Three years ago we joined my brother’s and sister’s families for a weeklong vacation in Puerto Rico. We rented a house near the beach together and did all the usual touristy stuff – a day in Old San Juan, a hike in the El Yunque rain forest, a boat trip to a snorkeling reef.
The outing I remember most vividly was a nighttime kayak trip into the bioluminescent Grand Lagoon in Fajardo, on the northest corner of the island.
Here’s what bioluminescence is, scientifically:
Millions of tiny, invisible single-celled organisms that light up as a self-defense mechanism when disturbed.
Here’s what it is, experientially:
You paddle at dusk through a narrow, mangrove-lined channel into the open lagoon. Night falls. Sweeping your paddle through the black water, you create a Milky Way of light. The wake behind your paddle glows, it swirls as you swirl, then it dims as you move on.
You run your hand in the water and create more trails of light. A million little lights switching on, shining against the dark, at just a touch. It’s like being God at the Creation. It’s like being Harry Potter – no, it’s better than Harry Potter, because you don’t even need a wand.
This happened back in November. Suddenly there was no more bioluminescence.
No one was able to identify the specific reason. It could have been any one of a number of things – toxic runoff from construction of a nearby wastewater treatment plant, removal of too many mangroves around the bay, changes in temperature or wave action or ????
This made me deeply sad. We are living at a time when large numbers of creatures are on the edge of extinction, due to loss of habitat and climate change. Many of these threatened creatures are bigger and better known than the invisible Fajardo micro-organisms – leopards, polar bears, Monarch butterflies, coral reefs. But these in the Fajardo lagoon were ones that I’d personally experienced.
It’s one thing to know that polar bears – which I’ve only ever seen behind the walls of zoos — may go extinct.
It’s another to lose something that I have seen in its wild home. That I have actually touched. And that is so stunningly magical.
What kind of legacy are we leaving for future generations? Is my generation going to be the dividing line – will history say that in our time, there were snow leopards and Monarch butterflies and bioluminescent bays, but forever after they were limited to pictures in natural history books?
Will my daughter tell her children, “When I was ten, I snorkeled in a coral reef – back when there were coral reefs?”
I circled around and around in this depressing line of thinking all weekend. Then today I did a little Googling, and it turns out the story of the Fajardo bay may not be as dismal as I thought: The biophosphorescent lights went dark just temporarily in November. They are apparently back now, at least somewhat.
So I breathed a sigh of relief.
But how relieved should I be?
Just this month, another bio-bay on the nearby island of Vieques went dark, according to Science Friday.
And we are only beginning to see the effects of climate change on our world…. the subtle changes in water temperature, rainfall, or length of a season that can mean the difference between survival and extinction for a species.
The Fajardo biobay is back for now. But for how long?
And what other magical parts of our natural world are we going to lose because our “leaders,” in thrall to the petrochemical industry, continue to quibble and deny?