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Bioluminscent kayaking in Florida

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If you’re going to be hanging out in Florida this summer – or any other summer for that matter – then you might be looking for outdoor activities to keep you busy. Well, I have a recommendation for something you could do that will not only get you outdoors and away from people, but will probably be one of the coolest experiences you ever have seeing wild Florida: bioluminescent kayaking. 

I listed this as one of my recommended socially distant activities in Florida for this summer, and had a few people asking for more information. Hopefully this article covers everything you need to know about bioluminescent kayaking in Florida with Get Up and Go Kayaking, and as always feel free to reach out if you have more questions!

What is bioluminescence?

Bioluminescence happens when plankton in the water lights up as it feels movement around it. Living organisms, ordinarily too small for the eye to see, glow a faint blue color as water moves around them, making the water light up. It’s best seen when the night is very dark; we got lucky with our night being really dark and the lights were super vibrant. 

Get Up and Go Kayaking offer tours in their clear kayaks in a number of locations across Florida, but they only offer the bioluminescent kayaking tours at the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge just outside of Titusville. The tours only take place in the summer months (June to October) when the water is warm enough to see the bioluminscence, and they book up in advance so get in there quickly! 

When you look on their website, the tour dates available will also tell you the percentage of the moon that night; you want to go when there is as low a percentage as possible so that the night is as dark as possible.

Our tour was at 9pm, and there was another one at 11pm; in June this meant it was still slightly light out when the tour began, but towards the end of the summer I would imagine both tours would have similar levels of darkness.

Know before you go bioluminescent kayaking

Each tour is limited in number, which is why you really need to book in advance, and can be booked for one person or for a group (if space is available). Each kayak seats two people and on our tour, there was a family of five so the odd person out was paired with the guide. 

The tour is available for kids of any age, but you know your child best to know whether or not they’d enjoy it. The tours are late in the evening, the water is very dark, and there’s a chance you’ll get up close to some pretty big animals in the water so decide whether you think your child would enjoy it.

There was a six year old girl on our tour, and she seemed to enjoy it to begin with, but was ready to go home about halfway through! All kids must double up with an adult, two kids can’t paddle together.

bioluminescent kayaking
Photo courtesy of Get Up and Go

How to get to Merritt Island

The tour takes place from Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, which is located just outside of Titusville. If you’re coming from Orlando, the journey takes about an hour, but since traffic can be pretty heavy in the Orlando area, it’s advisable to leave extra time. Get Up and Go Kayaking ask that you arrive 15 minutes before your tour time. 

Your confirmation email will include directions to the kayak launch, and they’re spot on. We followed them to the letter, ignoring advice from our GPS, and arrived at exactly the right spot. The wildlife refuge is huge and it can feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere at points, but trust the directions and you’ll get there.

We saw a ton of wildlife on the road, so be aware of your speed and keep your eyes peeled. One the bridge that brings you from Titusville to the wildlife refuge, we saw dolphins just off the coast (and a spectacular sunset) and then within the wildlife refuge itself we saw raccoons, possums, armadillos and rabbits. 

The launch spot has a porter potty if needed, but otherwise you’re miles from any kind of facilities so bear that in mind.

What to wear and what to bring with you

The short answer is: not what I wore!

I wore a short sleeved rash guard and running shorts, and I realized as soon as we arrived that this was probably a bad idea; I was literally the only person not wearing long sleeves and long pants.

With the amount of bugs you get in Florida in summer on the water, long sleeves and long pants of some kind are definitely preferable. Long sleeved rash guards and leggings would be perfect; you will get wet from sitting in the boat and the splash of the paddles, so wear something that will dry quickly or bring a change of clothes for when the tour is over.

Something I would definitely recommend bringing is insect repellent. It’s Florida, it’s hot, it’s muggy, and you’ll be on the water with thousands of new mosquito friends. If you don’t wear insect repellent, you are going to get eaten alive.

Get Up and Go Kayaking ask that you use DEET free repellent or dry repellent to keep their kayaks clear. We have used Natrapel Insect Repellent for a few years and it really works; despite having my arms and legs exposed during this whole tour, I didn’t come away with a single bite.

I’d also recommend Natrapel Insect Repellent wipes for your face and neck, since you don’t want to be spraying those areas. The one thing I will say is that this is a bit on the greasy side, so you’ll probably need to shower it off afterwards. Our guide did have insect repellent, but I would definitely bring your own just in case.

Something I would definitely not recommend bringing is a camera. I love photography, particularly nature photography, so I was really excited to get some amazing bioluminescent photos. But I came away with zero photos.

It turns out that bioluminescence is really, really hard to photograph. I have a great quality waterproof camera but none of the photos or videos I took show anything other than black screens. Another couple on the tour brought their phone in a waterproof bag but they couldn’t get any good photos either.

If you have a really great camera that does well in very low light settings, by all means bring it to have a go but make sure it is in a waterproof case (and figure out some way to secure it since if your kayak tips over for some reason, the camera will otherwise go with it!) I gave up trying to take photos pretty quickly and actually, it was really nice just to take it all in and not have to worry about capturing pictures. 

bioluminescent kayaking
Photo courtesy of Get Up and Go

Bioluminscent kayaking in Florida; our experience

We arrived about 30 minutes before our tour began since we were worried about traffic, and our guide was already there unloading the kayaks. About 15 minutes later, he came and knocked on our window to say hi and introduce himself; he told us to wait in the car until everyone arrived since there were a few bugs around. About 8.55pm, it looked like everyone was there so we got out and headed over to the kayaks.

Our guide Austin gave us a brief overview of what we’d be doing and what to look out for. The tour lasts about 90 minutes, and where you go very much depends on conditions that particular night; on our night there was a stronger current so we didn’t paddle too far against it and instead went in the opposite direction. The person in the back of the kayak wore a glow necklace around their head so that other boats could spot us in the dark water, and everyone wore a life vest. 

Austin said that the main creatures to look out for were dolphins, manatees, and alligators. Alligators are actually the least likely to come near the kayaks (everyone was pleased to hear this!) since they have plenty of food in the wildlife refuge and have no interest in people. Manatees are the most likely to come into contact with the kayaks since they might come up to breathe, and if your kayak is in the way they’ll use their tail to try to move it. He said this was nothing to worry about, it just might make you jump if you’re not expecting it. 

As we set off, we could immediately see some bioluminescence in the water, even though it wasn’t fully dark yet. The further we got from the lights of the boat dock and the darker it got, the more the water glowed around us. This was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen! As you move through the water, you get the blue glow in front of the boat and since the kayaks are clear, you can see the glow all under the kayak as well.

Every time our paddles moved through the water everything glowed around us and it was incredible, I couldn’t look away. One of my favorite things was putting my hand in the water and splashing it, which not only made the water around my hard glow, but covered my hand in tiny glowing plankton too. It was absolutely beautiful.

bioluminescent kayaking
Photo courtesy of Get Up and Go

We had only been on the water for about 15 minutes when we had our first dolphin encounter. Austin told us to stop paddling since he could hear something, and sure enough we could all hear a loud splashing in the water. We could see schools of fish in the water (they all lit up as they moved through the water, which was amazing to see!) and we could hear the chatter of the dolphin nearby.

After a few minutes of hanging out, the dolphin moved away and we didn’t follow; Austin said that if animals moved away, we would respect that and move away too, something I really appreciated. 

We didn’t see any manatees on our tour, but we did see a baby alligator on the banks (we gave him a pretty wide berth!) and we saw a ton of fish. The fish darting about under the boat were my favorite; it really is amazing to see what looks like glow in the dark fish in the water! 

Another benefit of being in basically the middle of nowhere is the sky. Living just outside of Orlando, we see a few stars but with all of the light pollution, it’s never that great. Out on the kayak in the middle of a wildlife refuge however, the sky was lit up with stars and it was absolutely incredible. Austin said that on a clear night, you could even see the Milky Way. This was something else that didn’t really come out in photos, so we just had to take it all in.  

I can honestly say that this is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. It’s always amazing go out into nature and find out something incredible is happening that you had no idea about! I’d absolutely love to go out and see all of the bioluminescence again, it was fascinating to watch. 

Get Up and Go Kayaking invited us to experience this complimentary tour with them but it would have been worth every penny had we paid for the excursion. Remember to bring cash to tip your guide at the end of the tour!

bioluminescent kayaking

Thanks to Get Up and Go Kayaking for inviting us on this tour. As always, all opinions are my own.