Puerto Rico’s sparkling lights are anything but magical in the darkness of the bioluminescent bay
“The last week of November was the best week I’ve ever had,” says a bleary-eyed Danielle Trosper as she emerges from the dark bay of Barra del Río, Puerto Rico. “The bay’s public schools were closed on Mondays, Tuesday and Wednesday last week, giving me another three days of sleep, but I spent the days alternating between swimming in the bay and using the internet in my chair at home.”
The bay is one of many bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico, which draws tourists from around the world to see the unique colourful patterns forming in the waters, which appear in an eerie-looking green, red and purple as sunlight refracts through the depths. It’s only in the past few years that scientists have realised that these tell-tale greens and reds represent simple, volatile chemicals reacting to light and water, which actually make the water glow in the dark.
Most bioluminescent bays – about 300 in the US – are located off the coast of the mainland United States, with the others generally located in the Mediterranean, or the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. What makes Puerto Rico’s bay so special is the fact that the waves are relatively gentle in the area, giving it an open coastline that allows the chemicals to mix freely.
I’ve been swum in at least six bioluminescent bays in my life, from Morocco to China and the UK’s Isle of Sheppey. I have never been able to look directly at the bioluminescent waters – which my eyes, throat and breathing are designed to react to instinctively, thanks to the Swiss army knife-like interplay of oxygen, carbon dioxide and other gases within the blood stream – because they cause migraines. After being diagnosed with a brain tumour and battling it out against chemo, I would recommend gliding gently in a circle around the undersea streaks.
Plenty of people come to the bay to fish and snorkel at night. “For now, at least,” I tell Danielle when we meet at the hotel Beachwood Lodge in the bay’s Ponce National Forest Reserve. “When my tumour starts to dissolve over the next few months, you know that will be over. At that point I will no longer need a mask.”
As we squeeze in and form our lines, I begin to look up at the light. It strikes me that I, Daniel, have walked on water all day long, and now I am on land, with a bad case of mononucleosis and just shy of a blackout. Our imaginations are going wild. What I’m seeing is not reality but something mystical and beautiful. When Danielle drops the hatchback of her Ford Focus off at the car park, I follow her too, the darkness just a short way down the road.
It turns out that Daniel is one of those lucky few whose brain has cleared, which has left him trilingual. He speaks Spanish, English and at least one French language, for which he can call up any supermarket cashier. In his spare time, he is a gifted ventriloquist, and he had just done a very funny bit on a recent Radio 4 show.
I’ve kept the mask and head gear in my motel room safe for another few days while I recover, but I decide to go back to the bay that night. The sun has set, the deep ocean below us darkens dramatically, the cloudless sky above us more than makes up for it. The night air is clear and crisp. Danielle points us to the bioluminescent swirls. I jump in the water, my eardrums crackling with oxygen, thinking that I could be back there again in a matter of minutes.
The green is most definitely moving…
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