A Mysterious Natural Wonder

Bioluminescence dazzles nighttime paddlers on Tomales Bay.


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Photo by Tim King and courtesy Blue Water Kayaking

After sunset, light was scarce on Tomales Bay. The waxing crescent moon offered meager illumination, and only the faraway glow of dock and cottage lights beckoned a small fleet of kayakers back to civilization at Nick’s Cove. Instead, the guide resolutely led the paddlers to darker waters near the eastern side of Point Reyes National Seashore.

These extreme conditions made it easier to see a mysterious natural wonder, and the guide soon detected a trace of the evening’s target. “It’s faint,” she said, “but move your hand through the water, look carefully, and you’ll see it.” The excited kayakers rested their paddles, followed the guide’s order, and began to unleash a chorus of gleeful oohs and ahhs.

With each wave of the hand and stroke of the paddle, a muted flash of white, bluish light — similar to a dim spark — appeared on the surface of the water. Initially, the light was so weak and infrequent that an unknowing observer might miss it or pass off the sighting as a hallucination. But as the sky continued to darken, the flashes gained strength in brilliance and number. Each paddle stroke yielded a burst similar to a sparkler; each skim of the hand on the water revealed what appeared to be a submerged swarm of fireflies.

This dazzling phenomenon is known as bioluminescence, defined as the emission of light from living organisms. Common in fireflies and marine life, bioluminescence appears in Tomales Bay courtesy of dinoflagellates, single-celled organisms that are often microscopic and emit light when disturbed. The shimmering display is best viewed under the darkest sky during or near a new moon. Several companies offer tours, with most leaving from the Miller Boat Launch north of Marshall. Spots can fill quickly on summer weekends, so make reservations far in advance.

Anyone hoping to impress Instagram followers should know that most cameras — especially smartphone cameras — typically lack the ability to capture the glittering lights amid the darkness, making bioluminescence an event everyone should experience in person. Perhaps most important to note: There is no guarantee that the perfect conditions will align for bioluminescence on a trip. Wind, temperature, currents, and tides also play a role in bioluminescence, and dinoflagellates do not adhere to a schedule for their nighttime light shows, as kayak guides are quick to mention at the start of each tour.

But there are peaceful, wonderful rewards for evening kayakers in the absence of bioluminescence. Before nightfall on a 2017 outing, one tour group paddled near seals; witnessed an osprey successfully fish for its dinner; watched a raccoon bathing along the shore; and caught a glimpse of elk grazing on the hillside. Later, the remaining senses heightened in the dark. The kayakers heard singing seagulls, the occasional hooting of barn owls, and the gentle splash of paddles purposely cutting through the ocean water. There was even a whiff of a late dinner, cooked by campers in Point Reyes.

The late sight of bioluminescence was a magical, unforgettable bonus.

 

When You Go

Blue Waters Kayaking, 415-669-2600, BlueWatersKayaking.com Clavey Paddlesports, 707-766-8070, Clavey.com Point Reyes Outdoors, 415-663-8192, PointReyesOutdoors.com

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