Night Kayaking Florida Adventure
Special thanks to SeaWorldMommy for the photos
Central Florida is home to some of the most amazing light shows on earth, from cutting-edge pyrotechnics and high-powered lasers to hundreds of millions of twinkling lights during the holidays. There is no shortage of amazing ways to brighten up the night, but there’s one light show you’ve probably never seen and it tops them all. Just a short drive east of Orlando is the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. This national treasure is home to some of the Brainy Crew’s favorite beach and wildlife spots, but there’s something magical there that we didn’t know existed until recently – nighttime kayaking tours of the bioluminescent plankton that blooms in the inner waterways during the summer.
The tours are led by A Day Away Kayak Tours which has been taking would-be adventurers on kayak tours in the area for over ten years. We set out on our nighttime tour just before sunset one August evening. A Day Away already had everything set up and waiting when I arrived. After a brief set of instructions and safety guidelines, we pushed off one by one.
The water was calm and the breeze gentle as we wound our way down the channel toward one of the lagoons. As the light in the sky faded we began to see something strange. Everywhere that the paddles and boats broke the water’s surface, was a strange reflection. It was actually hard to process what we were seeing because it looked like the rippling reflection off the water at midday, but there was no sun. When it finally got a bit darker we could see that the light was actually coming from the water itself. The plankton are called dinoflagellates and they produce an iridescent blue chemical light when they are disturbed. Any movement, be it a paddle, boat, fish or even a manatee, causes the water come to life with a flash of colored light. This was particularly incredible when we got into the lagoon and paddled through several schools of fish. Everywhere they moved or jumped lit up like a laser blast in a sci-fi movie. Dozens of them jumped and splashed all around us creating one of the most awe-inspiring light shows I have ever seen.
Being out in the middle of the undeveloped preserve there was very little light intrusion so the stars were everywhere. On the horizon to our north a distant thunderstorm flashed with silent lightning and all around us the water was alive with glowing life. The only sounds were the soft splash of the paddles and the birds and frogs calling in the trees that ringed the lagoon. At one point as we glided along chatting with our guide Elisabeth, she called for me to stop. I paddled backwards as hard as I could and as we floated to a stop I could see a giant glowing object just under the bow of our kayak. It was a manatee! It cruised along lazily out of our path and into the distance. It was a moment I won’t ever forget.
We finally made our way lazily back to the launch point and beached the boats. It was only then that I realized how exhausted I was. Not only was I wet from paddling but my shirt was soaked in sweat, a combination of the muggy night, physical activity and an insulating life vest. We had been going for more than two hours but the time had flown by. I didn’t notice being hot or tired or wet. I was completely caught up in the moment.
I have seen every nighttime parade, show, and display that has ever been at the Walt Disney World resort (I’ve even seen the Fourth of July fireworks at Magic Kingdom from a pontoon boat in the middle of the seven seas lagoon) but none of them made me feel like I did sitting in that kayak. This truly was magical.
Tips for your trip
They give you some good tips on the website, so read through those carefully before you book, but here are a few that I found to be most important.
1. Bring bug spray – Trust me. It’s summer in Florida and you’ll be in prime mosquito habitat, at night. You may even want a light long-sleeve shirt and pants. We doused before we went and had no problems out on the water.
2. You will get wet – If not from the constant splash of your paddle, then at the very least from your own sweat. Even at night it’s pretty muggy.
3. Leave you camera – Unless you have a water proof camera you’ll want to leave it, and anything of value in your car. The guides said people don’t tip over often but it happens sometimes. The water is shallow and you have a life vest so it’s not dangerous but you’ll never find you keys again without a professional search and rescue dive team.
Make it Brainy
This is the perfect chance to study Florida wildlife, especially those the live in the brackish (part salt, part fresh) of the inland waterways and those that come out at night. You can also study other animals that have bioluminescence. Lots of animals can glow but for lots of different reasons and in lots of different ways. Compare the lightning bug to the deep-sea angler fish. You can find more information about dinoflagellates and bioluminescence at National Geographic, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Latz Labratory.
Jason Grooms, Owner & Chief Adventurer of The Brainy Tourist, is an incredibly lucky husband and proud father of six ever-inquisitive kids (and one adult). He has his degree in Cultural Anthropology from University of West Florida and has lived in Florida for 40 years, exploring all corners of this amazing state. Jason has been an animal show presenter, adventure guide, field trip leader, archeologist, training developer, writer, photographer, and all around adventurer.