We have all wanted to experience this scene from “The Life of Pi” in real life. (Photo: 20th Century Fox)
Some things in nature are so magical and so awe-inspiring they have to be seen to be believed. A lagoon that glows in the dark is one of those things.
Imagine the blackness of the sea on a moonless night. Now imagine it glimmering with a million flecks and flashes of light — like fireflies dancing just beneath the surface of the water. While this seems like something straight out of a sci-fi flick, this natural phenomenon, called a bioluminescent bay, exists in real life. It’s created by marine plankton known as dinoflagellata, delicate and moody microorganisms that emit neon-like lights when agitated. Blooms, or large groups, of plankton can create a wide range of effects that resemble glowing schools of fish, illuminated waves, and radiant seams stretching along the surf.
These bioluminescent bays are so mystical they have inspired scenes in Avatar and Life of Pi. But like all things in nature, their existence depends solely on their ecosphere. In the past few years, some of the world’s most impressive bio bays have temporarily gone dark. This reminds us how fragile, and potentially fleeting, these enchanted waterways are. So while they are still shining, we want to share the most impressive ones with you. Our advice: Book a trip, stat.
La Parguera, Lajas, Puerto Rico
Bioluminescent bays are a rare phenomenon because they require the right ecological environment. Two things that help create that environment are shallow tropical water and mangroves, which release nutrients and minerals into the water via fallen leaves. Puerto Rico has both, which is why it is home to three of the most famous glowing bays in the world. La Parguera is the most subtle of the three, and is best visited on a moonless night when the flicker of the phosphorescent bay can be seen creating a shadowy glow in the dark sea.
Puerto Rico offers unique tours, including kayaking through bioluminescent waters. (Photo: Verdenza Hotel)
Laguna Grande, Fajardo, Puerto Rico
The second brightest bio bay in Puerto Rico, Laguna Grande, has become a destination hot spot. Like flickering fireflies of the sea, the plankton in this region put on quite the show. When it was first spotted by the Spanish in the seventeenth century, the sailors believed it was the devil that made the water glow. They tried to prevent the water in the lagoon from entering the ocean. But by limiting the outflow, they actually helped increase the dinoflagellates’ numbers — and ultimately, the light they exude. In 2013, Laguna Grande went dark for a short period of time, forcing Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources to limit swimming and the number of people allowed to paddle across the bay per day. Today the lights are back on, thrilling travelers from around the globe.
Puerto Mosquito, Vieques, Puerto Rico
With one of the highest concentrations of plankton – 720,000 per gallon – Puerto Mosquito used to be the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world. Every night the ocean’s edge was trimmed in what looked like a blue neon sign that could be seen for miles around. But for dinoflagellates to thrive, conditions must be right. This summer the bay stopped glowing. Some believe too many people kayaking and swimming was the cause, while others believe sediment from the dusty road that leads to the bay threw off the ecosystem. The government has assigned a task force to study and monitor the bay as the sparkle sputters slowly back on.
Luminous Lagoon, Trelawny, Jamaica
Thirty minutes from Montego Bay sits one of the world’s most famous bioluminescent bays: Luminous Lagoon. Located in Trelawny, one of Jamaica’s original sugar ports, it has since become important to the region for something more scientific: the observation and study of dinoflagellates. The shallow water of Luminous Lagoon, where the Martha Brae River rolls into the Caribbean Sea, provides the perfect environment for dinoflagellates to glow brightly. Bonus: The mesmerizing glow shows off other sea creatures swimming below.
Waves of glowing water crash to the shore. (Photo: jlew24asu/Reddit)
Halong Bay, Vietnam
The glow of bioluminescence normally can only be seen in darkness. And that is especially true of this crowded bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After 11 p.m., when all the boats turn off their lights, a subtle shimmer can be seen across the surface of the sea. But any movement in the murky water makes it erupt into a burst of electric blue flashes and trails. Travelers looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience are known to take midnight swims to see the black water illuminate their bodies, watch a cresting wave of light, or see their footprints glowing in the sand.
Toyama Bay, Japan
While most bio bays are created by dinoflagellates, another sea creature illuminates this inlet: the firefly squid. The three-inch cephalopod has special light-producing organs called photophores, which emit a deep blue light. Thousands of tiny photophores can be found throughout the squid’s body, giving it the ability to emit light along its entire length. In Toyama Bay, this squid, considered a delicacy by locals, is found in abundance. While they normally reside 1,200 feet below the surface, the tide pushes them to the shore, where they make the surf glow. During spawning season — March to June — the gathering squid put on a light show not to be missed.
The firefly squid is one of many ocean dwellers that light up the water. (Photo: Corbis Images)
Noctiluca scintillans, also known as sea sparkle, is the species of dinoflagellate found in the waters off the coast of Zeebrugge. While most plankton produce a blue hue, this one can glow in a variety of shades, including red and green. The waters off Zeebrugge are nutrient-rich and have a high concentration of minerals that act as plankton food. Swimmers call it “sea ghost” for the glowing aura it leaves on people who come in contact with it. Fishermen call it “fire of the sea.” Either way, it makes Zeebrugge a sure spot for viewing the water glow, any time of year.
A small area of glowing water in an otherwise pitch-black sea (Photo: Karl Lawrence Tours)
Vaadhoo Island, Maldives
While plankton are single-celled organisms, many — like those found here — are large enough to be seen with the naked eye. In fact, they often resemble glitter floating in the water. This is especially true around Vaadhoo Island in the Maldives, where the Indian Ocean and Laccadive Sea meet. Here the dinoflagellate population creates a sparkling spectacle that has earned it the name “sea of stars.” The mesmerizing shining water looks like a mirror that reflects the flickering stars above. It’s almost literally considered heaven on Earth.
San Juan Island, Washington, U.S.
Want to watch liquid moonlight trail behind your boat or kayak? Head here. The North Bay shoreline east of Jackson Beach is home to some of the brightest glowing waters in the United States. For better viewing, head to the coves, which are protected from the wind, revealing flickers and flashes of radiant blue and green hues.
WATCH: Glowing Bays Explained By Science