Bioluminescence Kayaking in the San Juan Islands

Last year, one of my good friends at work recommended we check out the bioluminescence kayaking experience in the San Juan Islands. We’ve done a little kayaking on vacation and locally and enjoyed it, but what really sold me was learning more about the bioluminescent part of the experience!

Bioluminescence is the emission of light by a living organism. In the San Juan Islands this organism is a marine dinoflagellate (a flagellated protist), called Noctiluca. When disturbed, noctiluca emits a sparkling green burst of light. When many bioluminescent organisms congregate in bays, the collective effect can be very dramatic.

According to Discovery Sea Kayak

No brainer – we were definitely in! The tours are offered on nights where there is little to no moonlight so the organisms show up at their brightest. It’s hard for me to stay up late at night – I’m much more of a morning person – so we opted for later in the season when it gets dark earlier so I would be sure to be firing on all cylinders.

We booked our tour at the beginning of the year, and then of course COVID-19 happened. They canceled some of the tours earlier in the season but we decided to sit tight and see if things would be operating again by August.

Thankfully they were back up and running with safety precautions by the time of our booking so we set off for Anacortes to catch our afternoon ferry to Friday Harbor. We arrived a little early for our ferry (plus it was running behind schedule) so we headed up the road to check out a roadside attraction that’s been on Brian’s list – the La Merced.

In 1966, a local shipyard purchased the four-masted schooner La Merced and filled the hull with sand, turning it into a breakwater! We found a small parking area along the road to the ferry and followed a trail through the woods to a walking path along the water that terminates at a gate where you can see the ship hull.

It was a perfect way to burn a little time before our gorgeous ride to the San Juans. Mount Baker was out, Brian took hundreds of photos of every boat we passed for his brother, and before I knew it we were pulling into Friday Harbor.

We checked into our hotel and relocated downtown by the Discovery Kayak center so we would be ready to join our tour.

Right across the street was a restaurant called the Bait Shop that had fish and chips and a few other seafood options to go. We didn’t have a ton of time before we needed to rendezvous with our tour group so we grabbed a couple orders and ate dinner outside on a nearby bench – so yummy!

The Discovery Sea Kayak team was extremely nice, and we were quickly checked in and given very fetching gear to pull on over our clothes.

We loaded into their van, rode a short way to a pretty cove for launch, received safety information as well as instructions for using the cockpit cover (first time!), and as the sun set, we paddled off along the shore, following one of our guides and her red blinking backpack light.

Our second guide, who stayed toward the back of our group and was in charge of wrangling us, was very friendly and informative and shared more details about the organism and what we could expect as it started to get darker outside.

There were so many cool things about this experience – kayaking in the dark and allowing our eyes to adjust to the ships and shore we were navigating, learning more about this phenomenon and other places in the U.S. and beyond where you can have this experience, and most of all experiencing it for ourselves.

It wasn’t possible to take photos or video while we were trying to paddle in the dark and splashing around to activate the organism, but the promo video from Discovery Kayaks below captures it well.

Neither of us could believe how bright and sparkly the organism activates. As you would drag your oar or hand through the water, it would leave sparkling trails of light behind. It was truly magical. One technique they recommended was standing your oar vertically in the water and rolling it between the palms of your hands to make it spin in tight circles. This would kick up the brightest light – it was incredible.

Different photos and videos I’ve since found online show it activating in different colors. The guides mentioned this was possible and that different people sometimes see slightly different colors from one another. Everyone in our group – us included – saw it as sparkling, twinkling white lights that would fade as you stopped splashing or disturbing it.

I would HIGHLY recommend this experience to people of all ages. We were out for several hours, and I didn’t even have time to get tired or cold.

Once we were back in the warmth of the van, it was another story – it was close to midnight, and I was sleepy!

Brian dropped me off at the hotel to get ready for bed and headed back down to the harbor to take a few night shots. There was a lot of light from the boats, nearby businesses, and harbor itself, but I love how he used it to capture the stars.

Our ferry back to Anacortes the next morning didn’t leave until after 11 a.m. so we had a leisurely time grabbing breakfast sandwiches and coffee to go from a cafe along the water and setting off to explore a few new places on the island.

Brian had found a nearby spot called Lime Kiln Point State Park with a neat lighthouse that we decided to check out first. There was an awesome “mackerel sky” that morning, and we spent time hiking on the paths along the shore, admiring the lighthouse (tours inside temporarily suspended), and watching for wildlife.

We spotted several jelly fish and sea anemones in the tide pools along the shore as well as a couple different pods of dolphins further in the distance. It was a beautiful and relaxing way to spend our morning!

On our drive back to Friday Harbor we wound through the center of the island and came across a bizarre sculpture garden along the road. It looked like the drive led back to a place you could visit and maybe tour other items like these, but the signs noted that everything was closed due to COVID-19.

The sculptures along the road were creative and crazy – we might have to go back on our next visit to get the full experience!

We thought we had timed things just right to catch our ferry back to Anacortes but when we returned, we discovered the ferries were several hours behind schedule again.

We found the relatively new San Juan Brewing Company just up the road from the ferry terminal and decided to share a custom tasting and some snacks for lunch while we waited. We grabbed the perfect outdoor seating in the shade where we could stay away from other people and relax until our boat arrived.

This was our second time visiting Friday Harbor, and despite COVID-19 we were able to make the most of our experience. Because we weren’t interested in spending time downtown, it was fairly easy to stay away from other people and out in nature.

If you’re headed to the San Juan Islands, see if any of the bioluminescence kayaking tours are available. You will not regret it!

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