Going for the Glow? Try Bioluminescence Kayaking in Florida .
If you live in, or plan on visiting Florida soon, there’s a pretty good chance that the subject of what you’re going to do while you’re there has come up.
Sure, you can explore Disney World, the roughly 825 miles of beaches, the plethora of theme parks strewn about the state, or, if you’re the super-adventurous type, you might even opt to explore the marshlands and everglades.
Most of that sounds fantastic, particularly if you have kids–but what if you have older kids, or no kids at all? Or, what if you live in Florida or visit it frequently and have done just about everything there is to do about 100 times?
If you’re looking for a Florida experience that is both enchanting, exciting, and something that relatively few people ever actually do, you should consider bioluminescent kayaking.
What the Heck is Bioluminescence?
Bioluminescence is the scientific word for living organisms (bio) that light up (luminesce) the way fireflies do. That’s right, fireflies are just one of many species of bioluminescent creatures that we share out planet with. Because they live on dry land, we have all seen and are familiar with fireflies. However, what many people don’t know, is that most bioluminescent creatures live underwater.
The chart above was compiled by The National Wildlife Federation and represents some, but not close to all of the over 2,000 known species of bioluminescent creatures on earth, though there are probably many more, that live in our oceans which we just haven’t found them yet.
This chart is fascinating, but hard to see under any method of incorporating it into this article, so here is a link to the image, as well as many fascinating others on the website for The National Wildlife Foundation.
What are the Best Places for Bioluminescent Kayaking in Florida?
Here it is! At long last, what you’ve been waiting for, the list of the best places in Florida to go bioluminescent kayaking! Okay, we won’t make you wait any longer, promise.
1. Indian River Lagoon
Indian River Lagoon is on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, sandwiched right in between Merritt Island and Vero Beach. It is absolutely one of the best places in the state to experience bioluminescence.
Those beautiful Dinos (plankton) in the IRL create an amazingly surrealistic kayaking experience, the likes of which you will never see anyplace else.
While kayaking there (particularly in the summer season), you can expect to encounter algae, seaweed, and several types of underwater life. The way these animals and fish glow when your kayak cuts through the water around them, can be breathtaking.
Because this secluded lagoon is isolated, the bioluminescence here is extraordinary because there are not a lot of other factors disturbing the water.
There is also a man-made canal, called the Haulover canal. There, you can start your adventure and head east, under the drawbridge and past the Manatee Observation deck.
Once you’re there, the locals (and the tour guides if you opted to take advantage of a guided tour) will help you navigate to the best specific spots to experience the bioluminescence.
If you are also a big fan of “the cows of the sea” Manatees can often be seen in this area as well. Be sure to bring your cameras!
Click here to book a tour.
2. Cocoa Beach
Cocoa Beach is located just south of Merritt Island, also on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. It sits almost due West of Kissimmee and is well known for its exceptional beaches and all kinds of sand and water sports.
But when the sun goes down, it’s time to jump in your kayak and coast into one of the seductively secluded areas and take in their amazing bioluminescent glory.
This is one of the spots where bioluminescence can be seen year-round – like we showed you earlier, that’s plankton in the summer months and those beautiful comb jellies in the winter.
Unlike many other species of jellyfish, comb jellies do not sting. Instead, when you touch them, they emit a soft bluish glow that looks like they are being backlit by soft LEDs.
Like everywhere else on these excursions, if you decide to take advantage of one of the many professionally guided tours, the guides know exactly where to go and when. They’ll also teach you some super-interesting history, science, and fun facts along the way. Most of these tours last for about two hours and are available at a few different price points.
Click here to book a tour.
3. Cape Canaveral
A little further north, up Florida’s Atlantic Coast is Cape Canaveral. Most commonly known as the home of the Kennedy Space Center and launch site of many of America’s most historical NASA spaceflights, it also happens to be one of the quieter places to launch your kayak from if it’s your goal to stay away from crowds.
If visiting the museum there is also part of your Florida vacation agenda, this is another reason to start your bioluminescence adventure from there. That’s because it’s known to residents and tour guides as one of the best places for bioluminescence kayaking that’s also near Orlando and not very far from Cocoa Beach.
The incredible plankton are in abundance here but not as easily accessible as other places. For that reason, if you are planning to use Cape Canaveral as your bioluminescent kayaking starting point, we recommend going the guided tour route.
It’s not absolutely necessary but it is a great time saver, and there’s always the truth of safety in numbers, particularly during water activities at night.
You also have the option of going for a solo or a tandem kayak, which can also be great fun!
Book your tour here.
4. Bioluminescence Kayaking in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
Back down south a little on the East coast of the peninsula is Merritt Island and the National Wildlife Refuge.
Almost equidistant between Titusville to the north and Melbourne to the south, Merritt Island is conveniently located between many other bioluminescent hot spots. This is great if you happen to plan on using a different launch point every night over say a week-long vacation.
Merritt Island is a large barrier island and is home to thousands of unique species of birds, fish and mammals. There are even more than a few endangered species that call this place home.
Besides great hiking, there is also the Great Florida Birding Trail to experience while in town.
Much of this area is as close to unmolested virgin land as you can expect to encounter in North America in the 21st century, so if you are a nature enthusiast, Merritt Island is a place you won’t want to overlook.
Like Cape Canaveral, the prime bioluminescent spots aren’t as apparent as they are in other locations. Combine that with the fact that NASA frequently restricts access to these waterways for various reasons, we strongly suggest that if you plan to include MI as part of your bioluminescent adventure, booking a tour with a guided tour company would be a really good idea.
Click here to book a tour.
Titusville is the home to NASA’s main headquarters, several wildlife refuges, and more than a few beautiful spots where you set off for some stellar bioluminescence kayaking.
Titusville has 3 primary kayaking starting points; the Haulover Canal South, the Haulover Canal North, and Beacon 42. What’s really cool though is that each of these locations offers an experience that is specifically unique. There is also great restaurants in Titusville as a side point.
Haulover Canal North is the most popular of the three. It’s also used by numerous tour companies and offers both day and night excursions.
The options that are available to a novice bioluminescence kayaker are abundant in Titusville. The guides here are the most knowledgeable and experienced of the bunch, and will teach you more about the area, the phenomenon, it’s science, and it’s history, than pretty much anyplace else.
No matter if you decide to use a company to tour this area or opt instead to go it on your own, you and your family are in for an amazing experience when launching from Titusville.
Also, like a couple of other launch locations, manatee and alligator sightings are common, in this area, particularly during daylight hours. At night, however, dolphins love to frolic in the iridescent waters, creating a course of glowing, blue-colored waves as they swim all around you.
That’s because those incredible dino planktons are ridiculously plentiful, particularly from June through October. While you’re there, be sure to keep an eye out and keep your cameras at the ready as encounters with otters, mullets, pelicans, and other wandering wildlife is always possible in this part of Florida. One of the best places to go Bioluminescence Kayaking in Florida.
Book your tour here.
6. Banana River
As one of the more popular bioluminescence locations in Cocoa Beach, Banana River is also one of the most crowded. That’s mostly because numerous guided tours launch from this location every night.
Like most other things, there’s a reason for this site’s popularity though. If you choose to start your bioluminescence journey from Banana River, you are virtually guaranteed to see any number of manatees, stingrays or mullets as they speed around and beneath you.
Planktons are in abundance here and they create a wonderful glow whenever you coast through them.
If you happen to be one of the lucky ones with a clear kayak, your experience will be magnified tremendously.
Click here to book a tour.
7. Mosquito Lagoon
Mosquito lagoon, together with Indian River Lagoon and Banana Lagoon make up Florida’s Space Coast.
During the summer season, billions (with a b, that wasn’t a typo) of dinoflagellates (plankton) are visible. Literally, every min-wave your kayak paddles makes in the glowing water will delight and amaze you. Not to mention the seemingly backlit wake your kayak will make as it part’s the water (and the dinoflagellates) around you.
Of course, catching a glimpse of a friendly dolphin as it joyfully flips about around your kayak is always a distinct possibility
It’s also important to note that kayak rentals are available on the lagoon, so if you don’t own one or don’t care to bring yours, you don’t have to miss out on the fun!
Last point about this launch point: it’s called mosquito lagoon for a very good reason. You would be well advised to bring copious quantities of repellant if you’re planning to use mosquito lagoon as the starting point for your adventure.
Click here to book a tour
8. Fort De Soto County Park
Located on the opposite side of the peninsula this time, Fort De Soto County Park is in Pinellas County, Florida, in an outlying area off Florida’s western Gulf Coast. Not far from St. Petersburg.
Because of the vast number of small islands, lagoons and bays, there are some opportunities for bioluminescent kayaking here, but they are limited because much of this area is private property or is protected for conservation purposes.
The park and the surrounding area makes up for these restrictions by offering a plethora of other activities and attractions including museums, and many beautiful beaches.
However, in this location, if you really want to maximize your bioluminescence kayaking experience, we seriously recommend coming during the warmer months.
If you do, you’ll be rewarded with the opportunity to watch the stunningly luminescent planktons as they are flustered and roused by other marine wildlife such as dolphins, manatees, or even alligators. When this happens, the show is nothing less than spectacular.
Dinoflagellates (Plankton in case you forgot) are abundant in Tampa Bay. At certain times, they illuminate the water and provide an incredibly unique experience to anyone who happens to be kayaking there at the time.
There are a total of five islands that make up the Fort De Soto Park chain. Each one of them boasts a fantastic beach from which you can launch your kayak to enjoy a bioluminescence excursion.
9. Pandora, the World of Avatar
Yes, that’s right, you can experience all the wonder of bioluminescence right inside the wonderful World of Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Designed to simulate scenes from the magically fictional planet of Pandora, the setting of the highest grossing motion picture of all time–James Cameron’s blockbuster hit Avatar.
In the movie, the world of Pandora is nothing short of breathtaking, and the theme park attraction based upon its concept doesn’t disappoint. The Animal Kingdom adventure of Avatar features bioluminescent plants, marine life, alien life forms, levitating mountains, and countless other features, all presented in a way that only Disney could manufacture.
Even though the fictional world of Pandora is a completely man-made experience, both you and your children will be awestruck as you experience kayaking on a moveable mass and encounter scores of fish that illuminate whenever they are disturbed—just like real world bioluminescent kayaking. The experience is quite incredible.
Just don’t get so enthralled by Pandora that you forget to check out the other entertainment options available to you while you’re there. The entire place is magical.
10. The Econlockhatchee River
Located right in Central Florida, very close to Orlando, Disney World, and all of the hotels and other attractions that are legendary for the area, is a stunning 8-mile stretch of the Econlockhatchee River which passes right through the Little Big Econ State Forest, and makes for an incredible kayaking, paddling, and swimming experience.
While the sun shines, whitewater rafting, swimming and kayaking are all par for the course. There are also quite a few daytime guided tours available for different activities.
This incredibly beautiful stretch of river takes you through a delightful wilderness where all sorts of birds and wildlife can easily be seen, so don’t forget to keep that camera handy.
Part of the allure of this location is that even though the river is winding, it forms another beautifully large, powdery sand beach every time it makes a turn. These are also the best places to experience bioluminescence once the sun fully sets.
True, It’s not as breathtakingly gorgeous as some of the other locations here (like Banana River, Mosquito Lagoon, and Indian River), but you can still see millions of dinoflagellates glow all around you as you coast through the placid, inky black water, contrasted by the brilliant lights of the dinos as you gently disturb their rest.
Click here to book a tour.
FAQ About Bioluminescence Kayaking in Florida
What are the different Types of Bioluminescent Life?
To be sure, not all beautiful bioluminescent life is peaceful and harmless. Some species, like these algae, called ‘Blue Tears’ located in the East China Sea, while stunning in appearance, are highly toxic.
Also, these hideously intimidating creatures, known as ‘Anglerfish’, could potentially spoil anybody’s, relaxing evening swim.
There are other species of bioluminescent life that can potentially be dangerous to humans, but fortunately, none of them live in Florida’s waters. Most don’t even live close to North America. In fact, this species, ‘Anglerfish’, only survive in the deep sea. So, we can rest assured that when we go bioluminescent kayaking in Florida, we will be perfectly safe.
In Florida, the species that live and that we encounter when we go bioluminescent kayaking are: dinoflagellates (plankton), snapping shrimp, red squid, fireflies, and comb jellies. Each of these species is most active during different times of the year, but more on that in a bit.
What Makes Bioluminescence Glow Like That?
When aquatic bioluminescent animals give off their light energy, like this comb jellyfish pictured above, similar to fireflies, they radiate a beautiful, neon-like glow. However, underwater bioluminescent creatures differ from fireflies in some pretty important ways.
First, underwater species of bioluminescent creatures are often super small. Many are even so small as to seem invisible to the naked human eye, and even others are actually microscopic. These ultra-tiny, single-celled creatures often look like little centipedes with fins and a bulbous head, when seen under extreme magnification.
This first particular species of aquatic bioluminescent life pictured above are called Dinoflagellates, more commonly referred to as plankton. The second image is an extreme closeup of a red snapping shrimp.
Bioluminescence happens through a chemical process inside these organisms that produces light energy within their bodies. For a reaction to occur, the species must have a chemical called luciferin inside it. That’s a molecule that reacts with oxygen, to produce light.
There are also many different types of luciferins. These vary by animal. Several of these organisms also produce luciferase, which is a catalyst chemical that helps to speed up the reaction.
Most of these animals can control when they light up by regulating their bodies depending on the circumstances and situations they find themselves in. Many will activate their luciferins while trying to attract a meal or a mate, but almost all of them can use their bioluminescent abilities as a defense mechanism against potential predators.
That’s what they’re doing when we see them in Florida. These tiny aquatic animals spend all day soaking up that notorious Florida sunshine, effectively charging their chemical batteries (The Luciferins,) through photosynthesis – yes, exactly the same way plants gain their nutrients from the sun.
Then, after dark, when things like waves, boats, swimmers, rocks, and –you guessed it, kayaks, disturb the water around them, these little animals activate their luciferins as defense mechanism.
Because these super small creatures live in huge colonies like most aquatic animals do, when one of them decides to light up, millions of their friends usually do the same, creating a mystical light show that spreads out, often as far as football field or more, in every direction, creating a stunning display which we humans find enchanting no matter how many times we’ve seen it before.
Is There a Special Time of Year to go Bioluminescent Kayaking?
Not really, but it depends upon where you plan on going in the state. There are definitely more options for places to go bioluminescent kayaking in Florida during the summer months of July and August.
That’s because each species of bioluminescent life has their own seasonal cycle for when they are most active, and each geographic area of Florida has its own indigenous species that call it home.
The following is a year-round chart of bioluminescent life activity. For the purposes of this article, we will only focus on the species that we can expect to encounter while bioluminescent kayaking in Florida.
January – March: This is the time of year that comb jellies are most active, out and about. While kayaking, there is also a really good chance that you will encounter a good many fireflies along the shore.
April-May: If there is any time of the year that can be called the ‘off-season,’ for bioluminescent kayaking, this is it. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any. It’s still very possible to see some comb jellies malingering around, but they just aren’t as abundant as they are in January-March. You may even encounter some faint glow from the plankton, its just usually not a big time of the year for either one, but they are still there and you will almost certainly see some—just not as much as at other times of the year.
June – October: This is the now famous tourist season also commonly miscalled the “bio-season.” However, during this time, you are sure to see the most spectacular show from the dinoflagellates that cover the water like a blanket at night.
The downside is that this is also the time of the year when most tour companies in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean max out their sales. That’s because people from all over the world are coming to see the glowing water
There are often some comb jellies to be seen in the water at this time too, but the dino really steal the show!
November – December: By this time of the year, the dino have wafted away and comb jelly season is in full swing.
Also, it should be noted to the get the greatest effect from the bioluminescence in Florida, it’s always best to schedule your outing around the time of the new moon. That’s because there is a lot less of the moon visible at night and therefore a lot less of a glare on the water, which can take away from the brilliance of the bioluminescent light created by the dino and the jellies.
Obviously, avoiding the full moon, is even a better idea. Though you’ll still be able to see the bioluminescence, it won’t look anywhere near as spectacular as it would on a moonless or overcast night when no natural light is coming from the sky.
How Can We See the Bioluminescence in Florida?
There are many ways to experience the bioluminescence in Florida, however, there really is no better way than from inside a kayak, on a moonless or overcast night, paddling right out amongst this breathtaking aquatic life for an unparalleled, up-close and personal experience.
Of course, other kinds of rowboats can be used, though preferably without any kind of motor, even an electric one. However, kayaks provide a unique advantage because they leave you so close to the water and are highly maneuverable, even in groups.
This is especially true if you can manage to score yourself a clear kayak so you can even see the light underneath you!
More than anything, and especially if you aren’t an experienced night swimmer or kayaker, it’s recommended that you seek out a good, reputable company and book a guided kayak tour to guide you to and through your best bioluminescence kayaking adventure.
By doing this, you get a local guide who knows exactly where to go and can explain everything about what you’re seeing and what’s causing it. Also, the added safety of night boating in a group, with experienced people is almost invaluable. The guide will also make sure you don’t miss anything.
What Should You Wear for a Bioluminescent Kayaking Adventure?
Definitely not what you would wear for a typical day at the Florida beach!
Obviously, because you’ll be out on the water at night, both the air and the water are going to be significantly cooler than they would be with the sun blazing at full strength overhead. It’s important to keep that in mind while planning your excursion.
Next, the areas where you will go to see the bioluminescent light show, also happen to be notorious mosquito havens.
Because of those factors, you want to make sure that you wear long sleeves and long pants. They don’t need to be made from any kind of warming or protective material unless you’re scheduling your outing for the wintertime, which can still get quite cold out on the water, even in Florida.
It helps to not lose sight of the real purpose for covering up, that is simply to protect you from the little bloodsucking flying vampires that thrive in the same habitats as most bioluminescent life, but definitely keep the temperature forecast in mind and be sure to choose items that are both appropriate to the climate, but which you also don’t mind getting wet.
Even dressing defensively isn’t going to protect every part of your body from those pesky flying critters that call us dinner. That’s why you must not forget to bring plenty of insect repellant—that is, enough to cover every exposed part of your body at least 3 times.
Why 3 times? Because we all know that stuff never lasts as long as the can says it’s supposed to! Be sure to apply it generously before even getting out of the car.
One thing that many people overlook is the need to bring water shoes for this type of adventure. Keep in mind, you will be walking in the dark to get to the water, to position your kayak, and to get in. The chances of stepping on sharp twigs or rocks is great, so attempting this barefoot, or in shoes that will get destroyed by water–especially if it happens to be salt water-would be bad.