During Florida’s summer months, the waters of Mosquito Lagoon and the Indian River come alive after nightfall. Billions of plankton, or dinoflagellates, emit a blueish-white glow when the water is disturbed, and from June through early October, the lagoon and river are packed with these luminous organisms. Similar to fireflies, these little beings create light within themselves. Every movement in the water produces light! You can become endlessly amused by just waving your hand through the water and looking at the wake’s glow.
Guided bioluminescence tours are available for upwards of $40 per person, but where’s the adventure in that?! Plus, why pay for a tour when you can discover the beauty of the bio for free? Last year, Andres and I made our first attempt to witness the luminescent waters of Mosquito Lagoon. We tagged along with a group of paddlers, who welcomed us with open arms, but weren’t able to see the glowing waters for ourselves. Despite not seeing the actual bio, it was a total thrill to be paddling in open water in the dark. Hundreds of fish were leaping through the air and crashing back into the water. One even landed in someone’s canoe! Plus, if you’ve ever been tandem canoeing or kayaking with your significant other, then you know how much of a team building activity it can be. Any paddling experience is packed with factors out of your control, such as weather, currents, wildlife, and other vessels. It feels so rewarding to adapt to these challenges with your partner, especially when it’s pitch black in the middle of the flats.
When our good friends Shelly and Travis, who are biopaddle pros, invited us to join them and some other friends on this year’s adventure, we didn’t hesitate to accept. Although, we can never predict how Mother Nature will perform for us on any given night, I knew our best chance of seeing the bioluminescence would be with this crew of awesome people!
What to Bring:
- your own kayak or canoe
- lifevests, which are required by law
- glow sticks for front/back of kayaks, also required by law to have a light on your vessel
- bugspray, spray before you paddle & bring it with you to reapply
- cooler with water or brews to drink
- dry bag, for anything that can’t get wet (i.e. phone, long sleeved shirt, etc.)
Where/When to Launch:
By day, the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge is home to a vast array of animal and plant species, but by summer night, its waters turn into a magical liquid light show. There are a few launch options to consider when planning your paddle. Beacon 42 Launch and the Bairs Cove Boat Launch, part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, are both popular spots. We chose to launch from Bairs Cove because Beacon 42 is shut down through October. Bairs Cove Boat Ramp is located in the Haulover Canal, which connects the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon. The canal got its name from the early settlers who hauled supplies over the narrowest point of land in that part of Merritt Island until the canal was dug in 1854.
Head East (right) from the launch and you’ll reach Mosquito Lagoon. Head West (left) down the canal and you’ll enter the Indian River. The paddle from Bairs Cove to Mosquito Lagoon was a bit longer, but that just offered more time for wildlife sighting. We got on the water around 9:00, just as the colors of sunset faded into night sky. Dolphins and manatees greeted us as we paddled down the canal. All I could see was their shadows drifting across the surface as they breathed with loud snorts.
The brightness of the moon determines how well the bioluminescence can be seen. The darker the night sky, the more stunning the water’s light show will be. With that in mind, try to go as close to a new moon as possible. Use a Lunar Calendar to help choose the best night for your trip. The effects of the bio are also enhanced as temperatures rise, so July and August are the ideal months to go.
Experiencing The Liquid Light Show:
Despite the light pollution from the parking lot, I noticed the ethereal glow at the end of my paddle the moment we began to float down the canal. It was faint at first, but the further we paddled, the brighter it became. Once we reached the shallow flats of Mosquito Lagoon, the water came alive!
Each stroke ignited light beneath the surface. Paddling into a school of fish sent them off in all directions, creating swirls of light as they leaped out of the lagoon, while others passed underwater like bottle rockets. Trailing my fingers through the water was like finger painting with the constellations. When I lifted my paddle, the droplets fell back into the lagoon like diamonds. When we drifted close to a darkly shaded shore, the plankton sparkled across the surface like the starry night sky. My all-time favorite bioluminescent effect was scooping up some water into the palm of my hand and watching the glowing plankton slide down my arm.
You will get wet on this adventure, so be prepared for that. Remember that the more you interact with the water, the more you will be amazed by the wonder of this natural phenomenon. It’s called Mosquito Lagoon for a reason, so bring bug spray and use it. They won’t bother you in open water, but once you’re closer to shore, they’ll be all over you. I also recommend that at least a few people in your group bring their phones. It is possible to get separated from your party or get turned around if you venture too far out in the lagoon, so you’ll want to have a way to check a map or make a phone call if need be.
If you haven’t ventured out to see this incredible phenomenon yet, you owe it to yourself to make it happen. This is the kind of adventure that will stick with you for life. With a few months left of summer temperatures, now is the perfect time to witness the magic of Florida’s bioluminescence. This adventure will enliven your senses and bring a smile to your face for years to come!