My husband Bill and I recently enjoyed a vacation in Caribbean. We started with four nights in San Juan, Puerto Rico, then took a five night cruise on the SeaDream I, then spent a night in Charlotte St. Amalie, Saint Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. This was our first trip to the Caribbean together; most of our travel together has been in Europe. Naturally, because we were so inexperienced with the Caribbean, I was eager to see stuff I’d never seen before. So when I found out our cruise ship would be dropping by the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for the day, I knew I wanted to sign up for the Bioluminescent Bay (Biobay) tour.
What is a Bioluminescent Bay?
Neither Bill nor I knew anything about Bioluminescent Bays, so I knew a little research was in order. The Biobay we were looking at touring in Vieques is popularly known as Mosquito Bay. Surrounded by red mangrove trees, Mosquito Bay is a pristine lagoon of water that supports millions and millions of tiny dinoflagellates, which live on the nutrients supplied by the red mangrove trees. These tiny dinoflagellates are greenish blue in color and burst into light whenever they feel pressure against their cell walls, sparkling against the surface of whatever touches it.
The Mosquito Bay in Vieques is well known for its extraordinarily rare and fragile ecosystem. Nevertheless, it is possible for tourists to visit the bay by booking a tour through Island Adventures in Vieques, which uses an electric pontoon boat for nightly excursions to Mosquito Bay. Tourists can also book tours that allow them to kayak in the bay.
Everything I’d read about the Biobay tour made it sound like it was going to be the experience of a lifetime. The Web site for the tour described it as “one of the most spectacular Bioluminescent Bays in the world.” The pictures on the site, which featured people swimming and kayaking in glowing water, made it look really cool, too. Bill and I eagerly signed up for the second of two tours offered by the cruise ship, priced at $59 per person.
A day at the beach…
Bill and I spent the day in Vieques visiting with Kendra, a friend I met online. Kendra and her family were spending the week in Vieques, so they already knew a bit about the lay of the land. They had also already taken the Biobay tour.
After we had lunch, Kendra, her husband, and their little boy drove us to Navio Beach, a pristine area where we spent the day swimming, snorkeling, and sunning. In order to get to the beach, we had to drive along a very rough dirt road. I commented on how bumpy the ride was and Kendra said this was just a sneak peek of what we’d be in for that evening when we took the Biobay tour. Indeed, I saw signs pointing to Mosquito Bay and understood that the extremely rough roads are just a part of the Vieques experience.
Following a great day on the beach, Bill and I went back to our cruise ship that late afternoon, tired, sunburned, and kind of hungry. In retrospect, we really should have had a substantial snack before our 7:00pm date with the Biobay because I was feeling pretty crabby due to low blood sugar. In fact, Bill and I were so worn out from the beach that we considered skipping the excursion altogether. But we’d already paid for the tour and I was still curious about it, so we donned our swimsuits and hopped aboard the tender to go back to Vieques.
A very bumpy ride…
When we reached the main drag in Esperanza, the town where the pier was, we were greeted by an old painted schoolbus. We climbed aboard and took the last seat, which was all the way in the back of the bus. Since we’d already been on the bumpy roads leading to the beaches, I knew this was not going to be a pleasant ride. To add insult to injury, not only was I tired and hungry, but I was also surrounded by a rowdy group from our cruise ship who were being really loud and boisterous. Normally, I would have been amused by the shenanigans and might have even joined in myself, but I was getting crankier by the minute because I was tired and hungry. The very bumpy bus ride, coupled with the smell of gasoline and the loud cackles of our seatmates, were all conspiring to make sure I wasn’t going to be impressed with this experience.
I noticed the inside of the old bus with its broken seats had advertisements for local restaurants painted on its walls. There was also a large jar at the front of the bus, prominently displayed for all those who were inclined to leave a tip.
Our group tumbled off the bus and were herded onto the double wide pontoon boat. A bilingual tour guide gave us an informative rundown of the history of the Biobay, as well as some information about the stars in the sky. He pointed out the Southern Cross and Orion’s Belt, then explained how the stars look different in certain parts of the world.
An evening swim in the Bay
At last, the boat stopped in the middle of the bay and we were all invited to jump into the water, after first being fitted with a flotation belt. The water was very warm, almost like bath water. But unfortunately, we had a bright moon in the sky, which made seeing the dinoflagellates difficult.
The tour guide then started inviting our group to swim under the boat, where the light of the moon would be blocked out. Now this is the part of the tour that made it very worthwhile, as once we were out of the moonlight, it was very easy to see the glowing dinoflagellates. Every time we moved, they would sparkle like thousands of diamonds. But we only got to experience this portion of the tour for a few minutes, since everyone needed the chance to see the glittering creatures.
Before we knew it, we were called back onto the pontoon boat and taken back to the dock. All the while, the tour guide was lecturing us about the environment and warning us that the Biobay might eventually have to be closed because it’s so fragile and pollution was ruining it. He said people entered the water wearing sunscreen and bug spray, which kill the dinoflagellates. He also mentioned that people pee in the water, which also kills the creatures.
I couldn’t help but think his statements were ironic, given that his company had hosted at least three tours that evening. Though the concierge on our cruise ship advised us not to wear bug spray or sunscreen, not everyone on our tour was from the ship. And there were, no doubt, some people in the group who chose to ignore that request. What’s more, the company transports its customers in a very rickety bus that no doubt guzzles gas and belches filthy exhaust into the atmosphere.
Back on the bus, ya’ll!
We were all herded back on old schoolbus. This time, Bill and I sat in a seat near one of the wheelhubs. I didn’t think it was possible, but this seat was even more broken down and busted than the seat we sat on going out to the Bay. After another ten or fifteen minutes bouncing down the dirt road on the bus, I was dangerously close to having a meltdown.
Despite my negative comments, I am glad that Bill and I experienced the Biobay tour. We didn’t know anything at all about bioluminescent bays before we visited Vieques and we did lean a lot from the experience. I think if I had been less tired, hungry, and irritable, I would have enjoyed the experience much more than I did.
I think the Biobay is definitely worth seeing once. If I ever go back to Vieques, though, I doubt I will take the tour again.
If you go…
Book your tour through Island Adventures. Visit their Web site at www.biobay.com for pictures and information about how to book the Biobay excursion. If you’re not on a cruise ship, you will most likely need to stay overnight on Vieques, so plan accordingly.
Try to choose a night when the moon is not shining. If that’s not possible, be sure to take a turn under the pontoon boat so you can see what all the fuss is about.
Wear a swimsuit and bring a towel. You might consider wearing water shoes, as well.
Don’t wear sunscreen or bug spray because they pollute the water and kill the dinoflagellates. Try not to pee in the bay for the same reason.
Eat and rest before you take the tour. The very bumpy bus ride to the bay might be trying to your senses and you don’t want to start the tour off in a bad mood, like I did.
Be aware that there may be jellyfish in the bay. The tour guides are well equipped to take care of the stings.
Enjoy Vieques. It really does offer some gorgeous beaches and unspoiled charm.