A Florida Kayak Excursion That’s Like Paddling through the Milky Way

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Dolphins that glow neon. Manatees and manta rays shining the brightest of blues. Fluorescent fish that kerplunk into your kayak. These may sound like visions only possible in whimsical dreams, but this natural wonder is absolutely real at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. The window of opportunity to experience this underwater phenomenon is small, so read on to learn how to infuse a little magic into your summer family vacation plans.

Where

From June to October, the water at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on Florida's Merritt Island glows blue because of single-cell bioluminescent organisms that gather here annually. The resulting unusual light show gives the illusion the world has turned upside-down and you're paddling through comets, shooting stars and fireworks when viewed from a kayak.

The Science

Bioluminescence feels more like something out of a sci-fi movie than a reality, but it's one of nature's most incredible phenomena. It's the ability of a living organism to create and emit light. When these organisms move through the water, they create a dreamy glowing effect that allows you to see fish underwater at night.

Edith Widder, founder of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association, says the bloom is consistent in this location because it happens in an estuary that tends to be protected and stable.

Best Way to Experience

For the most memorable way to experience the glow, book a Get Up and Go Kayaking excursion. Your paddle will glow as you maneuver through the waterways and the natural flow of water will illuminate the organisms. The clear bottoms of their kayaks allow you to see what's below, as well as what's all around you. They launch from the northwest side of Haulover Canal, which is an area that's home to large manatee and dolphin populations, making it very likely they'll make an appearance during your ride. 

Best Time to Go

For bioluminescence at its brightest, book your trip in July or August. The best nights for viewing are the darkest with a moon phase that's at 55% or less. Get Up and Go Kayaking has a handy calendar on their website to help you plan the best date for your experience. 

Other Things to Do on Merritt Island

Merritt Island is also home to NASA'S Kennedy Space Center. Kids who are intrigued by space travel will flip over the Visitor Complex that's organized into Mission Zones with attractions and tours grouped by chronological era. You'll leave with a good understanding of the history of humans in space, from the dawn of exploration to current missions. 

If luck is on your side, you'll even get to meet an astronaut or experience an unmanned rocket blast from the space center or from the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

For ideas on where to stay, NASA's website has a comprehensive list of hotel options that fit a wide range of budgets. If you decide to fly vs. road trip, book your flights into Orlando International Airport (MCO). 

— Maria Chambers

Featured photo: Credit Tony Catalano

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