Fire & water

Within ten minutes, everybody in the “all-in-one” tour met everybody else and exchanged brief histories.  I was relieved there weren’t herds of people.  There were three, lobster pink girls on spring break from Northwestern University who admittedly got way too much sun the day before on the Puerto Rican island of Culebra; there was a soft-spoken married couple – Elena & John – who loved the bioluminescent bay so much yesterday, they were back for more; there was Elizabeth – our personable guide – and her friend from her hometown, Steve The Magician. 
We all piled into the large, white van with its cracked windshield, missing interior door handles, busted dashboard, ripped upholstery and steering wheel held together by duct tape.  Behind us, Beth towed the kayaks.  Our first stop was “the green store” -- a corner store before the 996/997 split – to load up on liquids and snacks.

Being solo, I sat shotgun.  I was surprised when the van turned right into Sun Bay/Sombe (locally) balneario a.k.a. public beach.  You mean I could have paid the $2 entrance fee and seen the bio bay myself!?  Sun Bay was an open semi-circle with little shade. There was an abundance of Vieques’ famed, paso fino horses roaming freely despite the fact they were all owned. Their long manes and tails flapped in the breeze and their coats shined in the sunlight.  Hands down everyone’s favorite was the fuzzy foal that Beth guessed was only weeks old.
Beth remained on one of the obvious sand trails for vehicles that lead away from Sombe. The path was overgrown with vegetation and wide enough for one van.  The hoopty vehicle creaked at every sinkhole we crept through.  Despite our slow pace the holes were so large and deep we all bounced in our seats with the kayaks banging behind us.  Before long we arrived at a small beach – not the typical, soft sand beach.  This one was made up of brown, hard-packed sand and was somewhat muddy as it lead into the water.

As Beth unloaded the bright red kayaks, the group split up into pairs.  Since there was an odd number of people, Steve willingly chose to paddle solo (he had ocean kayaking experience so no one was worried about him).  I paired with Miranda, one of the three young ladies on spring break.  We all shed our tank tops & replaced them with musty smelling lifevests.   I also lathered up in sunscreen.  From the midday hours spent at Caracas, the color of my forearms started to match the color of the three girls’ entire bodies.

One by one, each of the kayaks pushed off into Mosquito Bay.  Beth instructed us to cut directly across the bay and rejoin near the treeline on the opposite shore.  I had some canoeing and kayaking experience so I sat in the rear of the vessel.  Out in the middle of Mosquito Bay, the sun doggedly beat down on the group.  The tops of my shoulders & arms felt like they were on fire although the spray from paddling intermittently and temporarily cooled them.  At first, Miranda & I were unsynchronized and oars flailed, but by the time we reached the meeting point on the other side, we found our rhythm.
As our group reformed, Beth suggested three things: to proceed in single file so as not to damage the mangrove canals; the interior was so tight the front team member didn’t need to paddle or really do anything; to be extremely quiet so as not to the disturb the wildlife & experience.  Otherwise, Beth did not offer much of an introduction or any background information… but I think that was the point.  She was going to let the mangroves speak for themselves.

The color of the water mimicked the green from the lush mangroves and the blue from the ardent sky as Beth’s purple kayak disappeared into the thicket of leaves that – to the untrained spectator – looked like the rest of the treeline surrounding Mosquito Bay.  Next, John & Elena’s kayak glided through the façade.  Miranda & I were next.
The instant our kayak crossed the threshold, the smells, sounds, and sights abruptly changed.  The fiery sun was muffled by the myriad of branches that created a natural, porous roof.  Sunlight entered the mangroves in distorted shapes and various amounts, covering the new world in shadows.  In contrast to being totally exposed in the bay, it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.  Ahead of & behind us I didn’t hear anyone else – heck, I didn’t even hear a peep from Miranda – as we slid through the canal.  I’m confident everyone was as paralyzed with wonder as I.  Infrequently, something suddenly kerplunked into the water, breaking the monotonous tranquility.   I pictured the sound being generated from frogs catapulting themselves across the waterway but coming up short, fish violently surfacing, and branches falling.
Since I was in the rear, I tried to propel us forward but the mangrove branches twisted and arched creating a network of impenetrable wood.  The waterway was hardly wide enough for my double-ended paddle which resulted in me accidentally, albeit loudly, smacking the branches.  Paddling was a lost cause. Ahead of me, Miranda grabbed submerged roots & pulled us onward.  At the same time I directed the kayak by pushing off the same nearby branches.  At one point where the canal widened, Miranda got creative and launched us forward by grasping the branches that dangled from above.  However on several occasions -- as Miranda or I extended our arm for a root – I would see something large and black scurry away in my peripheral.  I was aware of their presence and realized these creatures were widespread in the mangroves.  Once I came millimeters away from landing my hand atop one of the giant spiders.  My first reaction was to shriek but then I decided to use this experience as a platform for bettering myself.  I did not want to judge the tarantula by its cover in the same way I was biased before & during my first day in Puerto Rico. I did not want to hate the spider because it was ugly or creepy or because of my own inhibitions.  Instead I watched them move with curious eyes. 

Each kayak exited the mangrove caves into a decent-sized opening.  The tall mangroves blocked any view of Mosquito Bay so it looked and felt like our group simply stumbled upon a pocket of sunlight and open air in the labyrinthine forest.  I started imagining how discombobulating and eerie the forest would be at nighttime.  Our skilled guide Beth converted her kayak into a paddleboard and asked what we noticed.  It seemed the entire group was in awe because almost everyone shared feedback and/or asked a question.  Miranda’s two girlfriends looked a little uneasy & she asked them what was wrong.  Their response was they were a bit flustered trying to maneuver in the tiny canals and unnerved by all the bugs – specifically, the large tarantulas.  I could relate ‘cause those spiders were everywhere!
That’s when Beth chimed in and – much to the three girls' & my excitement – informed us that the critters were not tarantulas.  They were not even spiders!  They were arbol a.k.a. tree crabs!  Yes, they were harmless and actually very fragile.  She offered to catch one for each of us to hold when we reentered the forest under the stipulation that we would not throw them back into the water since they could not swim like most crabs.  The sun continued to inexorably shine and I noticed most of the kayaks positioned themselves under the mangroves’ shade.  We lingered in the isolated cove and Beth identified one of the bird calls we’d heard both inside the waterways, and out here in the open, as some sort of warbler.  She also pointed to a green heron and a larger bird – the friggit -- swooped the edges of the mangroves.  Although only two feet, friggits have a wingspan of around six. 

As we readied to continue the journey, Beth told us to look out for the large termite mound on our left once inside.  The next mangrove tunnel had taller branches thus letting in more light.  Miranda & I were the first kayak behind our guide’s so Miranda was the first to hold an arbol crab.  I scrambled to get her iPhone so I could capture the experience for her.  Consequently, we switched roles as I let the animal traverse my right hand & arm, onto my left.  We nearly had a fatality once as the arbol crab leapt – or maybe slipped – off my forearm but, thankfully, he landed in a divet of the kayak that had collected about two inches of water. I scooped the little rebel in my hand & carefully passed him backwards to the next kayak.
As Miranda & I were about to be birthed by this maze of mangroves, our leader called back to us to watch out for the expansive spiderweb.  Though I didn’t instantly see it, I quickly secured my paddle and leaned back as far as possible.  Staring at the ceiling, I watched the glistening strings roll by and even saw the homeowner in the middle level of the web.  Again, our kayak emerged from the forest, but this time the cove was much wider & incredibly shallow.  There was plenty of room to move around but we still continued to avoid the sun.
Here we rested in the kayaks; a few people snacked.  Beth told us the mud that made up the bottom of this bay was rich in emollients so the Taino a.k.a. native Puerto Rican people had many benefits for it.  Like the mud baths in the United States of America that women pay top dollar for, here it was, free for the taking.  Despite Beth’s auspicious claim, no one really wanted to get in… except for Miranda.  I told her I would get in too.  Aside from being great for the skin, the Taino discovered the mud acted like sunscreen and was an insect repellent.

I definitely wanted to put mud on my bright pink arms so Miranda parked the kayak by jamming her paddle into the squishy earth.  She gasped a little as she landed in the dark ooze, but started slapping it all over her body.  I stepped out of the kayak and immediately sank two feet.  Yet, no twigs scraped my feet and nothing created friction against my legs.  It wasn’t like digging your legs into the sand at a beach and it wasn’t like quicksand which made it impossible to pull yourself out.  The mud was incredibly smooth and almost soft – a word I never expected to use to describe dirt.  In an effort to keep my $7,000 insulin pump dry and clean, I only rubbed mud onto my arms and part of my stomach.  By now Steve The Magician followed suit and was half covered.  I started helping Miranda get her back as Miranda’s two girlfriends from the other kayak hopped in too.  After some labor, Steve & the three Northwestern ladies were completely covered – faces included.
The sun began to set and therefore lose a tad of its blazing intensity.  As the mud dried, Beth directed us through one more mangrove canal and back into the main vein of Mosquito Bay which lead to the open sea.  Since the majority of la bahia a.k.a. the bay was only two to fifteen feet deep, we were able to see both manatee & turtle grass… appropriately named for the animals that feasted on them.  Our group headed a mile away to a restricted area of Vieques (the entire eastern half is closed off due to its former U.S. Navy presence).  Along the way, our leader relayed the history of Mosquito Bay.  It was not named for the pesky, warm-weather, flying bugs.  A long time ago there was a young, sneaky pirate who looted ships that dropped anchor around Vieques.  No doubt, after being ransacked, a chase ensued but the pirate was a native and knew the area quite well.  He escaped being caught & found by hiding his boat – the Mosquito – in the various inlets and paid the locals for their secrecy.  Eventually, he was sold out by the locals, but the infamous name remained.

As we approached the restricted beach, gray rain clouds did too from as far away as Vieques’ highest point – Mt. Pirata.  A large sign juxtaposed against the thick jungle behind it & warned about live mines.  Access past the sign was forbidden.  Apparently a small group of workers existed to comb the entire eastern part of la isla a.k.a. the island, Monday through Friday, to remove ordinance. Yikes!
After grounding the kayaks, Beth prepared to take us snorkeling at a reef fifty feet from the shore.  Then the rain arrived.  It started as a few drops and -- within ten minutes -- escalated to a pummeling, rinsing off everyone’s dried mud.  Yet, the sunshine remained.  Most of us stayed in the water since it was warmer than the outside temperature.  Beth hesitated to take us to the reef since it became a refuge for marine life trying to escape the violent waves.  I was crestfallen and wanted to go anyway.  Beth added that she preferred to have as much visibility as possible since large sharks were common near the reef.  As soon as I heard the word “shark” I switched from feeling disappointed to feeling perfectly content to stay within the beach’s safety since I have a somewhat irrational fear of (I like to think of the glass as half-full and label it the utmost respect for) the open sea.  Others in the group agreed with Beth so we swam around the shore with the snorkel gear.  The salt water hurt my sunburnt face, but it was a great time to stretch after being in the same position in the kayaks for a few hours.
As the rainstorm passed, we all emerged from the ocean to dry off and eat dinner on the beach. At exactly the same time everyone in the group noticed the vivid rainbow that spanned the restricted area.   Ironically, such a beautiful sight hung over the deadliest part of the island.  We all lamented that we were being eaten alive by no-see-ums.  Thankfully Beth brought along organic bug repellent (synthetic rinses off one’s skin, thus contaminating the bioluminescent bay) and a few drops went a long way.
Beth was consistently unsuccessful in her attempts to start a fire since the rain had soaked everything, but the resourceful Steve had an idea.  He strolled to his kayak and returned with a dry roll of toilet paper which was the first item to light.  In the twilight, the group sat on large logs as we dined on subs, potato chips, and miniature Gatorades.  Quickly – it seemed – the sun sank behind the horizon and we were left conversing by firelight.  John was exceptionally knowledgeable about stars and constellations and educated most of us.  The only part of his teachings I could chime in with, was that Jupiter was nearing Venus daily and in a few weeks (mid-April) the two planets would be no more than 4º apart! Less than a month earlier I left my friend’s house and was stunned to see our moon, Jupiter & Venus forming the three, bright vertices of a triangle in the night sky.
As the fire reached its hottest and biggest point, the group secured its belongings and prepared to venture back into Bahia de Mosquito. Unbeknownst to us, the same bay that housed the mangrove forest transformed into the phosphorescent bay at night.  All this time we were splashing and swimming in the same area that was home to billions of secretive microorganisms. To reduce light pollution, Beth had a lone, dim red light that she rarely used.  Individually -- and in almost complete darkness-- the kayaks left the safe harbor.  As we paddled toward the middle of the vast waterway, the fire faded to a tiny blip of light.
Still in the open water, but 100 feet away from the protected bay, the group stopped paddling and just drifted with the current as Beth told us astonishing information about the dinoflagellates -- the microorganisms that gave the bioluminescent bay its namesake.  The reason Vieques boasted the "best" bioluminsecent bay in the world was because Bahia de Mosquito had the highest concentration per gallon of water.  True, this phenomenon can happen almost anywhere & other bioluminescent areas have thirty to one hundred thousand dinoflagellates per gallon, but here, in Vieques, the concentration level remained around 300,000 to 750,000! A website noted that -- only in Mosquito Bay -- this was enough light for one to be able to read a book though surrounded by complete darkness.

I had not seen Mosquito Bay light up and was already blown away.  In essence, it was a perfect storm.  Every variable was just right and – when added to the other handful of impeccable variables – created a beautiful cycle.  The lightweight dinoflagellates were corralled into the bay with the tide.  Because of the bay’s shallowness the organisms stayed here yet thrived on the plankton that was also pushed inward from the ocean.  The mangroves’ deep roots protected the flimsy organisms from terrible weather & their rotting leaves offered a wonderful diet. The salinity level was ideal.  There was minimal light and – worse – environmental pollution due to Vieques’ restricted area… but it became more fantastic!

Oddly, though simple creatures, these unicellular protists developed an equilibrium with Mother Nature.  They had an internal clock and instinctively knew when to rise to the surface (during the daylight hours) to feast.  I tried to wrap my head around the fact that in the water, were oxygen-deprived microscopic beings with the same tendencies as earth-ruling homo sapiens.  All the more reason to care for them.  When irritated by vibrations, in an act purely for survival, the dinoflagellates exuded all their energy to emit a foreboding light.  It took about 7 minutes for them to recharge.

In the half hour that we floated, I started to hear water smash against something that sounded solid (like a rock face).  I couldn’t see it in the dark distance but sensed us drifting closer to it.  Beth lead the group back toward the center of the vein and that’s when everything changed… in the brief amount of time we waited at the mouth of Mosquito Bay, the miniscule creatures awoke!

As Miranda & I began paddling, I noticed I could see my oar in the black water!?  I squealed! It was happening!  The right paddle, fully submerged, was a brilliant blaze of blue fire as it seared its way through the water.  I could plainly see the entire oar but even more beautiful were the ghostly blue trails of light flowing around it that eventually faded into the dark sea.  What I watched resembled scenes from Harry Potter, where translucent blue particles of light freely swirled then clustered into a bright Patronus.  With eyeballs bulging and my jaw gaping open, I rowed again, and again saw the oar illuminate.  On this moonless night I couldn’t see the droplets of water that ran off the paddle’s edge, but wherever they splashed I heard them plop and saw the water twinkle with life. 

Still in a rather tight group, portside I heard Steve chuckle to himself then exclaim “unbelievable!”  I cupped my hand and sank it into the water.  When I pulled it out of the bay, in the palm of my hand was a natural light show.  I stared at it for a few seconds and – as the dinoflagellates calmed down – my hand went pitch black again.  I dunked my hand underwater to release the microorganisms and surfaced with a handful another time.  This time I slightly spread my fingers… minute stars fluidly moved from inside my palm to my individual fingers then dripped back into the bahia.  I was so engrossed I repeated this basic action for twenty minutes but it never lost its extraordinariness.  Beth reminded us: we weren’t even in the bay yet!

My emotional cup started to runneth over and I could feel the tears building in my eyes.  I progressed to pouring a handful of water onto the narrow rim of the kayak.  In the millisecond that the creatures fell in the sky, they still glowed!   As they momentarily were immobile in a thin layer of water on the kayak’s edge, I could see each individual organism shining.  Soon there would be too much water on the rim and it would spill over the kayak’s inside, effectuating a waterfall of blue-green specks.  It was too much love.  I could not believe this was my life!   To those who have never had this surreal experience I could never describe the phenomena to you in a way that would express the perfection of it; I imagine it’d be like trying to extrapolate on how water tastes or skydiving feels.  My sole regret was that my mama was not with me to experience this!

Now inside Mosquito Bay, no one needed to row to see the spectacle.  The protists were so concentrated it was like staring at the heavens.  Unlike the open sea, they now willingly showed off their other-worldly glow.  Try to picture billions of ever-changing, shimmering stars laid out on an enormous, black blanket.  Now remember they were living, palpable, reachable stars.

It was not enough; the next-er in me needed more! As Miranda paddled, my left foot hovered above the water.  My heel slowly sank and every inch that went into the black bay lit with the same, fiery vibrance as my oar did earlier.  Dragging against our flow, I did not see just the outline of my foot.  I saw each individual toe as if I was looking at it with a green tint in broad daylight. 

I was still in a state of curious frenzy when Beth played another one of her tricks.  Though not the most tranquil or relaxing sound, she wildly slammed the solid rod of her paddle against the outside of the kayak affecting a loud THUD!  In a flash – literally and figuratively – I saw a whiteish-blue line zig-zag across the bay floor.  What the heck!?  Beth repeated the action, but this time we saw two beams of lasers in the same vicinity race in different directions.  Now, I felt like I was watching the movie Tron. 

Beth clued us in: plenty of fish lurked at the bottom of the bay for food, and when she startled them, they bolted through the turtle & manatee grass which in turn agitated the billions of dionflagellates.  Although it appeared the fish were bioluminescent as well, we merely observed the trail of disturbed dinoflagellates.  My whacks on the side of the canoe were hollow-sounding and lame, but Miranda had a knack for it.  We’d be paddling along, then suddenly Miranda would slam the oar down and we’d watch light trails launch all around us.   Once I watched two lines blast off from exactly the same point on the sea floor, at exactly the same moment.  The lines ran close and parallel to each other for a few seconds then – almost as if it was planned – one fish jutted 90º to the left, the other 90º to the right, at the same time, leaving the shape of a “T” glistening in the bay.

As tired as I was getting, one of Lady Gaga’s songs kept replaying in my head. I smiled, knowing all that I had accomplished throughout my two short days in Puerto Rico:  “I’m gonna marry the night, I won’t give up on my life. I’m a warrior queen, live passionately tonight.  I’m gonna marry the dark, gonna make love to the stark. I’m a soldier to my own emptiness, I’m a winner.  I’m gonna marry the night.  I’m gonna marry the night. I’m not gonna cry anymore.  I’m gonna marry the night, leave nothing on these streets to explore.”

Our tour’s departure time (22:00) neared but Beth had yet to see the headlights from the next group from Abe’s Snorkeling as they pulled up to the beach.  She asked if we would care to stay out longer?  No one objected. Still in the glimmering bay, we rowed to the only quarter we had not previously explored, and Beth showed us a haunting shipwreck.  It was a rather small fishing boat that probably housed a cuddy, but it looked so creepy – like a crocodile – the way some of it was above water but most was submerged.  It resembled a vessel out of the Pirates of the Caribbean

From far away, Steve instructed us all to “watch, watch, watch.”  His arms circulated in a frenzy as he quickly gained speed in the kayak.  At a speed of half of Steve’s maximum velocity, the entire bottom of the kayak illuminated and practically lit it up from underneath.  It was so unmistakably bright in contrast to the night, like someone shined a flashlight on Steve’s kayak as he furiously paddled.  It was so surreal I felt that at any second the plastic container would take off into the sky, similar to how Elliot in E.T. pedaled his bike so hard they began flying.

Eventually, the next tour group from Abe’s Snorkeling arrived and we had to hand off our kayaks.  Although I had the time of my life, I was water-logged from soaking in the water for seven hours.  Not to mention my northern skin had weathered the intense Caribbean sunlight for hours which was becoming quite painful.
When I returned to Alta Vista there was no more hot water for my shower, however, I didn’t mind because the coolness felt soothing on my fried shoulders, face, and forearms.  Interestingly, I had a lone text message from Adolfo (the guy who I thought was a creeper but turned out to be the cute nephew of Miguel) wondering if I would meet him for drinks.  I didn’t want to tempt fate or my safety (plus I was drained) so I declined but offered to meet for brunch manana a.k.a. tomorrow.  He avoided my question entirely but asked “Como estuve la bahia? a.k.a. How was the bay?” 

How do you describe [as I wrote it in my journal] “by far, the most breath-taking, natural, living thing”  you’ve ever seen?  How could I answer Adolfo when I could barely fathom what I had just experienced?  I was impressed and incredibly humbled by the dinoflagellates, which have peacefully endured, unphased by the goings-on of the world.  These marvels that hung in such a precarious balance with their ecosystem & environment, made a lot of my stresses feel petty.  Ironically, one of God’s smallest and least complex creatures influenced me to love, cry, prioritize and accept.  So, I simply responded: “UNREAL.”

Abe's Snorkeling has a great website!  787.741.2134 or 787.436.2686