Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Bioluminescent Lagoon of Fajardo - Journals of Puerto Rico

We went to bed at 9:30 every night. Every night except one. By the time we stumbled into bed at 12 am we were like transfixed zombies. Or maybe more like seasoned drug users just coming down from a trip, exhausted and still mumbling something about sparkles.

This night was Sunday night and we had just returned from a late night trip to Fajardo. There is a lagoon in Fajardo that is fed from a tiny stream bordered densely by mangrove trees.

Hector was our guide's name. Following him in our open kayaks we wound our way down the stream to the lagoon. Now a moonlit paddle through the mangroves is a fine way to spend the evening but we had come to Fajardo for more than just a paddle.

Just below the surface of the water live tiny microorganisms called Dinoflagellates. When the creatures are agitated they give off light and it was our desire to agitate them into a sparkling frenzy that brought us to Fajardo.

A van will drive you out to Fajardo past the suburbs and small towns on the coast. Rocky, our driver had that particular habit that I encounter so often in my Spanish speaking students of calling everyone "friend" and calling them "friend" often. "Ok friends," he would say at the beginning and end of every sentence - winning an amused chuckle from all the English speaking passengers.

After an hour or more of driving, we pulled up to a circular field of grass ringed by a dirt road and dotted with cars and motorbikes, all of which was hugged to the edge of the gently lapping waves of the ocean. Loud salsa music played from open air bars and the smell of greasy food beat out from the dozens of food carts and stands. Rocky told us this area is the neighborhood hangout for families. Indeed, along the shore many families were set up in the dark on blankets and chairs watching the faint glow of the Dinoflagellate as they tumbled on the tiny waves.

"Ok friends, the bathrooms are that way," Rocky said pointing to some squat buildings lit by harsh yellow bulbs in the middle of the grassy ring. Us girls scurried over to where he was pointing. As we approached a group of women were scurrying past us in the other direction, faces scrunched. "Bad?" we asked. "Terrible," they yelled over their shoulders.

Mom, ever brave and small of bladder, decided to be the judge but no sooner had she dissapeared around the corner, leaving Sydney and I standing outside, hips swayed to the side and arms folded, then she immediately swung back around the corner with the same pinched face as the ladies we had passed moments before. "That bad?" I said. Mom, already skirting her way back to the van nodded and said "Paint buckets. Overflowing paint buckets."

Luckily we had no more time to think about buckets and bladders because it was time to suit up and get into kayaks. The three of us were the only odd numbered group, all destined for two seater kayaks, standing around in the loose circle surrounding our guide. "You two ride together" Mom said, offering herself up to the unknown. After a quick paddling demo which looked very much like someone desperately trying to dance to a beat while crippled by cement laden hips, we all hopped into kayaks. Mom was partnered with Hector, our guide and was directed to the front of his kayak.

Tentatively we took our first tandem strokes and paddled over to Mom's kayak at the front of the line. Eyes wide and hands folded in her lap, Mom sat in Hector's kayak without a paddle. "Hey, why don't you have to paddle?" Sydney snapped. "Miss Pam is the princess tonight" Hector replied in what we would come to expect as his usual matter-of-fact zen responses.

"I'm the princess," Mom said, flashing a taunting full toothed grin at Sydney and I. With much grumbling from Sydney and much silent gloating from Mom we fell into the body of the snaking chain of boats starting off in the direction of the dark, wooded inlet.

The mangrove trees grow out of the water like hundred legged octopi, leaving their roots below to snatch feet and paddles alike while stretching their branches across the inlet to block out the moonlight. We entered the mangroves slowly, letting our eyes adjust to the dark and keeping one eye slightly above our heads to guard against rouge branches.

As Sydney and I struggled to weave the curving inlet and also watch for the glow below the surface of the water, Mom was getting her princess treatment at the head of the line.

"Miss Pam," Hector would say, "Do you see those fish over there? Watch." With that he would smack the side of the kayak with his paddle and the startled fish would shoot off in different directions agitating the Dinos in the process. "It was like a glowing star underwater," Mom told us later. "They would take off, zoom zoom zoom, and then leave glowing trails in different directions." Each zoom was punctuated by a crisp vertical slice in the air.

"Do it again!" Mom would say to Hector, playing the delighted but slightly impatient and sulky child character she has perfected and passed down to her daughters. "Be patient Miss Pam. We must wait for the fish," Hector would say in his practiced and perfected Buddha character. Every now and then we would hear Mom's ringing laughter from the front of the line and every now and then she would hear a curse or a "What the heck?" from her daughters a few boats back, twisted into the mangroves again. When Mom asked Hector how long he had been running this tour he smiled and said "It's my first day."

The closer the mangroves grew over the sky, the darker it got, the more the Dinos would glow. Each paddle was an explosion of light under the water. Sometimes they seemed green, sometimes blue or white. We dipped our hands in the water and wiggled our fingers. We splashed and smacked the water with our paddles and all the while the Dinos glowed.

Eventually the inlet opened to a wide lagoon and we all gathered our boats around Hector and Mom to listen to him explain the source of our glowing delight. "Look over there," he said "do you see that flashing red light atop the white light?" Our heads swiveled to the other end of the lagoon. Hector was revealing the source of the Dino's glow - we all waited silently. "That's a nuclear plant," he said.

Mom's laughter ran out and a few others joined in. Hector waited for the rest of the group to catch on and let out a delayed laugh before telling us about Dinoflagellates and their similarity to lightning bugs. The same chemical reaction occurs in their tiny bodies, but unlike fireflies they have no control of their glow.

He let us all paddle around and watch the glow. Sticking our hands into the water we picked up palmfuls of dark water and blew softly to watch it light up. As each Dino was agitated it would tumble in the cupped water revealing itself.

"Sparkles" Mom kept saying, running her fingers through the water and beaming into the dark.

"Girls, watch what I'm going to do," Hector said as he dipped the paddle deep into the water and then with one swift movement the paddle shot forward in an arc underwater - leaving a blue-green rainbow behind it. We all clapped and gasped."I could stay here all night," Mom confided in Hector, "I want to come back tomorrow!"

"Next time you come, Miss Pam, come during a rainstorm. You can't believe how beautiful it is when it rains." Floating in the lagoon, wide eyed and feet dipped over the edge to leave a trail of sparkles behind her, Mom really would have been happy to stay all night.

Hector, who paddled calmly, told Mom that the nine years of working this route, guiding tourists to this protected lagoon, had not changed or dulled his sense of awe and delight at seeing the Dinos glow. They chatted about their night jobs and their kids until we pulled back up on the shore, all tired and sore, save the princess.

"Hello friends," we heard from behind us signaling the end of our kayak adventure. As we shed our lifejackets and abandoned our kayaks, Mom, still glowing, went to thank Hector and surprised him with a hug before we piled into the van to drive back to San Juan. "Goodbye Miss Pam," Hector said to the princess.

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