in a number of species – from fire flies to angler fish – the ability of certain plankton, known as dinoflagellates, to glow is intensified by their sheer volume in the waters they populate. According to Popular Mechanics, up to 720,000 dinoflagellates can be discovered in a single one gallon bucket of sea water.
The glow was barely noticeable at first, as we paddled through the mangrove forest in our kayak. A member of our party instructed us not to turn on our flashlights, so that the glow would be more intense. We paddled in complete darkness, bumping into the gnarled exposed roots of the mangroves as we traveled down the watery, makeshift path. So many millions of stars twinkled through the mangrove canopy, reminding me of the fireflies I chased in my mild summers in the mid-Atlantic.
For most of the evening, we were completely alone. The world was silent, with the exception of the occasional splash of creatures sliding into the water, and tourist groups zipping while hollering about what they had just experienced. That upset me. I was told by my many Puerto Rican friends that this bio-bay was an extraordinary, healing sort of place – the presence of all of these foreigners (myself included) troubled me, seemingly a sign of a detrimental human impact on this niche ecosystem. I was afraid that this is what my experience would be parsed down to – a foreigner – worse, a tourist – invading a special treasure, simply kayaking through as efficiently as possible as to get a feel for the place while still making their late night dinner reservations.
Our kayak leader ensured me that our experience would be quite different from the snapshot that the tourists were briefly witnessing. I would gain a lot more.
We carried on like this for a while. I lost track of time in the forest as we quietly joked around while working together to get ourselves through the mangroves. Eventually we found a clearing and rushed through it, into the warm breeze whipping up over the calm bay.
I smacked my paddle across the water; a torrent of electrified water splashed away from me. Everywhere I looked, pockets of water were brightly glowing against the darkened sky. We rowed toward the center of the bay as our leader explained that the water was so calm because the water was too shallow to churn up any hard waves. That same shallowness was why there were no sharks in the bay, which, he explained, would allow us to swim.
He had brought along life vests for this exact reason, because while the mangrove forests were shallow, the bay itself was deep. He strapped one on and goaded myself and my friend, his girlfriend, to jump in as well. Though I’m a weak swimmer, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. I buckled myself in and, standing unsteadily at the bow, threw myself overboard.
I closed my eyes as I hit the surface, but opened them once I was underwater. Gigantic bubbles were forming all around me in green globs. I could make out all of the fish clear as day, any movement they made generating enough agitation in the water to cause these microscopic diatoms to illuminate.
I emerged, star struck. I floated on my back for a long time, moving my hands and feet to create the glow. I stared up at the stars. There were millions. Philadelphia is nothing like this. Philly is magical in its own right, but nothing like this. We don’t have stars for miles. We don’t have these miniscule underwater stars. I couldn’t help but feel so incredibly lucky to have the luxury of lying on my back, in illuminated sea water, watching the night pass by.