Bioluminescence Kayaking on Florida’s Space Coast: Amazing!
The Eery, water-bound phenomenon of Bioluminescence on Indian River
By Sharon Kurtz
Florida’s Space Coast is one of the top places in the world to experience a natural phenomenon called Bioluminescence.
This spectacular light show emanates from living organisms in the water that create their own blue-green light within themselves.
It illuminates small fish, water droplets, and even a kayaker’s hand when dipped beneath the surface of the water.
The darker the night skies, the more stunning the aquatic light shows in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuges’ Indian River Lagoon, one of the world’s five bays with this unique phenomenon.
This area is a most wondrous gem tucked away on the Space Coast.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is just five miles east of Titusville and is home to more endangered species than anywhere else in America.
The federally protected area on Merritt Island is an overlay of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center. It also provides an unpopulated and protected buffer area for rocket launches at the Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helps conserve the area for over 500 different wildlife species including a myriad of birds, and many plant types, in this eco-diverse system.
The absence of development allows this serene area to offer uninterrupted wildlife viewing with minimal light pollution or road noise. It is this lack of light pollution that makes the Bioluminescence much more prominent.
When floating on the water, you feel completely disconnected from civilization.
What Makes Indian River Lagoon So Unique?
The Indian River Lagoon, Banana River, and Mosquito Lagoon are a part of the Intracoastal Waterway, a “highway” of rivers, canals, and protected waters; one of the most biodiverse estuaries in North America.
Its proximity to an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean with an ideal mix of salt water and fresh water makes a hospitable environment for these microorganisms. It’s the perfect recipe for creating brilliant, bright luminescence.
The Indian River Lagoon hosts two types of bioluminescent organisms throughout the year. Dinoflagellates otherwise referred to as plankton, and Comb Jelly Fish or “Jellies.”
What Makes the Bioluminescence?
Billions of plankton—dinoflagellates—emit a blue-green and white light in the water.
They use photosynthesis to absorb the sun’s energy during the day so they can glow at night.
When disturbed, a chemical called luciferin is activated, causing light.
How much sunlight they absorb during the day will determine the brightness of the effect.
Even the tiniest of movements can cause the microscopic dinoflagellates to emit light. The flashing light (which lasts about a microsecond) is a part of their survival mechanism.
Whenever something disturbs the plankton, be it paddle strokes, schools of mullet, or even your hand-dipped in the water–a mini-explosion of color occurs in the water.
Dolphins look like missiles, fish leave glowing trails, and the slower-moving stingrays and manatees add a ghostly glow in the radiant water.
In the summer, dinoflagellates are the star performers. Glowing Comb Jellyfish–oval-shaped gelatinous drifters–are brought in with the colder waters from October through May.
The combs act like tiny oars, propelling them through the water. Unlike typical jellyfish, they do not have tentacles or stingers and do not hurt you.
Comb Jellies in Florida are transparent and create colors by emitting a flashing green-blue light whenever disturbed.
They radiate two kinds of colored light: the usual blue-green Bioluminescence and a breathtaking rainbow aura created when they scatter light through their cilia.
When Can I best see the Dinoflagellates?
Summer is the best time to enjoy the Bioluminescence since they only sparkle only in the warmer months. In the colder months, comb jellies replace the dinoflagellates, but the result is a similar light show.
The best time to go is at the darkest hours of the night, at least 5 days after or before a new moon.
Tip: Check out a lunar calendar or moon phases online to make sure the night will be darkest during your visit.
A Day Away Kayak Tours
A Day Away Kayak tours have been delighting visitors with kayaking tours in Florida since the early 2000s.
They offer several tours, but their specialty is the Bioluminescent kayaking experience, with more than 16 guides at peak times in the summer.
Each paddler wears a life preserver with an attached glow stick to let others in the water know you are there and a whistle. The Guide is equipped with a flashlight when increased visibility is needed.
I talked to Wyatt Hamilton, who serves as a guide for A Day Away Kayak Tours, to ask him to explain Bioluminescence.
“The Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge is our primary location for kayak tours. We launch from the Haulover Canal.
The best times are in the late summer when the water is the warmest, with a new moon, so the sky is darkest.
My favorite days to go out are rainy days because even the slightest motion stirs the water, including droplets of rain. The water gives it a shimmering effect–it looks like the water around you is sparkling.
Any small motions of animals like shrimp as they move through the canal in the summer months or when the mullets move quickly through the water cause streaks of color in the water.
Our clients compare it to Pandora –The world of the space explorers in the James Cameron movie Avatar; it’s just breathtaking.”
Seeing the Animals
“I love seeing the animals, with the only exception being shrimp. I’ll eat shrimp, but I hate touching them. Especially in the summer months when the shrimp season starts, and they tend to jump in your boat—a lot.
And I hate picking them up; they have those little horns on their head.
My dad used to make me bait my own hook when I was little when we went fishing –so I’ve always hated them.
The alligators are awesome. I know many people are spooked by them. If you have a flashlight or a head torch and shine the light, their eyes glow back red.
Raccoons hang from the mangrove trees that line the lagoon, and bobcats are often visible along the shoreline. I even spotted the elusive Florida Panther one time.”
Manatee Rodeo on the Indian River Lagoon
“The manatees are some of my most incredible animal interactions. Luckily, I’ve never been thrown out of my kayak.
Sometimes at night, when the manatees are sleeping in the shallow water, you find yourself on top of them–and when that happens, they get spooked.
We’ve seen them lift whole tandem kayaks out of the water and dump them. We call that a “Manatee Rodeo.”
Flashing Lights, a Flat Tire, and the Pig
Part of being an experienced traveler is having at least one good story to tell. Mine is a doozy.
Not allowing enough time to get to the launch site without clear directions to a remote National Wildlife Refuge at night is a recipe for disaster.
You would think blasting past a roadblock near a restricted Government area just because the GPS on my iPhone told me to would have been a red flag.
Flashing lights and an unamused Park Ranger would have been the next.
Letting us go with a warning, Ranger Goss proved he was a good sport when he helped change our flat tire that happened when we pulled off the road and headed us in the right direction. All activities went way beyond his job description.
As if that wasn’t enough, add in the feral pig flashing across the darkened road in the misty rain, his beady eyes glowing in the headlights.
This rotund porker almost became roadkill, and that would have surely put a damper on our kayaking adventure.
We later discovered wild boars are a nuisance on the island and an environmental challenge, a holdover from the days of the settlers in the 1800s.
Finding our Guide
We arrived almost two hours late at the put-out area to the welcome sight of our Guide Buddy patiently waiting for us with the kayaks.
After a short safety briefing, we were out on the water.
Kayaking in the dark is a very disorienting experience. Without any landmarks, it’s hard to get your bearings, kind of like navigating with a blindfold over your eyes.
The sounds of nature at night are amplified–the splash of a mullet jumping out of the water, buzzing insects, and the gentle splash of the paddle as it cuts the water, just a few of them.
Buddy regaled us with tales of “flying” mullets landing in the kayaks–evidently quite common.
We, fortunately, did not encounter a flying mullet, alligator, or manatee rodeo. Buddy provided a running commentary about the Indian River Lagoon, the Intracoastal Canal, the Bioluminescence and wildlife, and the delicate balance of the area’s ecosystem.
It was a great learning experience and gave us an appreciation for the balance of nature all around us.
As we traversed deeper into the darkness of the lagoon, we experienced the glowing of the water when we lifted our paddles and the radiant light when we put our hands in the water.
Buddy dipped a net alongside the kayak and collected some of the Comb Jellies in a jar so we could see the glowing of the organisms in the jar’s bottom.
All in all, it was a grand adventure, even with the challenges of finding the launch site. I can’t wait to do it again; next time in the late summer months, with a new moon, and I’ll be on the lookout for that pig.
Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism (321) 433-4470 430 Brevard Avenue, Suite 150, Cocoa, FL 32922 website
The author’s trip was sponsored by the Space Coast Office of Tourism, but the opinions are her own.
Sharon Kurtz is a freelance writer who shares her love of travel and food by exploring unique customs, cultures, and flavors at home and around the globe. While Dallas, Texas is home with her husband and three spoiled dogs, her carry-on is always packed ready for the next adventure. Catch up with her on her website or Instagram.