Friday, October 9, 2015


Every drop of knowledge sparks a light, illuminating an ocean of darkness teeming on the edge of brilliance --CN Hamilton

The tide is out and the moon is gone. The only light is coming off the shine of distant headlights off Highway One, about a mile away across Tomales Bay. I'm sitting on the edge of space. Drifting in darkness, isolated from the world around me. Clouds block the stars and blackness engulfs the sea. I can barely see the front of my kayak's bow or anything at all. The dark has not only stolen my sight but my voice as well. Longtime veteran night-time paddler Sigurd Olson revered this quiet when he said, "At times on the water one does not speak aloud but only in whispers, for then all noise is sacrilege."

Abruptly out of the darkness the magic flashes alongside the bow of my kayak. A stroke of the paddle and push forward emits, even more, waves of bluish-green flickers across the water. Across the way my paddling partner Jim Bryla exclaims, "Wow, It's like Disneyland!"
Not quite. As magical as it is, there is no fairy pixie dust here. It's bioluminescence, a light produced by a chemical reaction in living things. Similar to breaking a glow-stick, tiny singled cell creatures called dinoflagellates, think of two whip-like appendages that stick out from a single cell's body about the size of a speck of dust. These dinoflagellates, (dinos means “whirling” in Greek) contain a light-emitting compound called luciferin. When they are stimulated by a wave, fish or even a kayak they create a blue flash in the water around them. Scientists feel it's a burglar alarm in sense, to startle and ward off any potential predators.

It's ethereal and gorgeous. "This is our world, people." said film maker and deep-sea explorer  James Cameron  "You don't have to believe in magic. It's already magical! Look at these things. Bite your knuckle."

The same sparkling blue light designed to scare off predators is exactly what brings us to Tomales Bay and the eastern side of Point Reyes National Seashore, near of San Francisco. Bioluminescence is present for a couple of months a year, usually in the spring and fall, when all the variables align: water temperature, air temperature, winds, currents, and tides. During the phase of the new moon, the bay offers an ideal location for observing bioluminescence. The narrow gap of the bay's entrance limits the sea water moving about during the tidal exchange, trapping a concentration of dinflagellates between the main land and Tomales Point peninsula. Federal laws protect the much of the seashore as wilderness, which keeps light pollution from fading the greenish blue flashes of the microbes.

As I paddle through the bioluminescent waters, I marvel with excitement while creating my own mini light show with my kayak, paddle and even my hands while jostling the water surrounding microbes-organisms. I can see a hint of  Jim's silhouette with sparks flickering around him. The bottom half of his kayak seems to be glowing as he leaves a trail of lights behind. Spellbound by the phosphorescent event we glide along the flat water enjoying the magical experience. The water now, has switched places with the sky, as we paddle on looking down on a pool of meteors, comets and stars.