Reviews of bucket-list-worthy things to do all over the world

We Saw the Ocean Glow!

One of the most magical experiences of my life was swimming in bioluminescent Mosquito Bay off the island of Vieques, about eight miles from the east coast of Puerto Rico. Mosquito Bay is intensely bioluminescent due to high concentrations of microscopic dinoflagellates, a type of plankton.

I will never forget that dark night when I climbed into the warm, pitch-black water and watched tiny sparkles of bright light, like Tinkerbell's pixie dust, radiate from my body. Given the opportunity, I would love to take that swim again, but Puerto Rico is a long way from where I live in Southern California.

I was excited to come across the Bioluminescence Night Cruise run by the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, California. The website promised a boat ride through an ocean filled with bioluminescent organisms, including dinoflagellates. One of my science-loving friends and I signed up.

We arrived at Dana Point a few hours before our scheduled 8:00PM departure. We passed some time exploring the small rocky beach behind the Ocean Institute where couples held hands and children collected rocks. Then we strolled by the numerous marinas and shops, looking for a place to have dinner.

We decided to try Harpoon Henry's Seafood Restaurant. Inside was a large, inviting dining room with a fireplace, but we asked to sit on the fully enclosed deck with large windows that looked out on the marina. I was delighted by both the view from our booth and the food, with warm sourdough rolls to start and then tasty sea bass for my friend and a perfect cheeseburger with delicious skinny French fries for me. We could have happily stayed at Harpoon Henry's all night, but we had a cruise to catch, so we headed back to the Ocean Institute.

We met up with about twenty people who were waiting on the dock near the R/V Sea Explorer. Just after 8 PM, a staff member checked us in, and we boarded the boat. Strings of red light illuminated the walkways. We easily found a place to stand along the railing and the boat motored off slowly through the dark harbor.

As we approached the rocky breakwater, we could smell and hear the seabirds perched there. Flying seagulls reflected enough light from the nearby yacht club to give them a strange surreal look.

Before we left the harbor, the captain took the boat over to harass, I mean observe, some other birds with the boat's spotlight. We must have gotten too close because all but the bravest, or sleepiest, birds quickly scattered.

Finally, we motored out into the open water. The Ocean Institute's Bioluminescence Night Cruises are scheduled once per month on, or very close to, a new moon, and so it was very dark. That night, due to an overcast sky, there weren't even any stars visible. A thin fog enveloped the boat. I felt like I was inside Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

The boat picked up speed. We held on tighter to the railing and looked into the dark water trying to see the promised bioluminescence. Suddenly, a glowing torpedo, and then another one, appeared at the bow; dolphins were surfing the bow wake! Instead of seeing the dolphins' gray bodies under the water, we saw a faintly glowing outline that indicated where they were. After a few minutes, we could see the dolphins swim off.

The boat slowed down and the captain aimed the boat's spotlight on a navigation buoy where about fifteen sea lions were piled up on the base, resting. The sea lions initially ignored us, but, after a while, some of the sea lions began to bark loudly as if to say to us, "GO AWAY! GO AWAY!" If that was actually their intention, I couldn't blame them.

Finally, the captain turned off the spotlight and the boat picked up speed again. I stared at the ocean, wondering if I was imagining a faint glow in the wake at the ship's bow.

Soon, the glow was unmistakable. And there was more. There were sparks of light too, like the ones that fall from a Fourth of July sparkler. I was entranced.

The boat stopped over an underwater canyon. The staff dropped a big net into the depths and then pulled it up again. When the net was reeled in, pinpoint lights covered its surface. The crew poured their catch into a bucket and ran their fingers along the empty net, causing a glow wherever they touched. Then they emptied the bucket into small observation sinks.

Adults crowded around the sinks like enthusiastic school children on a field trip. I put my hands in the water and swirled them around. Tiny points of light trailed my fingers. For a split second, I was back in the biobay in Puerto Rico.... until I felt a few solid objects, about the size of grapes, hit my hand. Jagged lines of light radiating from a central point, like the spokes of a wheel, shone in the water.

"Are those jellyfish?" someone asked. They were, but most people kept their fingers in the water, even before the staff assured us that these jellyfish wouldn't sting us.

After a few minutes, the glowing began to disappear. Because the bioluminescence is caused by a chemical reaction, and the chemicals eventually need to be replenished, the show was over. The staff turned on their flashlights and showed us the clear jellyfish and small krill (center of photo on the right) in the water.

The crew announced that they had put a light out over the bow of the boat to attract squid and the animals who feed on them. We went to the bow where we could see squid swimming just under the water (because the light was on, we couldn't see any bioluminescence). The light managed to get the interest of a young sea lion who was likely feeding on the animals we'd attracted.

Soon it was time to head back. I decided to check for bioluminescence in the ship's wake, and, sure enough, at the stern of the boat, I could see occasional bursts of light, like fireworks in a cloudy sky. I returned to the bow just in time to see another "glowing torpedo" surfing our bow wake. The dolphin settled right by my friend and me for a few moments before she disappeared into the dark ocean.

I did this in 2012 off the coast of Dana Point, California, USA.

Jen (California, USA)

Find Jen's list of bucket-list-worthy things to do in the Los Angeles area here.