Swimming Through a Galaxy

Walking to my hostel in Bocas Del Toro, I came across a wooden sign that said, “Night Tours! Ask Inside!” I kept walking as I thought about what an interesting concept it was, something I hadn’t seen in the other places I’d visited. Later I went back to ask about the tours, and an enthusiastic dive instructor named Omar told me about their seasonal bioluminescent night tour. He went on to tell me that they would make three stops throughout the two-hour tour getting farther and farther from the main island until we would reach the darkest point where the algae would be the most visible. There, we would get out to snorkel in the dark with nothing but the glowing algae visible in front of us. I was in.

I was back at the tour office around 6:45 to get my snorkeling gear and be prepared to leave at 7. It was low season in Bocas and the tour consisted of me, a man visiting from Spain, the captain, and two guides from the office. The tour even included my own personal translator! Well, I was the only one on the boat who didn’t speak Spanish, but I like to believe I was special, so just go with it. The captain introduced himself and Omar translated as we set off to our first stop. They explained that the captain would take the boat around in circles to agitate the water, causing the algae to illuminate, but being so close to the island we would hardly be able to see it. He explained that even the smallest amount of light will dim the glow of the algae so we would have to be moving farther away to see it.

We arrived at our second stop where the boat went in circles again to stir up the water. As the boat drove around the ripples in the water coming from the vessel started lighting up in alien green speckles glistening in the water. It was spectacular, like nothing I had ever seen before. They encouraged us to touch the surface of the water so we did as we watched the glowing light radiate from our hands. Omar and the captain told us about what we were looking at and that it would only get better as we got to our next stop in an even darker spot near the islands farther away.

We came to our third stop, the darkest point, the place farthest away from Isla Colon, the main island of Bocas Del Toro. The boat was stopped near a mangrove where we donned our snorkeling gear as the captain explained to us that we would be swimming with the plankton, different than the algae fields we had previously been looking at. We climbed off the side of the boat into the water with glowing trails of bioluminescent light following our every move, it was incredible! The way that the plankton lit up was equally mind-boggling and beautiful, I had never seen anything like it in my life. We swam around for a half hour, everyone was blown away by the beauty, even the instructors who do it all the time couldn’t get over it. “It’s like swimming in a galaxy! Look at this!” Omar would say as we twirled through the water, making big gestures with our arms and kicking our fins in long strides. We put our masks in the water, kicked our feet, and watched the glowing trail of the plankton sparkle beneath. I would sit still so the water around me was pitch black and then glide my hand through as I watched the light of the plankton look as if it was coming from my own skin. The captain kept mentioning how the plankton is always there, but you can never see it until it is totally dark, and only for a couple months of the year.

I didn't get any good pictures of the actual tour because it was so dark, but all of these photos were taken by me in Bocas Del Toro during the day.

I didn't get any good pictures of the actual tour because it was so dark, but all of these photos were taken by me in Bocas Del Toro during the day.

I was so fortunate to have been able to encounter such a beautiful part of nature. The thrill of snorkeling in the dark  mixed with the wonder of the bioluminescence was something I will not forget, and one of the best things I did in Bocas Del Toro. Have you ever seen the bioluminescent algae light up? Where were you?