As a Florida-born water baby, I grew spending summers at the beach. The ocean was full of crazy critters, some scary like the stingray that stung me when I was young; others majestic, like the small organisms—among them jellyfish—that my braver (and younger) cousin and I would find while strolling the shoreline at night. Our favorites looked like small bugs and glowed the same shade of green as the Glo Worms that slept in our beds with as kids. We would pick them as walked along, admittedly a combination of grossed out and in awe of what we saw: Were they really glowing or were we making this up?

When I got older, I discovered the term bioluminescence and learned the ocean was full of beings that lit up, and those times at the beach breathed a new life into what I feared would otherwise be uninteresting biology courses. (Here's a pretty cool visual compendium of glowing creatures.)

So when I discovered that A Day Away Kayak Tours offered bioluminescent kayak tours ($35 per person; $39 on Saturdays) off the coast of Merritt Island, I was all in. I pictured the date being like the scene in Fern Gully when Crysta and Zak are in the grotto or The Little Mermaid when Ariel and Erik are in the canoe. (Don’t laugh. Seriously, who doesn’t want that?) And while the tour wasn’t like either of those (in Fern Gully, it was the rocks that were glowing; in The Little Mermaid, fireflies), it was kind of magical.

The tour takes off at the end of a road that feels like it’s going to nowhere. Merritt Island is nature country, and while that’s part of the magic, nature in Florida also comes with, well, mosquitos. When you sign up for the tour, A Day Away sends you an email with detailed information about preparing for the trip—don’t use Google maps, follow their directions; bring towels for the car, you’ll be wet at the end; bring bug spray, it’ll keep the mosquitos away. Read all of these, and take them seriously. You’ll be happy you did.

Jesse kayaking on the peaceful Merritt Island waterways.
Jesse kayaking on the peaceful Merritt Island waterways.

After you’re introduced to your guides (we had three on our tour), you’re given light sticks to wear around your neck so you don’t get lost, a life vest, a flashlight, and a whistle. You’re also given a tutorial on how to kayak, and, because most of the kayaks are tandem, you have to decide who’s sitting in back and who’s captain. I was an Indian Princess as a kid, and had been canoeing and kayaking on several occasions; this was Jesse’s first time in a kayak, so I played the role of captain (and of course loved it), and it worked really well for us. We didn’t even fight once.

After the tutorial, you’re pushed out into the water. Because the tour leaves around 8 p.m., that meant we were on the water just as the sun was setting. And it was stunning. There’s something about being on or near the water as the sun reaches the shoreline that just doesn’t get old, and being literally in the same boat as your partner as it happens is pretty fantastic.

This is what a comb jelly looks like all aglow.
Here is what a comb jelly looks like all aglow.

The tour lasted about two hours, and during that time, we saw dolphins (our tour guide said sometimes you’ll see manatees, too) and all variety of birds (this is near the Merritt Island sanctuary, after all). And once the sun finally set, we began to see what we came on the tour for. I should set expectations by saying that the water isn’t constantly aglow. The dinoflagellates—the bioluminescent stars of the show—light up blue whenever they’re agitated. This means that if a school of fish or a sting ray moves under your kayak, they’re track is lit up for you. You can also see them each time your oar hits the water or you shake your hand below the surface. The little glowing beings create an almost light blue halo around whatever’s moving among them. It’s almost impossible to capture on camera (I tried), but just trust me when I say it’s beautiful.

We were also in for a special treat that night, as comb jellies were out in full glow. These are the same consistency as a jellyfish, but without the sting (thankfully). Our guide reached in the water and picked up a few, and I took the opportunity to hold one. In my hand, it was pretty slimy and gross but if I moved it at all, I could see each long row light up blue. I don’t understand the science behind it, but I can definitely understand how freaking cool it is that only an hour or so drive from Orlando, you can find organisms in our waterways that are capable of doing this.

Jesse and I have been on lots of dates, but I can think of few that have expanded how I see and understand our physical world. Few have so fully expanded my imagination of what there’s still left to discover on this planet. And it was really kind of a lovely discovery to have with your significant other. It’s definitely a date I won’t ever forget.

If you’re interested in doing this, check out their website for the best time to view the bioluminescence and, seriously, don’t forget the bug spray.

He said…

I wasn't sure what to expect when Laura told me we would be taking a bioluminescent kayak tour. I had never kayaked before and generally a group of people piloting boats at night is how 30 percent of horror films begin.

The tour guides provided us safety gear and a brief tutorial on how the tour would work, including tips on how to paddle our kayaks. Laura had kayaking experience. They recommended the person with the most experience kayaking sit in the back to steer and be the captain (and I know she loves being the captain).

The guides took us out to where the bioluminescence would take place. I thought that where we would go would already be glowing. Our guides told us you had to agitate them to get them to glow. When we did, it looked really amazing.

As for kayaking together, we worked well together. Despite the pain in my arms the next morning, this tour (and kayaking in general) is something I would love to do with Laura again.