What’s A Bioluminescence Tour? It’s Pretty Cool Actually

A good percentage of the population has heard of bioluminescence, but has no idea what it is. In fact, I’m pretty well-versed in science, and while I had also heard the term in passing, I didn’t know what it was, either.

When I was in Florida recently giving thrill rides around the Daytona International Speedway with NASCAR Racing Experience, a friend, photojournalist Mike Killian, invited me on a bioluminescence boat tour. I looked up the word, and found surprisingly that in certain areas of the world, tiny bacteria in warm salt water emit an eerie blue light, chemiluminscence when stirred up, illuminating the moving object and water around it. Turns out central Florida, on the Atlantic Ocean side, is a particularly fertile spot for this activity.

How interesting, I thought. Killian had arranged a night-time excursion with BK Adventure, a leader in these unusual tours, and invited me along. Merit Island National Wildlife Refuge, protected government land shared with the Kennedy Space Center, was to be our launching point.

Just after sunset, we gathered with about 50 other folks interested in the phenomenon, donned life jackets with little flashlights and whistles, and boarded one- and two-person kayaks. First, while there was still some light, we headed to a lagoon known to have water creatures, the main two being manatees and dolphins.

There is a strict rule that visitors are not to touch these playful creatures, even though they tend to be curious about, and gravitate toward, humans. A fine of $50,000 and/or jail time can be imposed for the most egregious offenses.

Before we knew it, a manatee was under our kayak, and stuck its nose out of the water. It then blew some air out, as a whale might do through its blowhole, to entertain us. The creatures, while fairly large, averaging 10 feet in length and weighing 1,000 lbs., are incredibly gentle, as are the more energetic Dolphins we saw arcing up from the water farther away. We also encountered some large, elegant birds on the shore surrounding the lagoon.

Once darkness fell in earnest, it was time for bioluminescince. After a quick break on shore for water and snacks, we boarded our kayaks again, this time pointing them out to more open water.

Ram, one of our guides, suggested I put my left hand in the water in the form of a fist, then open and close my fingers. Amazingly, a cloud of blue light began to surrounded that hand. Then I looked at our moving kayak oars. Same thing, except much more dramatic. Long entrails of the mysterious bluishnessness streamed from the bottom of the kayak body and from the oars.

A special treat that night was a rare view of the Star Link system that SpaceX had launched a few weeks earlier. A dozen or so satellites, in a tight line, passed over at a quick pace – too maybe five minutes – from horizon to horizon. There was no moon to obscure the light, so they were quite stunning. If I didn’t know what they were, I might have mistaken them for UFO’s.

Fifty miles in the distance, a huge storm was building, as is typical of Florida summer afternoons and evenings. Spectacular flashes of lightning leapt from cloud to cloud, and from cloud to water, with no thunder. Killian was diligent in setting up shots with his light-sensitive camera, our moving kayak emitting the blue bio light framed by the background lightning. Quite dramatic, I must say.

After about three hours, close to midnight, we called it a night. In all honesty, it was a pretty cool experience, even if you don’t understand the science. If you’re vacationing in Florida, and want something out of the ordinary, more than, say, a canned Disney tour, try this. It’s about an hour outside of Orlando.

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