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Bioluminescence Indian River Lagoon Dolphins-2

An hour east of Orlando sits one of the greatest natural treasures in the state of Florida. At the place where the Banana River, the Indian River and the Mosquito Lagoon come together—a spot called the Indian River Lagoon—an otherworldly blue glow lights up the night. Locals call it “fire water,” and intrepid kayakers can set out across the dark lagoon to experience the glowing water themselves.

Why the Glow? 

Bioluminescence can be created by several organisms, but in the Indian River Lagoon the majority of the blue glow comes from dinoflagellates, microscopic single-celled organisms. Also known as phytoplankton, dinoflagellates are plant-like creatures that use photosynthesis to produce the food they need to survive. 

The phenomenon of bioluminescence happens in response to pressure on the cell walls of these organisms. This pressure ignites a chemical reaction that creates a bright blue glow. Scientists theorize that the glow might be a warning system against predators. For humans, it’s a light show that feels like pure magic.

When to Go

Dinoflagellates are most abundant in the Indian River Lagoon during the warm summer months, June through September. The days are longer in these months, which means more sun for the microorganisms to photosynthesize. And conditions in the lagoon like salinity, pH and turbidity are ideal for the single-cell organisms. The best viewing is on the darkest nights, long after sunset and ideally during a new moon.

What to Watch For

Because dinoflagellates produce their signature glow in response to touch, disturbing the water causes the organisms to light up. The stroke of a paddle, the bow of a kayak, the flat bottom of a standup paddleboard—these will create vibrant blue trails through the water. But humans aren’t the only ones moving through the lagoon at night. Watch for manatees, dolphins and stingrays as they swim through the water like bright blue comets. And keep an eye out for mullet, those foot-long fish known to leap from the water. They create trails like bottle rockets.

What to Bring

Bug spray. Florida in the summer is a breeding ground for mosquitoes. And Mosquito Lagoon, one of the best places for spotting bioluminescence, is not a misnomer. Seasoned paddlers take the insect situation seriously. 

Who to Go With

The Titusville area has several purveyors of after-dark bioluminescence kayak tours. BK Adventure (485 N. Washington Ave., Titusville; 407.519.8711; bkadventure.com) is one of the best-known operators. For a truly mystical experience, book one of the clear kayaks and paddle across the lagoon in what feels like a glass-bottom boat. Also consider the company’s standup paddleboard tour. As part of the SUP tour, paddlers stop at an island and have a chance to swim in the bioluminescent waters. It’s one thing to run a paddle through glowing blue waters; it’s another experience entirely to bathe in the magical light.  

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