Liquid light

Liquid light

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Liquid light

Paddling in search of bioluminesence

By Sue Madsen

Bioluminesence! I’d heard of it but had never seen this liquid light. As we paddled along the floating docks that ring the marina, the harbor seals sleeping there got nervous and several plunged into the water and flashed under our boats like green torpedoes.

The first time I ever kayaked at night was with a group of people who, like me, had signed up for a Whatcom County Parks-sponsored night outing. We met on the beach behind Semiahmoo Resort in Blaine, and launched as both the last rays of the sun faded and the moon set behind Point Roberts. A great horned owl called softly from a lone snag on Semiahmoo spit.

The trip had been timed for when the high tide coincided with a full moon, and I had one of those “a-ha” moments and the whole concept of the lunar driven tide cycle suddenly became crystal clear. Paddling off, we headed east as moonbeams danced on the surface before turning south toward the bluffs. One of the interesting things about paddling at night is that your senses begin to compensate for each other – as your eyesight becomes limited, your sense of smell and hearing seems to bloom. Approaching the bluff, I was startled by the sharp, clean scent of fresh water, and I realized we were paddling past a stream that I’d never noticed in my many daytime paddles at the same locale.

Paddling under the full moon is a thrill to be sure, but the best part of this adventure was yet to come. In almost complete darkness I suddenly noticed twin tracks of emerald green in the wake of the boat in front of me and realized that each of my paddle strokes stirred up a swirl of green diamonds. Bioluminesence! I’d heard of it but had never seen this liquid light. As we paddled along the floating docks that ring the marina, the harbor seals sleeping there got nervous and several plunged into the water and flashed under our boats like green torpedoes. Even the most grown-up among us couldn’t help but let out delighted squeals of child-like laughter.

Back home I followed up to see what I could learn about the phenomenon. It turns out that bioluminescence is a pretty common phenomenom. Various fish, squid, insects, bacteria and other species possess bioluminescence – even some mushrooms can glow. Typically, it’s the reaction that occurs between the lucerin molecule and the luciferase enzyme. What we saw were one-celled plankton called dinoflagellates – they produce light when stimulated manually by a paddle, boat or swimmer, for example. It takes a lot of dinoflagellates to produce enough light for us to notice – they range in size from 0.0002 to 0.08 inch. Under the right conditions dinoflagellate populations can reach 60 million organisms per liter of water.

I make it a point to do at least one moonlight/bioluminescence paddle every year. I most often see this phenomenon in late summer – July through September. Favorite spots of mine include Drayton Harbor and Mud Bay/Chuckanut Bay. These are relatively safe, sheltered areas to paddle at night. The shallow waters limit powerboat traffic and each offers a launch site where one can leave a vehicle parked after dark without getting locked behind a gate.

Paddling at night is not without risk. While you may not need headlamps to find your way, each boat should have a bright light shining to be visible to powerboat traffic. It’s a good idea to apply reflective tape to boats and paddles, and to every paddler’s PFD. Go with a group, and stay together. Make sure everyone is prepared for potential immersion (wear wet or drysuit, know how to do a wet exit, have a set of dry clothes). Stay near shore – in my experience bioluminescence is usually more common in shallow water.

I’ve since experienced this otherwordly blue/green glow in many places – sparkling from footprints left in the damp sand on a beach in Costa Rica, flickering in a bucket of sea water fetched to chill a six-pack of beer on the shores of San Juan Beach in Port Renfrew, B.C., and on the crests of waves breaking on the shore of the Olympic Peninsula while camping. Friends have reported strong bioluminescence in the coves of Sucia Island and the west coast of Vancouver Island, where one lucky couple I know encountered a magical swarm of glowing jellyfish! Bioluminescence turns up in the most unexpected places, so next time you are feeling adventurous grab a friend, boat and headlamp and explore the shores at night. X

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