Bioluminescent Kayaking: Florida’s best kept (odd) thrilling magical secret
One of the magical phenomena of the earth is bioluminescence. It’s found in the deepest parts of the ocean and it’s found in caves. And in Florida you can actually kayak in bioluminescent waters at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville, very near Cocoa Beach. Bioluminescent kayaking is remarkable and you have to see it to believe it’s real.
We were welcomed onto the water by Get Up and Go Kayaking. They have a fleet of clear kayaks that are perfect for paddling the many fresh water springs of Florida and for experiencing the pure magic of bioluminescent kayaking. Clear kayaking through bioluminescence was AMAZING.
What you'll find...
- The Bioluminescent Kayaking Experience: what to expect
- 5 Things to Know Before you go Bioluminescent Kayaking
- Florida Bioluminescent Kayaking Tours
The Bioluminescent Kayaking Experience: what to expect
First of all, you should expect surprises and be ready to enjoy every moment. Kayaking at night is very different from daytime paddling. We spend a lot of time on the water, but nothing else matches the calm and mystery of nighttime kayaking. We have done tours and gone on our own to the Mosquito Lagoon at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and are impressed and surprised every time. A part of the Indian River, this is the BEST place to go bioluminescent kayaking in Florida.
When you’re on the water at night and the glowing begins, it’s breathtaking and startling all at once. As the sun sets, the ripples and splashed start to glow, and when you’re kayaking through the water you just can’t even comprehend how magical it is until you see it for yourself.
We like to start our kayaking on Indian River before sunset so we get familiar with the area and can see if there are any obstacles around. Also, this gets us on the water before the guided tours. It’s nice to have Mosquito Lagoon and the Overhaul Canal to yourself. It’s gorgeous.
Where to Go for Bioluminesnce in Florida
There are a few places to experience Florida’s glowing water. The most common place to visit and for sure the place with the most guided bioluminescent kayaking tours is Titusville. Located between Daytona Beach and Cocoa Beach, Titusville is home to NASA, Cape Canaveral and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. By day, Merritt Island and Indian River are known for an abundance of manatees year-round. By night, June through October the area is known for its incredible density of bioluminescent plankton.
At Titusville there are three main launch sites:
If you’re on the Gulf of Mexico side, you can spend your days exploring the Gulf Coast beaches and then at night visit the warmer lagoons and bays around Fort de Soto and Tampa Bay. There aren’t many tours that go out for bioluminescence in the Tampa area because it isn’t as common as in Titusville, but you can go out yourself and experience it.
Note: in June in the Florida Keys, there is an opportunity for night kayaking with bioluminescence when sea worms reproduce. It’s not as vibrant as the plankton, but is very unique.
Wildlife and Bioluminescence in Florida
Yes, there is wildlife when you do night kayaking. During the daytime you may see a manatee pop its nose out of the water or an alligator sitting on the bank of the river, and that’s remarkable and fun. At night with glowing waters, it’s a completely different experience. At night, you have to listen for the wildlife because it’s all around you… but then you also SEE IT!!! AND IT GLOWS!!!
The most common wildlife to see during bioluminescence in Florida are the dolphins. They love to splash and hunt in the glowing waters and make quite a scene. I’ve been on my SUP (stand up paddleboard) and had them swim directly under me, glowing and creating blue waves as they surface.
And manatees. Indian River is known for being a very common manatee sighting spot in Florida, and many people visit from Cocoa Beach to see them. In the daytime there is actually a manatee viewing platform on the north side of the Haulover Canal. For night time kayaking, you’ll just need to keep an eye out for HUGE glowing masses underwater. As the manatees get near the surface and agitate the bioluminescent plankton, they glow brighter until they break the surface. It’s amazing.
Other Florida wildlife to watch for during night kayaking in Titusville includes pelicans, mullet (fish that fly out of the water!!!), otters and alligators. Yes, there are gators in the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon. They tend to stay near the shore, so don’t go that way. The alligators also will swim through the Haulover Canal. We had an experience in July where a twelve foot alligator swam under us and across the river, his tail moving side to side, very visible and glowing. It was incredible and a bit nerve-wracking.
Bioluminescent Jellyfish Season
In the fall and winter months, there is another type of bioluminescence to watch for. Comb Jellyfish show up and light up the Intracoastal Waterway at Indian River. Having bioluminescent defenses themselves, the comb jellies are active from November to March and provide a very different sort of experience. Since they don’t sting, you can actually touch them in the water and make them glow. Check out Florida Adventurer for more Comb Jelly info!
Note: always be respectful of wildlife. Would you want to be poked repeatedly by a stranger in a boat?
5 Things to Know Before you go Bioluminescent Kayaking
While you could just find a tour and show up, it’s good to do a little prep to ensure you have the best experience. Follow these tips and you’ll have an incredible time either on a kayaking tour or on your own.
It is VERY Dark on the Water
Because bioluminescence is visible light produced by TINY plankton (dinoflagellates), it must be very dark to see it. We do most of our bioluminescent kayaking at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. It’s federally protected and is adjacent to the space program NASA launch site. So it’s super dark.
If darkness makes you anxious or claustrophobic, this is not the activity for you. Paddling without great visibility can make some people very anxious and NOBODY wants to have a freak out moment on the water.
The Get Up And Go guides are well prepared with glow sticks and head lamps, as well as flashlights, but even then the darkness might seem intense.
Tip: if you’re going on your own, bring THESE GLOWSTICKS. They’re bright and big enough to stand out if you’re paddling with other people.
Be Prepared for Mosquitoes
Bioluminescent kayaking in Titusville happens on the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon. It’s called Mosquito Lagoon for a reason. Our kayaking guide with Get Up And Go told us that this is actually where Deet was invented and tested. I believe it.
There are ways to mitigate the mosquitoes when you’re kayaking through bioluminescence in Florida. Follow these easy steps to be as itch-free as possible.
Four Ways to Avoid Mosquitoes for Florida Kayaking
- Wear long pants and shirts – choose clothing that will keep you cool, but is thick or strong enough to prevent mosquitoes biting through it.
- Apply bug spray before you arrive and your night kayaking site – either before you get in the car to drive to your bioluminescent kayaking site or pull over in a parking lot before you get there, but apply bug spray before you’re present with them
- Stay moving – a moving target is harder to hit, and that includes mosquitoes trying to get you. Once you’re paddling it’s easy because you’re moving and there is usually a breeze on the water, but on land, just keep moving until you get into your kayak.
- Reapply bug spray – bug spray brushes off, loses power and sometimes you just miss spots when applying. Reapply bug spray when you think you should.
We like Repel Plant Based Lemon Eucalyptus. It’s Deet-free and is really effective. Order here! We’ve also used Natrapel, which is just as good and smells great too. Either is a good choice. Order Natrapel here!
And if you do end up with mosquito bites, we use After Bite Itch Eraser and it’s really effective. The kids are good about using it too and they like that it cools off the itchy spots. Get AfterBite Itch Eraser from Amazon here!
Photographing Bioluminescence is Tough
Getting a good picture of bioluminescence is not easy. While you’re paddling through the glowing water the color and light is incredible and you’ll be in awe… and that’s because your eyes have adjusted to the darkness. Your phone hasn’t adjusted, and if you think it has, give it a try.
DO NOT FOCUS ON PHOTOGRAPHING THE BIOLUMINESCENCE. You’ll be disappointed with the outcome for the most part and will miss seeing it with your own eyes. Bioluminescent kayaking really is the perfect chance to disconnect from technology completely. Just enjoy the natural phenomena that’s all around you.
Bioluminescent Photography Tips
Like I said, it’s really difficult to successfully photograph the bioluminescent plankton, and don’t even get me started on the impossibility of getting good dolphin pictures in the dark of night without really expensive professional camera gear. Having said that…
It is possible to get some unique, beautiful bio-photos but you have to have the right gear. Since we’re talking about keeping things simple and fun, here’s how you get good glowing water pics with a phone:
- You need a Google Pixel 3 or higher
- Use “night sight” feature
- Have somebody else move their paddle or hand aggressively in the water to agitate the glowing plankton while keeping their kayak as still as possible
- Keep yourself as still and in one place as you possibly can
We’ve also found that if we are on the water before it’s completely dark out, like just at the end of sunset, we get pretty good photos. Set up the shot with the sunset behind the other kayaker when it’s nearly dark and follow the tips above. Bioluminescent photography is tough.
Stillness paired with aggressive movement is how you get good shots. Best of luck!
Paddling Experience is Helpful, but not Required
Bioluminescent kayaking in Florida is really special, so don’t let a lack of experience paddling keep you from seeing the glowing water with your own eyes. Yes, if you understand controlling a kayak and how to stay calm on the water already, you’ll enjoy your time seeing glowing manatees and dolphins without hesitation. Going on a guided bioluminescence tour is a great way to put newbies at ease.
There’s a lot of uncertainty in night kayaking, especially in a place with so much wildlife. If you can get on the water at least once or twice before setting out into the dark you’ll be much more at ease and enjoy it even more.
Tip: if you struggle to stay calm when trying something new or when you’re in an uncertain place (on the water in the dark), be sure you’re paired up with a more experienced kayaker who can take the reins and let you relax.
The Warmer the Weather the Better the Bioluminescence
So you’ve been hanging out in Daytona Beach or touring NASA at Kennedy Space Center and you’re super hot because it’s Florida. That’s the perfect time to go bioluminescent kayaking! The warmer the weather, the warmer the water, and the warmer the water the more bioluminescent plankton rise to the surface and top layer of the water.
While the air temperature drops when the sun goes down, the water temp stays nice and warm. When there is an exceptionally warm current or a very warm day, the glowing plankton are most dense and easy to activate in the top few inches of the water.
Glowing water really is the most incredible Florida phenomena. That’s why we consider bioluminescent kayaking as one of our Florida Bucket Lists activities.
Florida Bioluminescent Kayaking Tours
There are quite a few options for bioluminescent kayaking tours in Florida. There are several different places you can experience the glowing waters, from Fort De Soto near Saint Petersburg on the Gulf of Mexico, to the Space Coast on the Atlantic. If you’re local you can go yourself if you’re familiar with the area and have your own gear, but doing a tour is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Clear Kayaking for Bioluminescence
Hands down,we recommend Get Up And Go Kayaking for your first Florida bioluminescent kayaking experience. The guides are really knowledgeable and fun, and getting to watch the water light up under and around you as you paddle is incredible.
The other thing we LOVE about Get Up And Go kayaking is that they do only small tours of no more than 10 participants. When you go out for night kayaking you may see groups of 20 or 30 people. That’s a lot of boats and a lot of chaos. Being in a small group keeps the night kayaking experience calm and peaceful, and it ensures you’ve got a guide who can easily and quickly help you if needed.
Location: this happens on Mosquito Lagoon at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, Florida.
Note: Day Away Kayaking also does a clear kayak tour at Titusville, but we haven’t gone out with them so cannot speak to the experience beyond the natural occurrences in the water.
Guided Bioluminescent Tours at Titusville
There are several operators that paddle at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville. They primarily go out of the launches on the Haulover Canal. Group sizes may vary from very small, private tours to large groups. Most bioluminescent tours last about 90 minutes and cover the same places.
Other Florida Kayaking Tours
There are so many great options for getting on the water in Florida, no matter what part of the state you’re in. You do need to inquire locally for bioluminescent tours on the Gulf side of Florida (around Tampa Bay), but there are lots of well vetted guides that do tours to the many Florida springs and through the grass islands of the Everglades. So many options!
And if you’re down in the Florida Keys, there are endless opportunities to book day excursions from Key Largo to Key West. If you have your own gear, be sure to check out the Florida Paddling Trail for more fun places to put in.
Should you find yourself in the Daytona or Saint Augustine areas, we actually are licensed guides as well! That’s right! We’re happy to take you out on small group tours in St Johns and Flagler Counties, focusing on nature and history on the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s an amazing place. check out the Florida Paddling Trail
As always, if you have any questions, please let us know how we can help. We love exploring Florida and are happy to assist YOU!