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A Florida summer thrill: Night-time kayaking in a bioluminescence glow

A bioluminescence kayak trip belongs on your bucket list

Just when I had decided that Florida summers were pure hell, I had one of those memorable experiences that makes the heat and humidity almost worth it: Kayaking at night on the Mosquito Lagoon experiencing the spectacular eerie glow of bioluminescence, Florida’s underwater light show.

During the summer, billions of plankton – dinoflagellates – in the water of Mosquito Lagoon emit a blueish-white glow underwater when they are disturbed. That means that every paddle of a kayak creates a wave of glowing light, every wake left by a neighboring boat has a glowing trail and, most excitingly, every splash of a mullet sets off a small light show.

As the sun sets over Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, kayaks are lined up ready to launch for a bioluminescence kayaking trip. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
As the sun sets over Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, kayaks are lined up ready to launch for a bioluminescence kayaking trip. Florida is one of a few places around the world where experiencing bioluminescence is a visitor attraction. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

I had written about the bioluminescence kayaking trips run by A Day Away Kayak Tours years earlier and I finally got to go on one. Happily, it lived up to my expectations.

These bioluminescence kayaking trips cost $55 for adults, $45 if you bring your own kayak, or $75 for a clear kayak (per person.)

Kayakers meet at a sandy boat landing off the Haulover Canal in the middle of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge near Titusville, Florida.

My weeknight tour had two groups, each composed of 10 boats (mostly doubles, a few singles) with two tour leaders for each group.

A Day Away Kayak Tours runs a well-practiced, safety-oriented operation. Every kayaker wears a life preserver and is issued a whistle and a glow stick; it’s so dark out there, that’s the only way to really see each other. Each boat has a flashlight (only used to increase visibility should a motor boat come by.) Each boat is assigned a number and periodic countdowns ensure that all 10 boats are still together.

The two tour groups operate separately and once we launched, we never saw the other one.

Vultures in tree as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge while waiting to go on a bioluminescent kayak trip. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Vultures in a tree as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, Florida, while waiting to go on a bioluminescence kayaking trip. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The bioluminescence kayaking tour started at dusk and as it darkened and we paddled out of the Haulover Canal into a shallow lagoon, we began to see the bioluminescence glow of water with each of our strokes.

The paddling here is easy. The tour travels no great distance and once the group gets to the lagoon, each kayak is free to paddle off a bit and basically play with the water. The darker the area – along a darkly shaded shore, for example – the more vivid the cloud of light underwater.

I was endlessly amused waving my hand through the water and seeing my hand and its wake glow like a cold fire. I loved slapping the water with my paddle to create a splash of light.

But my all-time favorite bioluminescence effect was paddling into the middle of a huge school of sleeping mullets.

Hundreds of mullets woke up and did what mullets do – leaped through air and crash-landed in the water. Each leaping mullet created a splash of light. Mullets were popping like popcorn, creating a light show. Underwater, others streamed away, leaving streaks of light behind them. Meanwhile, it felt like it was raining mullets and the sound effects included fish thumping against boats and squeals from kayakers now sharing boats with trapped mullets flipping away.

Kayaking on Mosquito Lagoon in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge as the sun sets. (Photo: David Blasco)
Bioluminescence kayaking on Mosquito Lagoon in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida as the sun sets. (Photo: David Blasco)

Because bioluminescence kayaking requires dark and photography requires light, the phenomenon is virtually unphotographable. And I came to see that as a feature, not a bug.

I wasn’t distracted trying to get the picture. No posing for selfies in the middle of an incredible scene. It was just people in the moment experiencing something magical.

Tips about a bioluminescence kayaking trip in Florida

  • You will get wet. We kayak all over and rarely get wet, but on this trip, we both came home dripping. I’m not sure why: Maybe the darkness made us less conscious of water dripping off our paddles? Maybe other kayakers splashed us? Maybe the mullet did? I don’t know – but be prepared to get wet and don’t bring electronic gear unless it’s in a dry bag. (And don’t bother with a camera.)
  • Stay near the leader if you want to hear explanations. Our guide pointed out a dolphin in the channel and a crab underwater, both leaving trails of light. Kayaks lagging behind missed that.
  • If you arrive early, stop at the nearby manatee viewing area on the Haulover Canal. It’s rare to see manatees there in the summer, but dolphins like the spot and we saw several swimming and surfacing repeatedly.
  • Because of this tour’s safety orientation, I would be fine with taking older children on this trip.
  • Mosquitoes weren’t bad on our trip, but we did spray with repellent and recommend that you both use it and bring it. (It is, after all, called the Mosquito Lagoon.)
  • You could do this trip yourself with your own kayak, putting in on the Haulover Canal in Merritt Island NWR.
  • Bioluminescence is only visible on dark nights, so tours are less dramatic in the week around a full moon.
  • We are told the bioluminescent effect gets brighter as the summer advances. The tours continue through October, with August being the peak.
  • There are portable toilets at the launch site.
  • There is no swimming allowed.

Information on tours at A Day Away Kayak Tours.

Yelp reviews of a Day Away Kayak Tours.

Note: While A Day Away Kayak Tours originated bioluminescence kayaking in Florida, there are now many outfitters operating similar trips in the area. You will find alternatives by Googling “bioluminescent kayak tours Florida.” Outfitters include BK Adventure, Adventures in Florida and Adventure Kayak of Cocoa Beach.

Other areas of Florida also experience bioluminescence. I’ve seen bioluminescent creatures in the water off a dock in the Keys on a dark night.

Information about accommodations and things to do along the Space Coast

Related articles on Florida Rambler

Florida Rambler guide to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Canaveral National Seashore — Merritt Island offers access to the southern entrance of Canaveral National Seashore, but there’s another way into this 24-mile pristine beach from the north in New Smyrna Beach.

Outpost on mosquito lagoon for Goodrich Seafood, Seminole Rest historic site — Oak Hill is on U.S. 1 at the north end of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, just a mile or so north of the turnoff into the refuge on State Road 3.

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Jean Popham

Monday 26th of July 2021

Very interested. Thank you.

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