Mosquito Bay, Puerto Rico | Fire in the water
On this island of abandoned bunkers, landmines and strutting horses, glowing waters
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The bay’s surface glowed a ghostly white. My paddle that plunged into the water looked almost as if it had been lit by an underwater tubelight. Nearby, a white comet tail of light followed a fish that zipped past the kayak. Tiny diamonds appeared and then disappeared down my arm when I dipped my hand in the water and drew it out. It was eerie.
We were driving to Sun Bay Beach in Isla de Vieques from Casa de Amistad, our island residence. In Vieques, there are no umbrella drinks, beachside showers or other sybaritic fixings. Instead, we found abandoned military bunkers (one of which is now apparently a nightclub) and pieces of landmines underwater nestled amid waving seaweed, relics of the 60-year-long presence of the US navy, which used the island as a missile-testing site. We rode past perambulating wild horses whose ancestors were left on the island by European colonizers.
Vieques, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico, is not your typical Caribbean holiday destination. We were in Vieques, not to swim and snorkel in the warm Caribbean waters or to lounge on its desolate beaches, but to experience its bioluminescent waters in Mosquito Bay, located on the southern shore of the island.
Unprepared for this assault, I slapped at my exposed arms, knees and ankles frantically, until our three guides arrived and handed us eco-friendly insect repellent. I slathered on the oily concoction and waited for an agonizing 5 minutes for the sting to subside.
Soon, our group set off in two vans into the darkness on a bumpy ride on a mud “road”. Ten minutes later, we were at the bay’s shore.
We reached 200m from the shore. “OMG, look!” screamed an American girl in the group. She was pointing to a large white streak in the distance. Jeff stood up on his kayak and squinted at the familiar-looking blob that was now lazily floating away from us. “That’s a sting ray,” announced Jeff, his voice echoing over the dark waters all around us.
We all oohed in unison. Jeff clapped his hands and instructed us to gather around him. We paddled towards him, pulled each other’s kayaks close and bobbed up and down with the waves, listening to Jeff tell us about the bay. Little fish splashed around us in the water, leaving evanescent silver flashes on the surface.
Jeff explained that a special combination of ecological, geographical and historical factors, along with modern conservation, ensures Mosquito Bay has the brightest waters in the world. In the water reside Pyrodinium bahamense, a kind of bioluminescent dinoflagellate plankton which, as a defence mechanism, produce a brief flash of light when agitated. He told us the plankton thrive in large numbers due to the red mangrove trees around the bay, whose leaves decompose in the water, germinating the bacteria that the dinoflagellates consume. As the shallow bay is nearly closed off, the water that comes hardly escapes, resulting in a high concentration of the plankton.
He went on to tell us that the early Spanish settlers, terrified of the bioluminescence, believing it to be some sort of dark magic, blocked the bay where it opened up into the surrounding sea and left the bay itself untouched. The narrow mouth of the bay and high hills surrounding it, he said, also made the bay an excellent hideout for pirates. The bay owes its name to one such pirate (incidentally, one of Jeff’s ancestors), a local Robin Hood who looted and distributed riches while sailing his boat El Mosquito.
Jeff blamed the foolhardiness of the tourist (who dived right on top of the shark)) and the unlicensed tour operators who allowed her to land on the shark. He told us he had been swimming in the bay since he was a boy and never once had the animals harmed anyone before the 2011 incident.
Each time my husband shifted ever so slightly in the kayak, I yelped. Natural beauty aside, this experience was terrifying. If you’re imagining The Little Mermaid’s Kiss the Girl, it was not like that at all. The silent darkness, relieved only by large white streaks of unknown sea creatures gliding in the water beneath my flimsy kayak, was the stuff of nightmares.
We couldn’t take any pictures. Without special camera equipment, the phenomenon is impossible to capture—so I had to pass.
But perhaps it was knowing that I wouldn’t have a digital record to remember these scenes by that made me fully present to all the special moments I was experiencing. As we paddled back to the shore, I couldn’t help agreeing with the Spaniards that there was something definitely magical about Mosquito Bay.
Malaveeka Chakravarthy is a lawyer from Bangalore. She enjoys thrilling holiday activities despite her occasional misgivings.