Glowing in the dark: Outfitter offers ‘Black Night Bioluminescence’ kayak tours

Experience nature glowing in the dark

Lance Shearer

We met just after sunset, and paddles out into the dark waters as the last rays of daylight vanished from the sky.

While there is lots to see kayaking out from the Capri Paddle Park, where Capri Blvd. splits off from Collier Boulevard, the point of the bioluminescence paddling tour is to have the minimum possible ambient light. Our group of 10 paddlers, plus Kayak Marco guide Ron Wofford, headed out on a moonless night in search of the elusive dinoflagellate, the microorganisms that cause a ghostly glow in the water when they are disturbed.

The group poses for a photo before heading out. Kayak Marco offered the last Bioluminescence Tours of the year, with paddlers seeing the glow of microorganisms on a moonless night.

For the microscopic critters to reproduce in sufficient numbers, as many as 500,000 in a gallon of seawater, to glow as paddles push through the water, or fish swim below in the shadows, conditions have to be just right. You need warm water that circulates, but not so much that the dinos are flushed out to sea. You also need the least possible “light pollution” from manmade sources such as buildings, streetlights and autos.

If you looked skyward just after Hurricane Irma passed through, and essentially flicked off the lights for our entire region all at once, you noticed the stars were far brighter than usual. Perhaps, though, like the rest of us, you were too otherwise occupied to go kayaking, and this was the first new moon since the storm.

The adventurous sorts who opted to go kayak in the darkness were a mix of locals and visitors, male and female, young and older. Brian and Tara Witcheer, visiting from Indiana, brought their two children Ryan, 15, and Anna, 12. The children opted to share a kayak and leave mom and dad on their own.

Lee Liberman of Minneapolis was celebrating his 58th birthday, the trip a gift from his partner Julie Rappaport, who paddled along with him, but not in the same kayak. Lee shared a kayak with his friend Eddie Garcia, and the two raised their hands when Wofford asked, in the course of his “pre-boarding” instructions, who had never kayaked before.

With the sky growing quickly darker, Garcia and the birthday boy made it only about 20 yards from the ramp before they both leaned too far in the same direction, and capsized their boat. The water in the entire bay was shallow enough to walk, so the two quickly got back to shore, received one more brief lesson, and headed back out, in high spirits despite the cellphone that remained somewhere on the bottom.

They weren’t the only mammals in the water. As our flotilla moved out into McIlvane Bay, a group of three or four dolphins cruised by, looking for a sushi dinner. Another couple species of local wildlife, mosquitoes and no-see-ums, were mercifully absent, with a nice breeze blowing over the bay.

“We’re not going to do a lot of paddling,” Wofford told the group before the start – the dinoflagellates were just as abundant near the launch ramp as anywhere else. With sunlight fully vanished, the only light came from a glow reflecting in the sky from the lights of Naples, and the glow sticks the paddlers carried. Even these were tucked away to get the maximum darkness, and the paddlers hugged the mangroves to take advantage of their shadows.

Then we saw the light. When you pulled your paddle through the water, or ran your fingers alongside the kayak, a pale green glow, with seeming crystals of light, played in the darkness, almost the exact same shade as the glow sticks.

With everyone having fun, some of the kayakers took off in sprints to churn up more light with their paddles. Luckily, the merriment stopped short of splash fights, which would be an invitation to more dumping of kayaks and a salt water-flooded camera.

Apart from the lights of the Hammock Bay condo towers nearly a mile away, and the sound of cars going by on Collier Boulevard, the sight was just what a Calusa would have seen paddling a dugout canoe in the same spot 1,000 years ago.

How the paddlers rated the phosphorescence depended on what they had seen before. As the Kayak Marco website says, “Puerto Rico bioluminescence is world famous. Marco Island bioluminescence is not.”

There is a reason for that. On the island of Vieques off Puerto Rico, the glow paints the night with streaks of green fire, leaving bright trails of phosphorescence behind any and all movement. On this night, McIlvane Bay yielded only a fraction of that. Julie Rappaport, who like this reporter had kayaked Mosquito Bay on Vieques, said she enjoyed it, “but if Vieques was a 10, this was a one.”

Heather Strangeflower, a first-time bio-kayaker, was more impressed. “Seriously, this was amazing,” she said.

It’s also true that, when we kayaked Puerto Rico’s Mosquito Bay, paddlers by the busload were ferried in, counted off like cattle, with the crowds and regimentation detracting from the experience. Our group on Friday had McIlvane Bay entirely to ourselves, apart from the dolphins and the fish swimming by, leaving ghostly wakes.

The Kayak Marco website stipulates there is no way to know on any given night how intense the phenomenon will appear, and with the “bio glow” being a warm weather phenomenon, the October new moon tours were the last of the season. The outfitter also offers moonlight and full moon kayak tours when more light is what you want.

Just being out on the water at night, seeing nature in a way that few people ever have the chance, was a treat – especially with the no-see-ums not coming along for the ride.

For more information, go online to, or call 239-695-0067.