A "Bio-Bay" to Treasure in Trelawny
Have you ever been swimming in a bioluminescent bay? "Bio-bays" are places where swimming in the water on a moonless night is like swimming in a sea of sparkling stars. There are only a handful of these bays left in the world, and Jamaica is home to one of them. Jamaica calls the bay "Glistening Waters", although you may hear people refer to it as the "Luminous Lagoon". Officially, it's Oyster Bay.
It's been a long time since I've posted about Glistening Waters. This is one of my personal favorite spots on the island, so I think it's worth telling you about it again and to clear up some misconceptions so you'll know what to expect if you decide to go. You really should attempt to see this wonder of nature before it disappears.
What is a bioluminescent bay?
Bioluminescent bays contain water that glows with a blue-green light at night when microscopic organisms in the water, called dinoflagellates (dy-no-FLAH-juh-luhts), are disturbed. On a good night at Glistening Waters, it looks a bit like neon blue-green champagne bubbles in the water. The photo you see here is my poor attempt at capturing the glow in the wake of our boat, but it's nearly impossible to get a good photo. You just have to see it in person!
We have always called this "phosphorescence" when we see the greenish glow in our California waves, but the phenomenon is more accurately known as bioluminescence. It literally means living (bio) light (luminescence). Producing some of the same chemicals as lightning bugs and fireflies, these microscopic organisms communicate with light, just in different ways. They are a magnificent example of one of Mother Nature's natural phenomena.
Dinoflagellates are tiny organisms, a type of plankton, that live in the sea and get energy from sunlight during the day (think solar lights). They begin to glow when it gets dark, but will brighten considerably when agitated, such as in the wake of a boat. They apparently can be found in the ocean near the shoreline of many countries throughout the world, but are more common in the northern hemisphere, primarily the Caribbean.
What causes this phenomenon?
Many have studied these organisms, but they are not well understood. It's really a natural wonder. It requires a delicately balanced ecosystem which begins with a shallow bay that has a narrow entrance from the sea. Because the bay is shallow, the evaporation rate is high. The surface water becomes saltier and sinks to the bottom. The heavier water then moves out to sea, leaving thousands of dinoflagellates behind, and the narrow entrance from the sea prevents waves from washing them out of the bay.
Next, add the red mangrove trees that surround all of the known bio-bays. Their roots and fallen leaves decompose and produce a bacteria full of vitamin B12 and other nutrients, the perfect food for dinoflagellates.
There are not many places on Earth where everything comes together to create the perfect environment for these creatures, and Jamaica's Glistening Waters is one of them. Oyster Bay is surrounded by mangroves, where the warm fresh waters of the Martha Brae River collide with the salt waters of the Caribbean Sea.
Why do they light up?
Scientists think the bioluminescence is a defense mechanism, as is usually the case with other glowing creatures on Earth. When they flash their light, they can startle or blind predators, giving them a chance to escape. Or it could be for courtship. For many species, the glows identify males from females. During mating seasons, they will glow differently than usual, showing their readiness to mate. No one really knows for certain.
If you are interested in other bioluminescent creatures, check out the photos at NationalGeographic.com.
Where are the other bioluminescent bays in the world?
According to Dr. Michael Latz of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, an expert on bioluminescent organisms, bio-bays are extremely rare with "only 7 year-round lagoons known to exist in the Caribbean. Any place that has a bioluminescent bay should cherish it like a natural wonder, like a treasure”.
Puerto Rico has three bio-bays, but two of them are in jeopardy:
- Puerto Mosquito (Mosquito Bay) in Vieques, Puerto Rico, is thought to be one of the brightest in the world. It contains up to 720,000 bioluminescent organisms per gallon of water.
- Laguna Grande (Grand Lagoon) in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, is another, but it is not nearly as bright. In fact, just in the past month, Laguna Grande has mysteriously stopped glowing and experts are not sure why.
- La Parguera, on the island of Lajas, Puerto Rico, is the third location, but the bay is no longer very bright as a result of pollution.
St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, has two bio-bays: Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve, the most widely known and visited, and Altona Lagoon.
Sand Point Cove in Rum Point, Cayman Islands has a bio-cove. It's a small inlet off the north-east side of the North Sound that is protected from wave action. Guests of the condos and villas in the area have free access to the cove because it has never been developed as a tourist spot.
One of the largest concentrations of these bioluminescent microorganisms, and one of the brightest, is at Glistening Waters in Rock, Falmouth, Jamaica.
There may be three others in Indonesia, Mexico and Japan, but I cannot confirm it. There used to be more. Those in Hawaii and the Bahamas were ruined when they widened the openings from the bay to the sea, reducing the dinoflagellate population. Others in the Caribbean have been lost due to industrial or boat pollution, the cutting of mangroves for charcoal, runoff from the overgrazing by cattle in nearby fields, and artificial light pollution, which reduces the phenomenon’s brightness. The adjacent port of Falmouth was widened a few years ago to accommodate huge cruise ships and it was hoped that no damage would be caused to Glistening Waters. Only time will tell.
Where is Glistening Waters?
Glistening Waters is in Falmouth in the parish of Trelawny. From Montego Bay it's about a 20-minute drive; from Ocho Rios about 45 minutes. You can see it along the A1 main road as you're driving between Ochi and Montego Bay.
Obviously, you can only do this at night. The first time I visited, the moon was full and I loved it. The next time there was no moon and the light was MUCH brighter. If you had a bright and sunny day, the light at night will be brighter. According to our guide, Jerry, even rainy nights are beautiful because every drop of rain creates color in the water. I can't vouch for that personally.
I understand that admission is US$25 each for tourists and J$1,000 (about US$10) for locals. Admission comes with rum punch. The tour last 30 to 45 minutes. Glistening Waters is open daily and boat tours begin at sunset.
Your boat will most likely be like the one pictured here; they hold about 30 people & there are several boats.
Our guide was Jerry who has been at Glistening Waters for a long time. He's fun and is a wealth of information about the lagoon and the surrounding area. Jerry will take you out into the lagoon, rev the outboard motor, sing to you, and putt around stirring up the water to WOW you with the beautiful glowing light. It looks like glittering fairy dust. Run your fingers and hands through the water and create glowing blue-green ribbons of your own. The boat will stop and let you get into the water, so don't forget to bring something to swim in (there are changing rooms/showers).
Jerry says that you can fill a bottle with the water, shake it up, and the light in the water will last for five days. And check out the moving fish in the water - they look like moving stars! Spectacular!
10 Tips to Maximize Your Enjoyment of Glistening Waters
- If you're expecting something like the Jungle Ride at Disneyland, you are going to be very disappointed. This is a NATURAL phenomenon for you to VIEW, not an amusement ride. Yes, it may seem pricey, but you'd pay US$9.00 for a beer at a New York Knicks game... for one beer! Inflation happens everywhere, even in Jamaica. At least here you'll get to see something only a few people ever get to see.
- Avoid TUESDAY nights. The huge cruise ships arriving to the Port of Falmouth will stir up the water in the bay and disrupt the brightness of the glow.
- The glow will be brightest when there is no moon and when it hasn't rained in a couple of days.
- The glow will not be as bright if there is a full moon. The darker the night, the better.
- Swimming is optional. Feel free to simply enjoy the boat ride, but everyone who did it on my tours thoroughly enjoyed the experience of swimming through the glow.If you decide to swim, bring along water shoes. The bay is shallow and its bottom is muddy ( feels like quicksand).
- Go late, well after dusk; the darker the better.
- Don't expect to get great photos. Even professional photographers have a terrible time capturing the glow of bio-bays. It's not you.
- Enjoy dinner at Glistening Waters' lovely waterfront restaurant & follow it up with a boat ride. The food is very good and, by the time you finish your meal, it will be darker outside.
- This is Mother Nature's light show. The weather and moon cycles are not something your Jamaican tour guides can control. Many things factor into the brightness of the glow, but they will do their best to make sure you see something, even if it's very faint that night.
- Remind yourself that this is amazing natural experience that can be seen in very few places on the planet and may eventually be destroyed by our human need to pollute and dump garbage everywhere. Consider yourself blessed and enjoy it while you can.
I think Glistening Waters is one of the most spectacular sights to see in Jamaica. None of my Jamaican friends had ever been there and they absolutely LOVED it! Go see it; you won't be sorry!