“Pssst! You Daniel?” We met our tourguide in a dark street behind some palm trees. “Bueno. Forty five dollars. Each.” With our fee in hand, he disappeared inside a black SUV nearby which hovered ominously.
“This is a legitimate business,” said the anonymous companion he left behind. “You will get to the Biobay.” ‘One way or the other’ was left unsaid.
We decided to come to Puerto Rico at the last minute. Longing for our days of travel and scheming ways to head out again (more on that later), we decided to head to the most accessible, most foreign, and sunniest part of the United States. Drawn by one of the brightest bioluminescent bays in the world, we ventured toward Vieques, a small island off Puerto Rico, famous for its beautiful beaches and bioluminescence.
We arrived in the town of Esperanza by 7pm, thinking we could rent a few kayaks at the last minute to check out the bay, which, of course not. It had to be through a tour company and as we called all of the tour companies on the brochure we found, it became evident that they all were booked. At the bottom of the list, in what I swear was smaller font (possibly written in with pencil?), was T___nia. We assumed T___nia wasn’t going to work out since the guy who answered it didn’t seem to speak English or understand our terrible Spanish and told us he would call back some time. But forty five minutes later he called back and said he’d meet us in front of “Tradewinds” or “Duffys”, or possibly “the Dock.” Several confusing calls later, we were standing in darkness, $90 lighter, watching the waves while the SUV lingered. Let’s call it what it was: super shady. But we never, not once, thought of backing out. We really wanted to see the bioluminescent bay.
If you never heard of bioluminescence- or a bioluminescent beach or bay- you are in for a treat. Bioluminscence is glowing light in any living thing, most often the glow-in-the-dark bacteria found in deep sea animals like jellyfish or angler fish ( I highly recommend the Planet Earth episode on the deep sea for more information) and bioluminescent areas are places where the water itself seems to glow because it is thick with bioluminescent protozoa. For example:
We had the pleasure of seeing some gold bioluminescence in Thailand and on our Booze Cruise around Halong Bay, but nothing like Vieques, the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world.
Twenty minutes later we were in the SUV. The man and his companion were gone and two teenage girls were driving us at breakneck speeds down a completely dark road speaking in rapid Spanish. Being in a country that speaks a language you’re trying to learn is rife with misunderstandings. I find that it makes me paranoid.
“Dijo….ella con….pelo… y tres minutos”
I picked out one out of every ten words they said. “Ella?” I thought” “that means ‘she’… I’m a “she”- are they talking about me!?”
As I attempted to listen harder, the language eluded me faster. Is there a dog involved? Is that the pluperfect? My reverie was punctuated as we hit a bumpy dirt road going 50 miles per hour and became airborne. The distant lights of Esperanza had evaporated and we were in complete darkness, punctured by the SUV’s headlights, which served only to highlight what new road bump we were about to launch off. By unspoken agreement, Daniel and I now knew ourselves to be probable hostages of the kidnapping troupe guised as biobay tour guides. The oldest trick in the book. For surely, teenage girls flying down unmarked roads in total darkness wasn’t about to lead to something “legitimate. “
Which is why we were genuinely surprised, and maybe a little disappointed, when we landed in a muddy jetty in the middle of the forest and saw a stack of kayaks and a group of tourists heading into brightly colored tour vans. The doors opened and two men reached in to to help me out. Throughout our trip in Puerto Rico, I’ve been helped in and out of every possible mode of transportation, while Daniel suffers his solitary exits and entrances gallantly. One may call it chivalry. I’m inclined to think of it as at least a little sexist, but when in Rome, I suppose.
Angel and Bebo, the two men who helped me out of the SUV, were our proper tour guide and tour guide assistant respectively, neither of whom spoke English well. Which is to say, their English was a million times better than our Spanish, but still led to more than a few miscommunications. The intro to the tour was probably more terrifying than it needed to be: “The water is [spanish]. The water is four feet. Maybe ten feet. [Spanish] There are, marlin, barracuda, manta rays, reef shark, tiger shark, bull shark..”
“There are sharks? (and me, trying, “Hay sharks?”)
“Yes, many sharks”
I had to consider this for a moment. I would be in a kayak, but many sharks is a phrase one doesn’t often hear.
“…nursery. For the babies. And kingfish, so many kingfish, so many that they could jump in the boat.”
I spent a good five minutes trying to think what “jumping” is in Spanish before I gave up. I could only aspire to his level of fluency.
Then we waited for a mysterious “group” that would never come. At one point they said there were fourteen people coming, then eight. While we waited, Angel talked about growing up in Vieques and how beautiful it was. How he lived deep in the island and how he would listen to the birds and the insects sing at night. How he could see all the stars because it was so dark. He pointed to the Seven Sisters and Scorpio. The last part was undermined a little when another employee, Gabriel, introduced himself and pointed out the same constellations in different parts of the sky. But the sentiment was beautiful.
Thirty minutes later, another couple arrived in the same SUV and Angel gave a similar speech, 700,000 bioluminescent protozoa per gallon…. sharks….kingfish. Then we were off to the kayaks!
Angel insisted that the men sit in the back because they were captain-not women. A better feminist than I would possibly address that, but I just ignored it. Although I did sit in the front, I interpreted “man is captain” as “Daniel gets to paddle while I violently hit my paddle against the water” to watch the whorls of glowing protozoa swirl around me.
Unfortunately, the protozoa do not show up in photographs and require a special camera to make them out. So all of our photos looked like this:
Choose your own caption:
Bright blue specks drip down Jevhon’s arm, pooling in her lap
Six trails of blue light shoot in all directions as fish dash out beneath the kayak
Daniel catches a bright blue ball as Jevhon splashes him with her paddle
Unfortunately, even the cameras that can catch the bioluminescence usually do so by lengthening the exposure time, which often comes off as bad photoshop.So even the photos I lift from google images don’t capture the experience:
The good news is that for anyone who is curious, the only way to really see it as it is to go yourself! So you have a ready made excuse.
On our way back, accompanied by those same two girls and a mysterious child sleeping next to us, I entertained the thought that I was now covered in dead protozoa. But really I’m probably always covered in dead microorganisms of some kind or another, and isn’t it worth it to swim in stars in Vieques?
What’s a thrilling moment you had while traveling? Share in the comments!