Updated: Oct 24, 2019
Dinoflagellates have had me yearning for three years.
If this is your first encounter with the word dinoflagellate, or it sounds vaguely familiar from high school biology class, you can choose one of the following descriptors: algae, single-celled organism, plankton, marine phytoplankton, protist, and/or flagellate eukaryote.
Since arriving in California three years ago, I have been obsessed with seeing the bioluminescence in Tomales Bay that is a result of the microscopic dinoflagellates producing and emitting light.
Tomales Bay is a long, narrow inlet of the Pacific Ocean that was formed along the San Andreas Fault. From the Bay, you have a stunning view of nature’s course on two different tectonic plates: The Pacific and the North American.
For various reasons, ranging from cancelled trips to using my discretionary income on organic grapes, book manuscript editors, and surprise software renewals, I hadn’t made it onto one of the guide-led kayak trips across Tomales Bay. Last weekend, however, I felt the pull towards big nature and I booked a spot on one of the night trips with Blue Waters Kayaking.
I tempered my enthusiasm on the day of the trip, as there was a fair amount of wind. After an hour delay, which I not-so-painstakingly filled in with a glass of rosé in front of a stone firepit at Nick’s Cove, we concluded that we were still heading out.
I seemed to be the only one on the trip that was on my own, as there was only one spot left when I had called. My husband and I have this unspoken rule that one of us should be safe on land with our offspring any time the other one feels the need to paddle over a fault line.
After donning all of the gear (my own layers plus the kayak skirt with suspenders and the windbreaker from Blue Waters), I felt like Ralphie’s younger brother in Christmas Story. This type of dressing immediately cues the realization that there would be no restroom breaks for multiple hours.
The tour guide was asking everyone to share about our previous kayaking experiences. Several people had never been on a kayak before. The sun had set by this time and I was questioning if learning to kayak in the dark as you are about to cross a bay is optimal. It seemed equal to my experience as a naturalist working on the eco-tourism boats in Maui, with many of the snorkel trip attendees having no previous swimming experience.
We eventually made our way down the dock and into the water. As we moved closer to Point Reyes National Seashore, the beautiful blue-green glow became more and more evident with each scoop of the paddle. I formed a claw with my hand and ran my fingers back and forth over the water’s surface, watching aqueous sparks light up the night.
As we approached the guano-rich scented Hog Island, it sounded like doors of haunted houses were slowly creaking open. I quickly learned that this was the sound of cormorants.
We pulled over for a respite and stared up at the Milky Way. As we searched for Polaris (which can be found at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper), I took a moment to celebrate the history-making aspect of the day with the first all-woman spacewalk.
One of the most magical sights of the night was the phosphorescent trail that fish made as they swirled or whizzed by. It was Moana-level glowing.
As we made our way around Hog Island. I noticed random pieces of eelgrass floating by and occasionally surfacing on one of our paddles. And then, I felt something.
This is how the conversation went with the retired photography teacher, called Kate, who was paddling in the front seat of the kayak:
Me: “Kate, did you hit my paddle?”
Me: Flail, yell, flail. (Feels something under kayak.) Flail, yell, flail. Paddles some more. Bumps large specimen again.
I essentially behaved (1) as if I had never before had an encounter with marine life and (2) quite similar to the tourist on one of my Maui whale watches who shouted, “Ohmygawd, the whales are talkin’ to eachotha” during a silent, blissful moment with a whale song coming through the hydrophone.
I was that guy (gal). And there was nothing I could do about it. Our guide said it was most likely a bat ray. Based on its globular feel (think giant, aquatic hardboiled egg), I am going with that. For a moment, I thought it was a seal, and I was picturing said seal trying to climb aboard. Things are different in the dark. I seemed to have done much better scuba diving at night under the water than I did skimming across the top of it.
As we paddled back in, I found myself very relaxed, slightly wanting more time, as well as a redo. Like many eco-adventures, you end the trip with several could’ve, would’ve, should’ves. I know exactly the adaptations I would make.
While it can be very useful to perform a dry run of the drive to the expedition, an inquiry into the kind of equipment that will be provided, and a sense of what you might come across, these thoughtful tasks also have the power to squelch joy, discovery, and mastering the art of the flail.
I think I am just going to keep showing up. And occasionally flailing in the name of adventure (while throwing in an extra beach clean-up for marine penance).
In the meantime, I encourage you to always chase the glow—whatever that may be for you.