Last Word: Night Swimming

A New Yorker learns to glow in the dark at one of Puerto Rico's bioluminescent bays

By Sloane Crosley

Illustration by Felix Sockwell

Picture it: springtime, last year, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Three friends and I had taken a much-needed long weekend. The plan was to lie on the beach, drink piña coladas, and sip coffee in some open-shuttered café with a view of street chickens. Or maybe street roosters. It was a nonspecific fowl fantasy.
But after two days of perfect sun tanning and pristine white rooms, we realized that we weren’t really seeing Puerto Rico. Aside from the words on our boarding passes, we could have been anywhere. I’m practiced at the art of doing nothing, but if you’re going to get on an airplane ...

So my friend Chris, a tall, bear-like creature who gets along with people of all cultures, took it upon himself to befriend the owner of a local nightclub, who recommended we go night kayaking through the rainforest to see one of the famous bioluminescent bays. Usually these kayaking trips are done in large official tours costing hundreds of dollars, but our guy knew a guy who knew a guy. So that night we piled into a rickety van, pulled out of our manicured hotel driveway, and headed toward the bay of Fajardo.

The phosphorescent algae at Fajardo—microscopic dinoflagellates that absorb light during the day and sparkle at night—were so intensely brilliant that explorers, on first seeing the glow, must have thought they’d found the fountain of youth. But development and pollution have since taken their toll. The bay is now known as one of the most endangered natural wonders on the planet.

In fact, Fajardo’s shimmer is so precarious that swimming is prohibited; tourists, who tend to cover themselves in chemical insect repellent, are a threat to the natural phenomenon. We’d made sure not to wear any, so the mosquitoes started snacking while we were still on land.

We walked down an abandoned fishing dock and were met by our local guide. Somewhere down the shore, there were safety talks, helmets, and kayaks with lights on the bow and stern being given out. Not so for us. A pungent, terrible smell invaded our nostrils. With our flip-flops sinking into mounds of corroded fishing net, we trudged to the three most beat-up kayaks on the planet. Chris paddled in the seat behind me as we wove through boats in the marina. Taking turns swatting ourselves, we ducked beneath the tree branches and into the rainforest.

“Try not to kill us,” I said to Chris as his paddle scraped against a rock.

“We’ll be fine as long as you follow my lead.”



“You’re sitting behind me.”

We spent the first mile with no lights, trying not to lose the other two boats. Low-hanging vegetation smacked me in the head, then Chris, producing a lot of: Thwap. Pause. Thwap. By mile two, we passed other tourists, rowing in lines like kindergartners holding a rope. As if we were driving down a highway without headlights, they’d scream, “Dark kayaks coming!” I got the sense that these people were scolding us more than warning each other. By mile three, my arms hurt, I was tired of being yelled at, and the bites on my legs were approaching the size of the bumps on my head. Where was the glow? The water looked as black as a lake in New England.

It started subtly. I looked down and noticed a white fish following alongside our kayak. Then I realized it wasn’t white—it was glowing from ingesting and swimming in phosphorescent waters. The kayak ahead of us now left a trail of smoky incandescence as each paddle touched the water. Then the branches cleared, and the water opened, and we were in the bay. If we’d been on one of the official tours, only our hands would have been allowed to touch the water, but we peeled off our moldy life jackets and dove in. Let’s call it a case of environmental jaywalking. With every movement of our limbs, a greenish sparkling glow followed: bay angels. If we lifted our hands from the water, it was as if we had dipped them in glitter. I snapped my fingers under the surface and watched the sparks fly. We floated between two constellations—the stars above and the ocean below.

Sometimes, now that I am back in grimy New York City and hundreds of miles from the natural beauty of Fajardo, I will smell the rancid stench of man-made garbage in the streets and think of those fly-infested fishing nets. Or I’ll get honked at by a cab and remember those judgmental tourists. I’ll look to the sky for solace, only to find a handful of stars (one of which is an airplane). But there is still peace to be found in the lit billboards of Times Square or the headlights whizzing up the West Side Highway—we glow too, when we want to.

Sloane Crosley’s debut, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, a collection of humorous essays on New York and its disappointments, is out now from Riverhead Books.

Issue 25

Sign up for Plenty's Weekly Newsletter