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Greensboro News & Record

Vieques ' Water Teems With Liquid Gold


April 14, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Greensboro News & Record. All Rights Reserved.

After dark, when the moon is waning over Mosquito Bay and stars dress up the heavens, you can dive into the sable sea and glow in the dark.

The experience is so magical that my wife and I glided and giggled through the night waters of the Caribbean on Vieques , and enjoyed it as much as our daytime splashing in the gentle, turquoise surf. Mosquito Bay, is a rare natural resource, a place where heaven meets the sea, whose waters glow with a firefly light given off by millions of microorganisms.

You won't hear about this attraction from most travel agents because this is not the Caribbean normally associated with a package tour. Tourism is in its infancy on Vieques , where paso fino (fine- gait) horses run wild, cattle graze on fertile hillsides and only a few gringos, white egrets and sandpipers populate the mile-long beaches and mangrove lagoons.

I know what you're saying: " Vieques ... Vieques ...isn't that where..." Yes, that Vieques - the same Puerto Rican island that the Navy has used to test ammunition since World War II, when it took over 70 percent of the island, including most of the farmland, and forced the relocation of thousands.

Vieques is small (21 miles long by 4 miles wide, with a population of around 9,000) and two-thirds of it is under the jurisdiction of the Navy, which acquired the land for military purposes during World War II.

Islanders have forever been protesting the Navy's presence here, arguing the noise and contaminants from the shelling have caused environmental harm and endangered human health. Earlier this year President Bush reiterated his pledge that the Navy would begin leaving Vieques next year.

But before it was an issue, Vieques was an island.

The Taino Indians, who first settled the island, called it "Bieques" (small island); Columbus, who sighted it on his second voyage, named it "Graciosa" for its beauty; and the Spanish called Vieques and its sister Culebra "the Useless Islands" because they could find no gold here.

Truth be told, there isn't much to do on Vieques , except walk its near-deserted beaches or stuff yourself silly with conch fritters at one of the many seaside villas. But a visit to Vieques is not complete without a trip to Mosquito Bay, arguably the most magnificent of the few bioluminescent bays left in the world.

The phenomenon of bioluminescence is caused by millions of dinoflagellates - single-cell organisms - that emit a glow and callMosquito Bay home. Harmless to humans, dinoflagellates can be found in waters the world over. But Mosquito Bay's narrow entrance to the sea creates a delicate balance of fresh water and sea water, making it a perfect dinoflagellate breeding ground.

Biologists theorize the microscopic organisms are merely trying to protect themselves when they flash their lights. It's a last- ditch defense, scientists say, evolved by by a creature, to dazzle sighted foes so large as to be invisible.

My wife Marcia and I chose to make our bay trip by kayak. An hour after sunset, after a mile-wide day on the beaches, we hopped into the back of an '89 Toyota pickup. Bioluminescent Bay is just minutes off the paved highway. For 10 minutes more we lurched into craters and teetered over ridges, brush scrabbling at the trucks windows (and our backs), on the reserve's dangerous-at-any-speed dirt road, arriving finally at a little sandy cove among the mangroves.

As tourism and development gain a foothold on Vieques , Mosquito Bay becomes increasingly endangered. The crummy road, worse in the rainy season, is the bay's frontline defense against being loved to death, our driver told us by way of apology for any whiplash. Indeed, Vieques used to be home to another bioluminescent bay but development around it has diminished its splendor.

We forgot the bumps and bruises inflicted by the dirt road when we hit the water. By a sliver of moonlight, you could see the sea out there, faintly foaming on the reef. Just a tongue of tide slips through the turtle grass shallows so whatever seabourne flotsam washed in can only exit via the food chain. Hence, the bay teems with dinoflagellates.

We had no trouble picking out several of the constellations in the sky. But it was the water that provided irresistable magic: However you moved, you made light; whatever you touched turned to glow.

Marcia and I spilled out of our kayaks and into the bay up to our nostrils. You couldn't help but claw at the water as if you were on a soft black satin sofa, ripping the luminous stuffing out of it.

The population of dinoflagellates is so strong in the bay, that they cover everything in the water - including you. I backstroked into the middle of the bay. My arms, as they rose and fell, appeared to be limned by dots of stars that one by one dripped off as if I were a constellation myself.

My entire body had turned a luminescent yellow-green, like the Day-Glo necklaces kids wear on summer nights. When our fellow kayakers jumped into the fun, they, too, lit up, one by one. The fish whizzing by and everything else that moved through the waters had turned the same glistening goldish-emerald blue. The water underneath us lit up like a miniature underwater fireworks display.

We lingered in the water, reluctant to get back into our kayacks. In two days, we would be back in Greensboro, where the closest we have to the brilliance that is Mosquito Bay is a weathered glow-in- the-dark Frisbee somewhere in our tool shed.

The Spanish were wrong. Vieques is teeming with gold. Liquid gold.

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