The summer air is warm and your heart is beating with anticipation as you make your way down to the dock. You’ve made this journey before, but this time it’s different – this time, it’s 11pm and the purple dusk is finally easing into full darkness. The night is still and quiet except for the hushed whispers among your fellow paddlers, led by one of your guides.
In the gear shed you fumble with your PFD and grab a paddle; no spray skirts are needed, since you’ll barely be going 200 metres from the dock. You’re not here to gaze at the incredible mountainous islands like you’ve been doing for the past few days. You’re here to experience a different kind of magic.
Head torches swing around as you clatter down the ramp and help each other slide kayaks into the glassy water. One by one, you slip into your cockpits and push off.
Behind you, the light of the lodge flicks off. Its reflection on the water disappears and the summer night plunges into darkness. The stars gleam above you in numbers that people living in cities can only dream of; you feel like you could lean back on the stern of your kayak and gaze up into the abyss forever.
But the voice of your guide carries softly over the water, reminding you to do what you came out here for: look down.
Your eyes turn to the ocean beneath your boat, and at first you think that you’re still looking at the stars, reflected vividly in the water. But then you realise that there’s a whole other kind of beauty going on.
As your kayak glides forward across the sheltered bay, you can see streams of faint light in the ocean below. When you slice your paddle through it you twist and watch the wake – watch as the water curling off the blade ignites with blue-green, the light outlining the tiny whirlpool you’ve created. Moments later it swirls off into the darkness behind your kayak, and you turn to the other side to watch again, and again, and again.
Your guide calls out, leading the group across the bay to the cliffs on the other side. As you slide up into their shadow, you peer down into the water and see spurts of light erupt from below. Barnacles on the cliff are feeding and triggering a fireworks show.
For seemingly endless minutes, your group paddles along the rocky face, attention glued to the beauty swirling beneath your kayaks. The night is almost silent, broken only by excited exclamations and awed whispers.
After a while, your guide gathers everyone together to tell you quietly that this phenomenon is called bioluminescence. It’s caused by single-celled, plant-like organisms called dinoflagella. When they get agitated – like when a barnacle tries to grab them or your paddle slices past – they let off flashes of blue-green light. It’s a chemical reaction, mixing a molecule called luciferin with an enzyme called luciferase, in the presence of oxygen.
The flashes last just an instant, just enough to dazzle you with wonder. But no one knows exactly why these plankton do this. Maybe they use the flash to startle their predators and make a quick escape, or maybe they use it like a burglar alarm, attracting a second predator to eat the first.
Somehow it’s already been an hour; you were so enchanted that you didn’t even notice time passing. As your guide slowly leads you back to the dock, your eyes finally leave the water and you look up – and now with your night vision is at its fullest, you’re awed by how the sky bursts with light too. The summer constellations spread across the sky like bright webs, and you can even see the faint glowing band of the Milky Way spilling from horizon to horizon.
As you put the kayaks away and head back to your cabin for some well-earned rest, you feel like a kid again, heart filled with wonder at the world around you.
Written by: Lauren Fuge