The Light at the End of the Tunnel

One of the first scary movies I ever saw was “The Creature From the Black Lagoon.” The beginning of that spine-chilling story showed a bird resting on a branch by the water’s edge. It was truly an idyllic scene until a large lizard-like scaled hand suddenly emerged from the black depths and snatched the bird. As quickly as the hand appeared, it, and the bird, were gone. It was a scene that produced many gasps of fright in the audience. Mine was one of the loudest.

I honestly don’t recall if that experience was before or after I nearly drowned in a bay on the coast of New Jersey. It really doesn’t matter which came first. The combination has left me fearful of any water where I cannot see the bottom. In other words, if it isn’t a bathtub, swimming pool, or Jacuzzi, I’d rather not be in it.

I share this information to preface the experience my bride and I shared with Richard and Glorín, our good friends in Puerto Rico.

We only had four days to spend on the island, so we tried to pack in as much variety as we could. Normally, when one of the planned activities involves swimming or boating, my enthusiasm leaves something to be desired. However, this time found me more than eager to be part of it. The planned excursion was a kayaking trip to a lagoon where we would see bioluminescent plankton. I had heard of this phenomena and my curiosity kept me from even thinking of my fears… until we got to the launching area.

In case some readers are unfamiliar with bioluminescent plankton, here is a short explanation. In only five places on earth (three in Puerto Rico), living organisms in the water give off a glow similar to that of a firefly, or lightning bug. These organisms are microscopic plankton and, when disturbed, they create light through a chemical reaction. The tiny organisms, known as dinoflagellates, feed on blue-green algae that flourish in salt-water lagoons, making their concentrations higher than in regular seawater.

The scientific name of these tiny creatures is Pyrodinium bahamense. They are part animal (they move around) and part plant (they photosynthesize sunlight using chlorophyll). How or why they glow is not known for certain. They emit a bright glow whenever they are agitated, or moved around. As a single cell organism, this built in defense mechanism can make them seem as much as five hundred times larger to predators. Thus, it is a good guess that the glowing is simply for protection.

I had read about these lagoons in Puerto Rico and was fascinated by the idea of being able to see the outlines of fish swimming through the water even during the darkest of nights.

My anxiety began to replace my fascination when we stopped at a fancy resort hotel for late afternoon refreshment. Our main reason for visiting the resort was to use their restrooms to change into our bathing suits. The anxiety quickly changed to dread when we arrived at the water’s edge and began preparing for the trip. We were fitted with life vests and asked to sign the typical waver that states that, regardless of how you died during the outing, the kayaking outfitters should never be held responsible.

I felt some apprehension when our guide told us we would be free to jump in the water and swim with the plankton, but I was fairly confident that I could balance our kayak and stay out of the water even if Lu decided to take a dive.

The panic really set in when we were told we would have to paddle though a channel lined with mangroves. By now the sun had set and there was no moon. To make matters worse, I was thinking the channel would be a straight line. It never occurred to me that the channel would be a meandering stream with more twists and turns than Road Atlanta.

Carlos, our guide, was in his own kayak. He had a red light on his arm and a green luminescent coil on the back of his boat. Each of our boats had a similar green “light”. Our party consisted of four kayaks. Carlos, a young couple from Kansas, Glorín and Richard, and Lu and I. Our trip began by crossing a reasonably well lit cove dotted with numerous moored boats, but it wasn’t long until we disappeared into the mangrove forest. Thoughts of a creature lurking in the black waters helped me concentrate on the red light hanging from Carlos’ arm.

Carlos had assured us that there were no poisonous snakes hanging from the branches of the mangroves. He also assured us that the water in the channel was less than three feet deep. Glorín, a native of the Enchanted Island, had earlier told us there were no poisonous insects and virtually no wild animals on the island. So there was nothing to fear but fear itself. That, and the low hanging branches that we frequently hit with our paddles.

Paddling was another challenge we had not considered. Kayaking appears to be a smooth and swift means of transporting oneself across a body of water. For Carlos, that is exactly what it was. For the rest of us, it was a totally different matter. Carlos told us all we had to do was get into a rhythm where both partners in each boat paddled on the same side at the same time. If we wanted the boat to go to the left, we simply paddled an extra time or two on the right. If we wanted to go to the right, we simply reversed the procedure. Yeah, right!

It seems that whenever Lu and I got into a perfect rhythm and had the kayak propelled at a decent clip, we’d either clip an overhanging branch, or go directly into the roots of a tree. In open water, we were all going from one side to the other as Carlos continued on a straight line to the next turn that only he knew existed. It became a real challenge to keep up with our guide who often seemed oblivious to the struggling kayakers behind him.

Do I need to remind you that the only lights were the little red light on Carlos’ arm and the green coils attached to the rear of each boat? Pitch black was given a new meaning.

About halfway through the channel, my back was reminding me that I don’t get enough exercise. As a result, I discovered that, being in the back seat of our kayak, I could contribute more to the cause by using my paddle as a rudder. It was then that I took the time to watch Lu’s paddling more closely and realized that with each stroke, she left a stream of greenish light in the water. I told her we didn’t have to get to the middle of the lagoon to see the wonders of nature. We were both equally fascinated and finally realized what Carlos meant when he had asked if we saw the stingray pass beneath us.

The couple from Kansas and Lu and I took turns being the first boat behind Carlos. Glorín and Richard, meanwhile, were putting their relationship to the test as they rammed into one mangrove after another. Finally, they lost sight of Carlos’ red light and our green lights. We eventually got Carlos’ attention and he went back into the maze to find them.

After about forty-five minutes we emerged into the wide lagoon. It was then that I noticed that the water that had been splashed into our boat was sparkling.

We pulled the kayaks together and Carlos gave us the lecture to explain what we were experiencing. Carlos said the magnitude of the luminescence varied from season to season and on a scale of one to ten, we were witnessing a five. He also said that if we filled a two-gallon bucket with water from the lagoon, we would capture about five hundred thousand of the microscopic creatures.

The brilliance of that “five” was astounding. One can only imagine what a ten would be like. Everyone but Carlos and I were soon swimming around and making comments like, “It looks like fairy dust all over my arms and legs.” Or, “It’s like millions of tiny Tinkerbelles.”

All too soon we had to head back through the mangrove maze. I’d like to say that we were all better kayakers by then, but that wouldn’t be anywhere near accurate. Richard and Glorín continued to find every root and every tree. Meanwhile, despite my best efforts, Lu continued to paddle us close enough to the trees that my paddle got tangled in the branches as she feigned innocence. The couple from Kansas seemed to have shown the most improvement, or at least managed to be less vocal than the older married couples. Carlos simply continued on his own merry way.

I’m glad to say that the creature from the black lagoon never appeared, although I did see a fish swimming through the plankton. It is something I will never forget. It was like watching a phantom gliding through the depths. I’m elated that I was able to curtail my fears long enough to enjoy a once in a lifetime experience. I’d recommend the trip to anyone fortunate enough to visit Puerto Rico.

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