Bioluminescence Kayak Tours Bring Underwater World to Life

Several years ago‚ Mike Mahan noticed a strange and captivating phenomenon while fishing with his two sons in the waters around Titusville.

During the warm summer months after the sun went down‚ any movement – a boat‚ a paddle or a hand passing through the water – produced a shimmering underwater light show.

Mahan was witnessing a natural wonder called biolumi­nescence‚ an emission of light by living organisms such as jellyfish‚ coral‚ fungi‚ bacteria and anglerfish.

“Bioluminescence is a chemical reaction occurring inside a living organism‚” he explains. “It’s the same principle as a lightning bug.”

Mahan was so fascinated by the bioluminescent lights‚ he wanted to share the experience with others. So three years ago‚ he began offering nighttime kayak tours through his company‚ A Day Away Outfitters and Kayak Tours.

“We first tried the bioluminescent tour with one church group‚ and it was phenomenal. We operated on word of mouth the entire first year – people went crazy‚” Mahan says. “Last year‚ we took over 250 of the staff from Sea World on the tour.”

The company offers the bioluminescent kayak tours five nights a week from the first of June through the second week in October. As many as 50 people can participate in the two-and-a-half-hour tour‚ and they ride in double and single kayaks. The tour departs from Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge’s Haulover Canal launch site‚ located 20 minutes east of Titusville.

“We meet a half hour before dark so people get acclimated to seeing in the dark‚ and we kayak out onto the flats looking for large schools of mullet‚” Mahan says. “There are schools of thousands of mullet‚ and they look like blue-green bottle rockets under water. They start jumping in the boats‚ and people start whooping and hollering. It’s like an amusement park ride‚ but it’s all nature.”

Bioluminescent creatures are said to produce cold light because the chemical reaction taking place inside the organism produces no heat at all. The creatures produce light to find food‚ attract mates and defend themselves against predators. Some organisms can even spew blinding clouds of biolum inescent light in the face of an attacker in order to escape.

“A lot of people don’t know about bioluminescence because they don’t ever see it due to light pollution‚” Mahan says. “We’re able to see it because out on the refuge there’s very little light.”

Bill Kowalik‚ owner of Adventure Kayak of Cocoa Beach‚ has been giving kayak tours for seven years. He added a bioluminescent tour to his repertoire in 2007.

“We leave from Kelly Park in Merritt Island for the nighttime tour‚” Kowalik says. “It really gets good in mid-summer when the water gets warmer.”

In the daytime‚ Kowalik offers kayak tours of Cocoa Beach’s Thousand Islands. It’s common for participants to see manatees‚ dolphins and an occasional alligator.

“We have lots of families‚ tourists and international travelers‚” Kowalik says.

A Day Away also offers a daytime tour called Manatee Encounter.

“Every day and night you never know what you’ll see. Once‚ two dolphins were playing‚ and they butted up against my boat‚” Mahan says. “You may come up on a manatee cruising along‚ and it looks like a battleship under water. Or you might see a spotted stingray. The experience is always new and always incredible.”

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