Night Kayak: A tale of bioluminescent brilliance
The slight chill of the night air mirrored the chills of excitement and anticipation as we untied the kayak from the roof rack and set it on the hard, wet sand, glancing at the glowing waves as they crashed on the beach in front of us. Yes, that’s right, glowing. This was the height of the red tide in San Diego in 2011, and tonight was perfect timing with a new moon. These waters had not seen this intense of a red tide in about 7 years. This one was caused by a nontoxic dinoflagellate, Lingulodinium polyedrum, known for creating intense bioluminescence. These unicellular algae can grow in huge numbers when favorable conditions align and cold, nutrient rich water comes to the surface. During the day, it gives the water a reddish brown color, but after dark is when the real show begins.
We quickly zip up our wetsuits, life jackets, secure on a dive light and grab our paddles. Ready to brave the inky waters for a closer look at the magic of the red tide. As each wave crashes, an intense blue glow appears, partially masked from the resulting whitewater and lights coming from behind us on shore. We can hardly wait to get on the water, farther from the lights, to see what else might be glowing underneath us as we skim across the surface. The waves are a little larger than we expected based on the surf report but we both manage to hop on, digging in our paddles to get through the surf zone. Once over deeper water, a new sense of relief, accomplishment and even giddiness takes hold. Now it us just us, surrounded by the dark water below and starry sky above. The very wake of the kayak emits a blue glow more intense than any we had seen yet! Each touch of our paddle to the water provides a light show, each drop that falls from the blade on the recovery stroke lights up like a little star. If this was all we saw, it would have been enough… but there was more!
Out of the silence of the night came the sound of a breath, searching the darkness around us we wondered where it had come from and what had created it. Then, only a few meters away, two more breaths were accompanied by the backs of two dolphins breaking the surface, complete with their own glowing wakes. They moved by swiftly, leaving us reeling to process what we had just seen! We picked up our paddles to follow and saw them surface once or twice more, then change direction and quickly swim back out to sea leaving only the momentarily glowing trail of their powerful kicks underwater. We were soon distracted by some playful sea lions and the sight of small fish and squid darting around below us leaving glowing trails as they skidded away. Then we saw it. Slowly yet mightily moving through the water in a way that only sharks can, was the most amazing sight of all. Unlike the sea lions and dolphins that caused glowing wakes at the surface, and small fish, who’s glowing trails followed them about, the shark’s whole body lit up. I stared, frozen and mesmerized as it swam right underneath the middle of our kayak. I tried to remember every detail as I knew this was something I was very lucky to see, and may not get such a good look at ever again. The glowing water caressed the shark’s skin clinging to the ridged tooth-like scales, sliding over the fins back into the darkness, and lighting up again as the powerful tail pushed it aside. It was a moment that seemed to last infinitely, yet end all too soon. When we paddled back through the surf and pulled the kayak onto the beach, we were still in awe of the sight of that shark framed by the glowing trails of small fish scurrying out of its way.
Since our camera was not sensitive enough to capture the bioluminescence, I tried to recreate it on canvas: