By Aziza Jamgerchinova
Three kayaks in the center of Laguna Grande in Puerto Rico float on the still, dark water in the late evening. A million stars seem to be shining from beneath the lagoon’s glassy surface. “Once you enter the lagoon the water suddenly starts glowing,” said Lars Sukowski, a pharmaceuticals manager who came to Laguna Grande from Basel, Switzerland. “It is something special.”
Each time a paddle scrapes the surface of Laguna Grande, millions of tiny white-blue flashes dash in all directions. The water looks as if it has been sprinkled with stardust.
But those are not reflections of celestial beauties. The nighttime glow in Laguna Grande is caused by billions of microscopic plankton-like organisms called dinoflagellates. The organisms burst into light when they feel pressure against their cell walls, in a process called bioluminescence.
Laguna Grande, on the northeastern tip of Puerto Rico, is one of three bioluminescent lagoons on the island. Laguna Grande “is among the top six in the world with the most intense glow,” said Narciso A. Moreno, a regional director of Puerto Rico Tourism Co.
On this October night, the three kayaks were slowly drifting from the lagoon’s center. The warm, mute night was interrupted only by the voice of the tour guide explaining bioluminescence. When the talk was finished, two of the five kayakers jumped into the briny water, creating glowing spheres around their bodies.
“It’s awesome,” said Roberto Gonzalez, an avid traveler from Brooklyn, N.Y., who often goes to Puerto Rico with his mother. “When I was in Japan I went to a bioluminescent bay there, but the glow was yellow, and here it’s blue.”
Sukowski floated a few feet away from Gonzalez. Kicking with his legs in an upright position, he created a shimmering ball that looked like a phantom rising from the bottom of the sea.
“I thought there would be some glowing worms or fish on the bottom of the lagoon,” Sukowski said. “I never thought the water itself would glow.”
While the two men splashed, one passenger in a double kayak simply leaned back, looking up at the starry sky that seemed like a reflection of the lagoon. Recalling that moment later, Coni Batlle, Gonzalez's mother, said she felt “so far away from the hustle and bustle. It was so peaceful.”
“What I remember most,” said Batlle, who lives in Tempe, Ariz., “is the outline of the mangroves against the sky, and the dark water.”
A little over two hours earlier the kayakers had left the noise and lights of San Juan, the island’s capital, 29 miles west of the lagoon. A hired car drove them to a 500-foot-long semicircle dock that stretches out into the bay at Las Croabas. That’s where, every evening, the kayaking tour operators assemble.
They park their trailers, loaded with kayaks, and set up folding tables. As tourists walk on the sidewalk that runs along the dock, the tour operators step forward and after flashing a friendly smile announce that their kayaking group leaves in just five minutes.
The kayakers this night avoided the hoopla of bargaining for a tour, which costs anywhere from $25 to $35. Instead, they had signed up for a package deal at their hotels, which included transportation. Gonzalez and Batlle each paid $75 at Caribe Hilton. Sukowski, who stayed at the Windham El San Juan Hotel, paid $88.
There were only three kayaks in the tour that night, which is common during the low seasons, October through November and after Christmas through spring break. But on summer nights and during major holidays, dozens of kayaks churn through Laguna Grande.
“When we have a lot of people we go out two times,” said Nestor Martinez, a tour guide whose family operates one of the six kayaking companies at the lagoon.
The kayaking skills of tourists are often minimal or nonexistent, so Martinez begins with a short paddling lesson. The lagoon is reached by a 30-minute paddle through a narrow and dark inlet, known to locals as El Chorro. For novices, an hour of paddling is a good test of endurance.
“I am aching from rowing,” Batlle said. “My shoulders hurt.”
But for Sukowski, who has been kayaking since he was 14, the trip was a breeze. “I thought it would be more of a workout,” he said.
Upon returning to the dock, the kayakers were greeted with bowls of fruits, chips and granola bars. But there was little time for snacking as the driver from their car service was waiting impatiently. As the car drove away from the nearly empty dock, the tour guide loaded the three kayaks back onto his trailer. Tonight he would be home well before midnight.
“On the way back everybody became so tired,” Sukowski said. “I almost fell asleep.
"One thing would have been great, though," he added. "If they would have told us to bring a repellant. I got eaten by mosquitoes.”
If You Go...
To go kayaking at the Laguna Grande without a hotel package, take Route 3 from San Juan to Fajardo and exit at El Conquistador Avenue. Follow El Conquistador Avenue to its end, at the Las Croabas docks. Plan on arriving at the Las Croabas docks no later than 7:30 p.m. Come prepared to bargain. Kayaking tours operate seven days a week, except for major religious holidays. Be sure to bring a towel and a dry change of clothes.