Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Protozoa

No, I didn't take these because my tiny camera couldn't handle the darkness.
I could have lied and said they were mine.
But I'm a former scout leader and am supposed to be "trustworthy." Right.

Ask any first-time visitor to the island of Vieqeus, Puerto Rico what the highlight of their trip was, and (unless they’re an idiot or a complete chicken shit) you most likely will get the same answer: "Swimming in the Bioluminescent Bay." What exactly is the Bioluminescent Bay? Well, it’s a glow-in-the-dark part of the ocean. The water itself doesn’t glow. The billions of microscopic protozoan living and thriving in this mangrove lush section of the Caribbean have a natural defense mechanism called bioluminescence. When agitated or “attacked,” the movement in the water around them causes a chemical reaction that makes them produce light. In nature, their light would attract larger predators who would then eat the smaller fish attacking the protozoan. In Vieques, their light attracts tourists.

Now I freely admit that until a few days before leaving for Vieques, I had never heard of not only the Bio Bay, but of bioluminescence (I am a close kin to the aforementioned idiots from the first paragraph). When I put on Facebook that I was going to Vieques, a high school chum from Canada wrote that swimming in the Bio Bay at Vieques was on her life’s to-do list. Now when you read that you're four miles from something on someone's "Before I Die" to-do-list you immediately go to Google to find out what the hell that someone is talking about! I’m so glad I did. Thanks Michelle, you wonderful Canuck. Go BMHS! (Now the San Francisco Ritz Carlton. Go SFRC!)

On our second or third night in Vieques (there was a lot of rum on hand, days started to blend), our quartet of mid-Atlantic moms drove to Esperanza at dusk to begin our adventure. We boarded a tropical, doorless version of the Partridge Family bus for a brief bush-whacking ride through Sun Bay to the board the motorized pontoon boat. Why dusk? Because things don’t glow in the dark when it’s not dark, stupid. That’s also why you try to book this tour as close to a new moon as possible. About 20 of us boarded the boat for the brief ride to the glowing bay. Along the way we heard a brief lecture on plankton, protozoa, constellations and light pollution. Some of us listened. Others yacked and snapped gum (damned Texans). The entire time, the pontoon was operating without lights, guided only by the stars and a well-practiced guide and operator.
Soon we could see lightning bolts in the water. These were the illuminated reflections of fish swimming through the bioluminescent plankton. Then we were “there.” The area with the most concentration of bioluminescence. At least that’s what they told us. How would we know, really?

The operator announced that we could now jump off the boat and swim in the dark if we'd like. "Not on your freaking life," was heard coming from one older male passenger. But my sister, her mother-in-law and I shot up like we’d been hit with a cattle prod and bolted for the stairs to the water. A minute later, we were swimming in the dark, in warm Caribbean waters, gazing up at the Milky Way that not one of us had ever seen before. And we were and glowing. We were absolutely glowing, inside and out.
There’s no way to describe swimming in the Bio Bay other than to say you drip diamonds. The water doesn’t glow unless you move it. Then, it’s like you’re making dayglow snow angels in the sea. The microscopic glowing plankton cling to any surface, so when you lift your arms out of the water, they trickle down each hair (YES, I have some forearm hair!) back into the water, glowing the whole way down. It’s like you’re shedding miniature diamonds from your skin. We swam, and glowed and laughed for about 15 minutes. And then our mother got the gumption to conquer her fears, don two floating belts and a life preserver and join us. For another 15 minutes we four floated, gazed at the cosmos and then laughed hysterically wondering whether peeing in a bioluminescent bay would cause a glow-in-the-dark trail that all the others could see. (It did not. And I won’t say who tested the hypothesis for fear of retribution.)

When our guide announced it was time to re-board, everyone was disappointed. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of us and it was sad to see it end. The swim was over, but the show was not. As I said, the plankton cling to surfaces and glow as they trickle off. So as we re-boarded the pontoon and searched for our towels in the dark, some of us looked down into our swimsuits and started once again laughing hysterically. It was like a LED display on the fritz in our bras. Those little suckers would glow until they rolled downward. One of us (again, I’m not saying who because I’d like to be invited back!) said, just a hair too loudly (no pun intended), “Oh my God! My pubic hair is putting on a light show!” This just-a-tad-too-loud utterance set off a giggling chain reaction of “Did you hear what she just said!” among the pontoon. The one who laughed the heartiest was the still-dry grandfather who had said “Not on your freaking life!” when first offered the chance to glow-and-swim. So at least that gentleman got some thrill from the tour. Even if was only from hearing about my sister’s glowing pubes (Oops, I said too much!)

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