The Magic Experience of the Bioluminescent Bays in Puerto Rico

Imagine this:

You are in a small boat gently tugged by slow waves, you feel the mild wind on your skin. It’s a dark night a couple of hours after sunset, and you just stepped into this boat with your friends.

It’s a new moon night, you picked the best date of the month! The thin sliver has just set beyond the horizon. The stars are out and very visible in the dark night sky, the light pollution is thankfully not very damaging here. You can see a faint yellowish glow over some hills from the nearest city 40 miles away, and if there were a few clouds they would reflect more of this light.

But tonight it’s dark, real dark, and your night vision has kicked in after a while on the water.

The stars are out! And the glow over the hills is light pollution from a city 40 miles away.

Suddenly, you discover a broad silver streak trailing the boat. The boat splashes silver spray out to the sides, and it’s dark everywhere else.

The noise from the engine isn’t overpowering, but it’s a relief once you’re inside the bay and the silence of the place welcomes you when the captain switches off the engine.

You’re glowing in the dark!

And then you’re told that you can get in and swim!

That’s why you picked La Parguera, of course, because here you won’t be limited to just sitting in a kayak to observe or just dipping a hand in. No, here you dip your whole body into the warm Caribbean Sea, and you swim with the sparkling dinoflagellates and touch them and see them all around you.

It’s even more awesome when you put your snorkeling mask on, there’s another dimension to this experience seeing the silvery light from within the water and all around your vision.

Sparkling bluish brightness enveloping a human form

The dinoflagellates are tiny, you can’t feel them, but they’re all over. When you get out of the boat for a moment, you look down and discover that your bathing suit is a sparkling mass of light blinking at you. Your friends laugh with delight and enjoy the sight too!

You look around, and all you can see are the dark shapes of your friends fringed with the milky bright shine revealing all their movements, and the far edges of the bay where you know the mangroves grow thick but right now the deep dark reigns.

There may be one or two other boats out here in the bay, but there’s room for everyone and they’re not even close.

How to capture the fragile light of bioluminescence

Recently, I have made a few trips to the southern part of Puerto Rico to experience and photograph one of the world’s five bioluminescent bays. It’s amazing that three of those bays are in Puerto Rico!

I have only been to La Parguera so far, and it was such an awesome experience the first time that I kept coming back two more times. I will absolutely visit both Fajardo and Vieques later, but there’s no rush, it’s going to be hard to beat La Parguera!

What’s special about the biobay in La Parguera?

Visitors can swim in the bay and get real close to the dinoflagellates. It’s incredibly beautiful to see the sparkling little bits of plankton all around you.

And it’s incredibly frustrating as a photographer to realize that there are some things in life that are hard and almost impossible to capture, bioluminescence being one. In those cases, you have to accept that those glorious images you see around you will stay in your memories only!

But, I don’t give up! In spite of the darkness, movement of the boat, the wet nature of this place, and inclement weather (yes, it rains frequently in Puerto Rico!), I have been able to produce some photos from the biobay …

My settings

At my two first visits, this was my method: the highest ISO of 12800 (Fujifilm XT2) the widest aperture of my lens, long exposure of a few seconds that I can manage somewhat well handheld, and a few cooperative friends who would splash around making lots of brightness!

I also experimented with manual focus when it was apparent that autofocus didn’t really work in the darkness.

These settings have yielded fairly good results, with none of the photos being close to sharp or in focus! Never mind that, those photos show in a truthful but artistic way how dark the night was, and portray the ambience and atmosphere in a unique way.

The red is probably a reflection from the boat’s red light, supposedly to not ruin our night vision but it’s not great for photos!

Forget about a tripod, you’re on a moving boat! The best approach is to find a stable position leaning into something on the boat, and hope for the best…

On the third visit we were almost rained out, and my camera stayed securely in the drybag the entire trip to the biobay! Even with rain, it’s possible to have a good experience seeing the bioluminescence. If you have a waterproof camera or case, photography is still possible.

I have not tried to take pictures or shoot film with a sport action camera like the GoPro. I would be curious to see how well it would work in these conditions.

Trying to capture low light photos with a cellphone doesn’t yield good results!

I did use my cellphone and got very mediocre photos from it, even when I used the Lightroom app and shot RAW. It was worth trying, but for anything to show at all, to capture the small amount of light available, a real camera is necessary.

I would have loved to be able to record those fast, silvery streaks of fishes passing our boat, but their movements give such a faint light and are gone so quickly. The limitations of photography feel very confining in those moments!

Luckily, with friends being cooperatively splashing around for me I was able to take all those photos I’m sharing here!