Bioluminescent Paddling

We do the vast majority of our kayak trips in Puget Sound. It has been a rare occasion when we have paddled in the dark and not seen bio-luminescent phytoplankton. If there is a moon or we’re near city lights, we often see just a few green sparks in the water. But if it’s a moonless night and we’ve traveled away from light pollution, we sometimes see an amazing show of luminous water. Our paddles create glowing whirlpools. Startled fish create gleaming s-shaped trails under our boats. Squids create vibrant orbs of water that dart around. Every drip from the paddle creates a mini-fireworks show in the water. Here are our best tips for experiencing this for yourself:

  • Go on a summer night. We’ve seen displays in the Spring also, but summer usually provides a much more intense show. In the Pacific Northwest, July through September are your best bets.
  • Check the moon. You’re looking for a night with a new moon or when the moon sets shortly after sunset. I use to look at both sun and moon timing. Use the “Sun & Moon” drop-down to open each calculator and then search for your city. You’re looking for an overlap between Night on the Sun graph and moonrise. In the greater Tacoma area, the next good opportunity for at least an hour of full darkness will be the night of September 8, 2020 from 9:21 to 10:36 p.m.
  • Take a nap. If it’s summer in the PNW, the sun is setting relatively late. You’ll want to have plenty of energy to experience the light show, and true darkness may not come until pretty far into the evening. If you’re not already a night owl, catch some Zs to make sure you’re up for a nighttime adventure.
  • Be safe. While I would normally advise using navigation lights on a night paddle, you want complete darkness to best experience this phenomenon. I recommend sticking to waters too shallow for other boats if you’re staying dark. If you don’t already, make sure you have light signaling devices at the ready – we keep waterproof flashlights attached to our PFDs and also wear waterproof headlamps
  • Give yourself time to get used to nighttime conditions. If you’re unaccustomed to kayaking at night, you may need some time to acclimatize. Conditions that are second-nature in daylight may take you by surprise if you can’t see them coming. Even a slight chop can feel concerning when you can’t see the waves approaching.
  • Check the tide and current tables. It’s easy to be distracted by the light show in the water, so it’s important to know what the currents are doing. If you don’t know where the water is taking you, you may find the current has moved you far from where you planned to be.

I often see folks in kayaking groups asking about the best areas to view this natural phenomenon. Living in Tacoma, I’ve seen it most often in the greater Tacoma area. I’ve heard reports from kayakers all over the Puget Sound who have been able to find good displays, so I suspect that your odds are good in any saltwater in our region. That said, this is a naturally-occurring phenomenon that doesn’t come with a map or a schedule, so even with our best advice, we can only wish you Happy Hunting!


Mark PeeleSeptember 6, 2020

I used to drift through the tacoma narrows on my no moon paddles. Stay close to shore in the shadows for the fireworks.

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