Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Vieques Puerto Rico Part 5 Bio-bay Baby!

Anyone who has read my last few blogs would have seen that Vieques has a lot to offer. World class beaches, unspoilt countryside and a quirky Caribbean backwater atmosphere.

You may say:

"So what? There are plenty of places in this part of the world with those qualities. How about Bocas del Toro in Panama, Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica or Corn Islands in Honduras?"

Fact is you would be right.  Many places in the Caribbean and Latin America have these same selling points that make this area my favourite holiday destination.

What sets Vieques apart from these other destinations is the fact that is has the brightest bio-luminescent bay in the world.

"The brightest bio-what now?"

OK, quiet down and let me explain.

The bio-bay in Vieques is located in Puerto Mosquito, a short 10 min ride from Esperanza down a truly atrocious dirt road (the tour operators don't want it paved as it puts off a lot of visitors).  It is unique as it only exists due to a special set of environmental circumstances that protect the microscopic organisms called Dinoflagellates which live in the bay and produce a psychedelic natural light show when disturbed. The sight of these tiny creatures lighting up the dark water rivals any of the oceanic CGI fireworks you might have seen in The Life of Pi.

On land most people will be familiar with fireflies or glow worms who create light purely from mixing oxygen and the chemical Luceferin (from the Latin: Lucifer or Light-Bringer) thus releasing energy in the form of green light. In the sea the effect is more widespread then people realise but usually confined to the deep sea where 80% of life use it to either navigate, lure prey or communicate in the murky depths.

Here the same phenomena reaches the surface although scientists are not exactly sure why the Dinoflagellates produce light when disturbed but suspect it to be a defence mechanism to ward off prey or perhaps even to communicate with each other.

The Dinoflagellates exist in open water in much smaller numbers but manage to survive to such a concentration because the the inlet to the bay is protected from the sea by a kink that stops the sea water flooding in or out at any great pace (It is rumoured that the Spanish at seeing the eerie light show thought the bay was the work of the devil and blocked the entrance up which huge boulders).

The bay is also surrounded by mangrove forest which provides the Dinoflagellates with the requisite nutrients (they are partial to vitamin B12) and protection. On top of all this there are no factories, industry or large towns in the vicinity that pollute the water with their run off.

All these factors combine to ensure the resident population has flourished over the years to reach the highest concentration anywhere in the world.  As a result their reactions are the brightest and most eye catching on the planet.

There are numerous companies that operate this tour which costs between 40-50$ per person and last for about 2 and a half hours. I went on a standard tour with Abes and in a clear canoe with VAC.  You are always told to go on a moonless night so the luminescence is not lessened by light pollution but there are always normally two tours, the earlier of which will go out before the moon has had a chance to rise.

Your party will have a bumpy shuttle to the bay in a van where you will pile out and be issued with a life jacket and and  paddle.  You are advised not to wear any mosquito spray containing DEET as this kills the Dinoflagellates and as you are likely to be wearing shorts you will be keen not to hang around in the forest. The canoes are two man affairs and although you don't have to be super fit to take this tour I think a certain degree of physicality is needed as you will be paddling for best part of an hour and a half.

I would recommend both tour companies as they are quite similar with information on the surrounding mangrove swamp, history of the bay and the science behind the light show.  I got a bit more science from Abe's guys whose tours had a more relaxed pace and more jokes and astronomy from the VAC team. The extra 10$ for the clear glass canoes really isn't worth it IMHO as the brightest effects will come from splashing your paddles or seeing fish darting through the water leaving behind luminous trails.

Seeing the luminous outline of a huge ray darting in front of our canoe into the inky blackness was a truly heart pounding and awe inspiring moment.  On a clear night where above you is a galaxy of stars and below you an ever changing glow of Dinoflagellates it feels like you are suspended in space.  Take a moment to lay back, look up and feel the comfort of insignificance.

Just before I left , Puerto Rico held a referendum to establish if they wanted to be the 51st state of the union. The population voted overwhelmingly in favour. Further integration into the US would certainly erode some of Puerto Rico's unique cultural heritage e.g. English would have to be taught in schools instead of Spanish.

With some larger scale construction currently taking place on the malecon in Esperanza I feel Vieques is on the cusp of change.  The very qualities that bring tourists to Vieques are extremely fragile commodities that can easily be lost by the understandable desire to modernise and make money.  In that sense the threats to the Bio-bay and the Puerto Rican character are intertwined.

Often change isn't always for the better.


  1. May I suggest trying the canoes trying to outrun a heavy rain shower? Truly one of the most awe inspiring sights . . . seeing the raindrops march across the surface behind us with the fish scattering from the bow!

    We have young children and I can't wait to get them travel-wise enough that we can return and share this with them. Who knows how long we'll have the chance.

    1. Hi Brandi

      Sounds great. The one thing I was expecting to see but didn't was a thunderstorm.

      I can only imagine how cool that would have looked in the pitch black with the rain setting off the bioluminesence.