Aquaria, Birds, Boats, Crafts, Fishing, nature study, Summer

Paddling for Bioluminescence

09.10.09 | 14 Comments

bioluminescent paddle trip

We have been captivated lately.

Until we are ready to stock our home marine aquarium we’ve spent quality time recently with our fellow sea creatures by several means: we renewed our membership at the aquarium; we’ve started teaching the boys to surf in Santa Cruz; and we’ve spent much time paddling up and down the sloughs, bays and byways of the Bay Area. On a recent campout to Tomales Bay we overheard, just as we were laying down to sleep in our tents, an armada of chatty sea kayakers paddling into our cove just bubbling with enthusiasm over something even more exciting: they were observing bioluminescence in the water.

Bioluminescence is the biochemical emission of light by living organisms such as fireflies and deep sea organisms and tiny creatures called planktonic dinoflagellates living in the bay, along with some fish that feed on them at night. They luminesce this way as light-emitting molecules in their bodies (luciferin) mix with luciferase enzymes and oxygen to produce light.

image courtesy of Clavey Kayaks

The following weekend we couldn’t wait to take our own night paddle tour with the kids, minus the group and guide. It’s pretty black and white: make sure you are comfortable paddling during the day with kids– night is not much more difficult if you can encourage a nap beforehand in the afternoon. We put in around 10pm and just began paddling. On the black new moon, it was abysmally pitch outside, but this didn’t matter. Every stroke beyond the harbor lights stirred up a light show in the water!

I became a princess with a magic oar, scoring glowing arcs through the cold dark water around me. Large luminescent fish darted like torpedoes from my boat in every direction; schools of herring fled en masse, like insecure oceanic spectres. Fish bolted farther and faster than we had ever seen in any aquarium, an eye-opening comparison. We could hardly contain our feverish pitch and delight and there wasn’t anything else happening anywhere else in the universe. The stars watched above, and the world below us pulsed with life and energy and purpose. We splashed and laughed and gazed wide-eyed in wonder at something completely new and exciting and fabulous and wild.


We prefer the dark, new moon for better visibility of the underwater lightshow. A full moon would be a beautiful paddle, but there might be significant glare.

Estuaries are magnets for this visual phenomenon, especially during the summer months.

Because estuaries and bays are ocean-fed, with muddly flats and inlets, you should be aware of the tide.

Be aware of the wind and flow/current conditions and try to plan the hardest paddling in the beginning of your jaunt.

To paddle out at night, you must equip your boat with a red deck light.

You must wear a headlamp, or just have a flashlight (hang on to it!) though you will turn it off to observe the wildlife.

You must also carry a loud whistle and, if you have connection, a cell phone.

You should ideally also notify someone when you depart, giving the location of where you intend to paddle.

LIFE JACKETS on everyone, even the dog.

Finally, keep several flares in your boat.

Let me know in the comments if I’ve forgotten anything, and “DUDE, THIS IS THE COOLEST THING EVER YOU SHOULD TOTALLY SEE IT!” from the Sicore boys.

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