Fajardo, Puerto Rico, 15 July 2015
Our local friend Raymond was emphatic that we had to go take one of the kayak trips to “Bio Bay,” whose proper name is la Laguna Grande, “the Big Lagoon.” This is a saltwater lagoon at the extreme northwestern corner of the island, surrounded by a mangrove swap, with a narrow channel some three-quarters of a mile long that leads from the lagoon to the sea and is covered with a canopy of overarching mangroves. Once you get into the lagoon, whose waters are perfectly calm, you are in one of the largest biolumnescent lagoons in the world. The brightest such lagoon is not too far away, on Vieques Island (which is part of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico); but to go to Vieques’s Mosquito Bay you have to rent a hotel room on Vieques and, of course, get onto the island somehow. But if you’re staying in Fajardo, you can get to Laguna Grande simply by making a reservation with any of the five or six companies that run kayaking tours from Las Croabas, at the tiny little bay into which the channel from Laguna Grande empties, ideally for a night when the moon is new and the forecast is clear. You should do this in advance in the summertime; most of the companies were booked up for three weeks when we got there for our two-week vacation. But it helps to have local friends, and Raymond called us at about seven-thirty on our first Wednesday to tell us that a spot had opened up on the last tour of the evening, at 9:00, getting back sometime between eleven and midnight.
Now you must realize that Helen showed quite a bit of bravery by agreeing to go on this trip, as well as an endearing amount of faith in yours truly. On these tours, you and your friend climb onto a two-person kayak after getting a short lesson in kayaking technique while standing on a sidewalk next to the bay. Then you paddle through the mildly choppy waters of the little bay, and then paddle through the pitch-blackness of the channel for three-quarters of a mile by following the little light on the back of the kayak in front of you, and then paddle out into the middle of the lagoon under the stars. And Helen…cannot swim. But she knows that I grew up as an enthusiastic white-water river rat for whom paddling is almost as natural as walking (the first thing I did once I got my lawn-mowing business started as an eight-year-old was to save up money and buy a white-water canoe), and I assured her that the company would provide first-class life jackets and that neither the company nor I would let her drown. So when the time came, she bravely clambered into the front seat, and then I got in behind her and paddled out into the waves to enjoy the swells while the rest of the kayaks were loaded. (We left the iPhones and Nikon behind, of course, mostly because we didn’t want to get them wet but also because we had been assured that while the bioluminesence is bewitching to the naked eye it is practically impossible to capture on film or pixel.)
I could almost say that the trip through the channel was my favorite part. It really is pitch black in there except for the tiny lights on the backs of the kayaks, and on the way in we were meeting other groups coming out, and the light on the kayak in front of us, which was piloted by a couple of Beijing girls who had never before found themselves in a kayak, zigzagged haplessly back and forth between the left and right sides, so that I actually stayed fifteen feet or so back and tried to plot an average course between the little blue light’s extremes. The guy behind me seemed to think we were in a race and kept trying to pass me and just bumping into either me or the oncoming kayaks. Eventually I found a chance to let him pass, whereupon naturally in short order he collided boomingly with the Chinese girls who had just come to a sudden mangrove-tree-induced stop – there was, after all, a reason why I was leaving plenty of space between myself and their meanderings. And of course when we met up with large groups coming back the other way, many of whom were also brand-new to kayaking, there was complete chaos in all directions, which I found hugely amusing.
But eventually we came out from under the mangroves into a perfect, moonless, star-filled night, with neither breeze nor mosquitos nor, as the guide hastened to assure the ladies of the group, leeches or piranha or any other of God’s more questionable creation decisions. The water began to turn a pale and oddly beautiful white where our paddles disturbed it. I reached my hand down into the water and saw myself turn into a ghost; a moment later a cry of delight came from Helen, who had just done the same thing.
I’m not sure how to describe that light; the word I keep coming back to is “ghostly” but that’s not quite right, only every other word seems more wrong than that one does. If you can think of a ghost without the instinctive numenous shudder, that is good – this was ghostly, but without being at all eerie, if you see what I mean. I would describe it as “friendly” except that nothing less like Casper the Friendly Ghost could well be imagined.
We stuck our paddles down as deep as we could reach and waggled them about, to see what the light looked like through five feet of intervening water. I put both feet out into the water and watched the pale white-with-the-faintest-blue-tinge light trail behind them. Only, you have to realize, because the disturbance in the water was greatest at the point where my calves and feet were touching the water, and therefore the light was brightest there as well, it didn’t really look like the water had lit up – it looked like my legs and feet themselves were glowing white. Again, I keep coming back to the same image: whenever I put any part of my body into the water, it was as if I myself, or at least that part of me, had become a ghost. Surreal, peaceful, gentle, lovely…it is so hard to describe precisely because I can think of no other experience I’ve had in my forty-eight years that is even remotely similar to it.
And then Helen scooped some water up in her hands and let it splash down on the side of the kayak, and suddenly the light fractured into countless infinitesimally small sequins skittering down the surface of the boat. I copied her instantly, fascinated by the fact that here was something else that looked really like nothing else I had seen – and it looked totally different from the swirling ghostly white of the water trailing around my feet. It was if you had two utterly different phenomena; if you had shown me a picture of my foot trailing clouds of demurely restrained glory, and had then separately shown me those tiny little diamonds skittering across the kayak before disappearing into the drainhole, I would never in a lifetime have guessed that they were actually the same thing.
We stayed in the bay for half an hour or forty-five minutes before heading back to the channel and then back across the bay to the shore, and it was one of the most magical forty-five minutes I’ve ever experienced. I know that the range of human taste is almost infinitely varied, and I know that one of the things that varies most widely is “things I love to do while on vacation.” But if ever there was something that absolutely everybody should do if they got the chance, I think a kayak trip into a bioluminescent bay on a perfectly clear but moonless tropical night could well be that something.