Water glows beneath the kayaks in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

The bioluminescent kayak tours take paddlers along the Indian River Lagoon estuary on Florida’s east coast near Cape Canaveral.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

The bioluminescent kayak tours take paddlers along the Indian River Lagoon estuary on Florida’s east coast near Cape Canaveral.

MERRITT ISLAND NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

We crossed the causeway at dusk, drove over the draw bridge, turned down a dirt road and wound through a towering grove of palmettos.

The path opened onto a loamy beach, blanketed with kayaks.

"Okay, grab a life jacket and a paddle and come make a circle around me," a fit woman called from the shore. "That's it. Spread out. Glad you all could make it."

We had driven more than three hours across Florida, from St. Petersburg through Titusville, into the wildlife refuge near Cape Canaveral. We had fortified ourselves with Goldfish crackers, bottled water and super-strength bug spray.

We had come to see the light.

• • •

Our friends had seen it here last summer during a late-night kayak trip. They had raved about it, wondered about it, tried to describe it.

It sparkles like diamonds, they told us. Like raindrops. Like thousands of tiny disco balls swirling through the river.

It dribbles off your paddle like strings of stars. It makes the mullet glow.

It's called bioluminescence, our friends said — tiny illuminated creatures that swirl just beneath the surface of the water.

People travel to Puerto Rico to see the phenomenon. A few years ago, it showed up in a shady cove off the Indian River.

The water shimmered all summer. By November, the glow was gone.

So we had come on this steamy Saturday near the end of summer vacation, chasing one last family adventure before our boys went back to school, in search of mysterious, miniscule creatures that no one seems to be able to capture, and even scientists can't explain.

"What you will see out there are one-celled organisms called dinoflagellates that emit their own light," explained the fit woman, Elizabeth Mahan, who runs the kayak tours with her husband, Mike. "Out here, you'll get more than 100,000 of them per liter of water."

No one knows why they glow, she said. "Are they mating? Is it in self-defense?"

She paused and smiled, twirled her paddle. "I just believe God loves really cool things and he wants us to play with them."

• • •

The air was warm and sticky, thick with mosquitoes. While Elizabeth showed us how to steer and steady our kayaks, we swatted our arms and faces, scratched our legs.

Behind her, the sun slipped into the river, painting salmon streaks across the sky.

Fasten your life jackets. Make sure they're tight. Grab a whistle and a glow stick — your horn and headlight. Don't worry about alligators. Worry about fishing lines.

"There is no moon tonight," she said, sliding her boat down the murky shore. "So it's going to be pitch black out there. Just follow my red blinking light and we'll go across the channel, into the lagoon on the other side.

"Out there you'll see the sea grass glowing, the little fish glittering . . ."

• • •

Only a whisper of light lingered over the river as our flotilla drifted beneath the bridge. With two thin paddles fluttering on each side of every kayak, the boats looked like big dragonflies skimming upstream.

We zigzagged at first, then got into a rhythm. Behind us, I heard my older son shout, "I hit something, Daddy. I think it was a rock."

He shone his light stick into the river. Two bulbous eyes reflected the glow. "I just clocked a manatee."

A pelican dove into the water, its silhouette streaking across the shore. A pod of dolphins splashed feet in front of our boats. Overhead, stars started to peek through the blackness.

We paddled a couple of miles, watching the sky more than the dark water, tracing constellations, pointing out planets, trying to tell airplanes from satellites. In the distance, the launch towers of Cape Kennedy blinked like yellow eyes.

"Just a little farther, and we'll move to the right side of the river," Elizabeth said.

She didn't tell us yet, but we should have guessed: We were headed for Mosquito Lagoon.

• • •

It isn't always this bad, she swore, as we swatted and scratched and bled in the darkness. When there's a wind, the bugs don't bother you, Elizabeth promised. Tonight, there was no wind.

We were so busy slapping skeeters, trying to follow the kayaks across the channel, that at first we didn't notice the glow far below.

Then someone up ahead squealed. And someone closer gasped. A woman in a boat beside us sounded like she was moaning. "Oh. Oooh. I see it now. Oooh my, this wasn't what I had expected."

We peered over the right side of the kayak, into the water, and caught our breath.

Streams of blue-green light, like wisps of translucent smoke, drifted in shifting clouds around our boat. Each time you dipped in your paddle, it shot a shimmering trail into the river, like thin streams of mercury swirling through the clear current.

We steered closer to shore, rimmed the crescent-shaped lagoon. Along the shore, where trees blocked the starlight, you could see tiny fish skittering through the twinkling sea grass.

"If you get a few kayaks together, and paddle fast, you can set the fish flying," Elizabeth suggested. We teamed up, three boats in a row, and ghostly mullet started shooting up like Nerf rockets.

"I wish we could take it with us, put some in the turtle tank," said my younger son.

"I wish we could jump in and swim around in it, so we could glow too," my older boy said.

I leaned out of the kayak, trailed my arms in the warm water, trying to block the mosquitoes and abate the itch. When I picked up my hands, glowing beads spiraled around my wrists.

We couldn't describe it. Couldn't capture it on our camera.

But for one shining moment, I held the light.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

.IF YOU GO

Kayaking tours

The drive from the Tampa Bay area to the kayak launch site in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge takes more than three hours.

A Day Away Kayak Tours in Titusville offers guided bioluminescent trips every evening from June through October. Tours start at 7:30 p.m. and last about two hours. Cost is $32 for adults, $24 for children. Tropical Storm Fay dumped a lot of rain on Merritt Island, but the bioluminescent water is brighter than before, tour operators say.

For more information, or to book a trip, call (321) 268-2655 or go to www.adayawaykayaktours.com.

The trip includes instructions on how to paddle and the route is easy enough for first-time kayakers. Life jackets, whistles and light sticks are provided.

There are no bathrooms or vendors at the launch site. Bring bottled water and a snack in a waterproof bag.

The mosquitoes can be brutal. Bring plenty of bug spray. Or wear long sleeves and pants.

Water glows beneath the kayaks in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge 08/29/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 29, 2008 3:16pm]

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