Florida Travel

Merritt Island: Glow-in-the-dark kayaking on the Space Coast

kayaking tour:  The bioluminescent waters at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
kayaking tour: The bioluminescent waters at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Florida Today Communications

The hulking, witchy-armed mangroves engulfed me in such solitude and deep darkness that I fleetingly thought I should be a little freaked — out there in a solo kayak at night with no one else in sight. But the magical liquid light show around me provoked such a profound sense of wonder that I couldn’t possibly react beyond gasps and giggles of delight.

My paddle ignited a small nuclear explosion with each stroke. Trailing my fingers in the water was like finger-painting with stars. Raindrops sparkled as they hit the water. Each jumping, skipping or chasing fish set off its own fireworks on the surface. Deeper below, they passed like puddles of flood light.

It was trippy, extraterrestrial even, as if the small waves were lit from above by a black light. Or someone, without warning, had turned the world topsy-turvy and I was kayaking among the constellations.

I suppose the latter analogy is most apt here on Florida’s Space Coast, home to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and conquerors of the heavens. It is also home to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which acts as a 140,000-acre natural buffer to the north of NASA and is where I joined A Day Away outfitters on a bioluminescent tour one drizzly September eve.

By day, the vast refuge is home to almost 550 species of animals and more than 1,000 species of plants, including 16 species that are federally listed as threatened or endangered. such as manatees, bald eagles, green sea turtles, and the Florida scrub jay. Their habitats range from coastal dunes to hardwood hammocks. By summer night, its waters turn into the best light show in Florida.

SEA-BLINKIES

Since my first encounter with bioluminescence in Jamaican waters many years ago, I have been fascinated by the phenomenon. There they call its unpredictable appearance “sea-blinkies.” In Merritt Island’s Mosquito Lagoon and Indian River, however, bioluminescence appears like clockwork from mid-May through early October.

“We have the perfect storm for it,” my tour group’s guide, Brian, told us. “Just the right salinity and water temperatures.” He explained that microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates create the ethereal bioluminescent effect, probably as a defense mechanism.

He began our tour of 25 people on land with basic kayaking instruction and safety guidelines. Everyone gets a glow stick to prevent kayak collisions in the pitch black. (Not really necessary as the bioluminescence ignites a light stream in each kayak’s wake and makes the vessels look as though they are floating on a cloud of luminosity.) Mandatory life vests come equipped with whistles and mini flashlights.

Two other guides accompany each group; one brings up the rear and keeps a count of the kayaks as they head out at dusk.

The sunset peeked through the cloud cover as we paddled into the lagoon in the opposite direction.

THROWING THE SWITCH

As the light faded, we entered into what Brian called “The Maze,” a twisty, disorienting mangrove trail that made it apparent to me that it would be patently unwise to try this without a tour guide. Suddenly, half way around the trail, it was like someone threw a switch. You notice it first at the end of your paddle — an ethereal glow. The effect becomes more profound and magical as night thickens.

The paddle is an easy one; there was very little chop on the water, yet the bioluminescence made electric white caps on each little wave. I stayed close to Brian at the head of the pack because our approach scared up the fish that darted away like underwater fireflies.

When we arrived at a cove, Brian gave us “play time.” For 20 minutes we could disperse within limits to paddle alone along the mangroves where the fish hung out. Heading into the mangroves, away from the light cast by the Titusville skyline across the wide waters, brought the bioluminescence experience to a climax.

I didn’t see any dolphin jump or manatees startle, which happens frequently I’m told, but the mullet leaping and mangrove snapper chasing bait fish made a spectacular, mesmerizing finale to my other-worldly adventure.

Going to Merritt Island

A Day Away (www.adayawaykayaktours.com, 321-268-2655) is the only outfitter with rights to use the wildlife refuge’s launch for this and other day and night tours. It does full moon tours around the full moon, when you cannot see the bioluminescence as well. The best time of the month is five days after the full moon, when the bioluminescence shows up before the moon rises, as you paddle back to the launch. Tours last about two hours.

No kayaking experience is required, but I recommend you do not try learning for the first time in the dark – especially since you and your partner will be paddling a double kayak, which is more difficult than a single.

Mosquitoes can be bad at the launch (note the name Mosquito Lagoon!), so come prepared. Bring a set of dry clothes for the ride back.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (321-861-0668, www.fws.gov/merrittisland) is about 25 minutes east of Titusville. The refuge provides opportunities for recreation and wildlife observation on its hiking and paddling trails, along Black Point Wildlife Drive ($5 admission per vehicle) and at the popular Manatee Observation Deck at Haulover Canal.

Kennedy Space Center (866-737-5235, www.kennedyspacecenter.com): You wouldn’t want to miss a visit to the Space Coast’s most popular attraction. Adult passes start at $50, with lots of add-ons such as close-up tours and Lunch with an Astronaut.

Lodging: Titusville’s hotel scene is a little bleak. I recommend staying in Cocoa Beach — about an hour south — if you’re going to overnight. The Courtyard by Marriott Cocoa Beach (321-784-4800, http://courtyardcocoabeach.com) offers packages for visiting Kennedy Space Center. Summer rates start around $179 per night.

Dining: Head to the Cove at Port Canaveral (visitportcanaveral.com) for a nice selection of seafood and other restaurants on or near the water at the cruise ship port.

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