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Rhapsody in blue: when the sun sets on Tomales Bay, millions of marine organisms light up and dance. To catch the show, all you need is a paddle and some patience.

IT'S A GRAY WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON and I'm standing on a bluff high above Tomales Bay, California, holding my finger to the wind. "Doesn't feel too bad. What do you think?" I press the phone to my ear and listen for a reply. Laurie Manarik is the owner of Point Reyes Outdoors, an outfitter that leads night-time kayak trips on the bay, and unlike me and my pointer finger, she actually knows something about the weather here. She knows that once the sun sets the wind kicks up quickly, making it tough to paddle the widest parts of the bay, not terribly far from where great whites like to hunt. "Trust me, you don't want to capsize out there," she says. Trip canceled.

It's hard to argue with someone who's trying to keep me from becoming shark food. It's also hard to feel excessively glum about the alternative: being grounded for the night in Point Reyes. There is something about pulling into a one-street American town where locals know their cheese farmers by name that gives me hope. It doesn't hurt that I'm usually stopping by Point Reyes Station for a beer and a nibble of Original Blue (you'll have to fly to Roquefort to find better) on the way back from Point Reyes National Seashore, 71,000 acres of parkland that are just flat-out better than the more famous coastal enclave to the south, Big Sur. Sure, it's like comparing God's two favorite angels. But Big Sur's diamonds are laid out for the lazy most of them visible from the car. Point Reyes appears simple, even ordinary, at first glance, when really she's playing hard to get, keeping her most sacred jewels for those who are willing to work.

I'm willing.

The next morning, as I sip cold-brewed coffee in the shade of the town barn, I think of the experience that lured me here, perhaps one of Point Reyes's most elusive: a nighttime kayak trip in search of plankton that reportedly turn Tomales Bay, the park's teeming wildlife soup, into a bioluminescent spectacle that rivals James Cameron's Pandora. From June to November, millions of single-celled organisms wash into the bay, where they flash a blue-green glow at the slightest touch. As if it's not enough to watch white pelicans plunge into an ink blue sea or to slurp bivalves by the bagload a few feet from the intertidal muck from which they're farmed, yes, Point Reyes National Seashore freaking lights up at night.

I finish my coffee and wander a half-block to the tiny office of Point Reyes Outdoors. For the last 12 years, Chicago native Manarik has been blowing boaters' minds with her night paddles on Tomales Bay. There was the guy who decided to propose in the glowing eelgrass, the family who showed up with a crying 8-year-old and left with him shrieking about the best day of his life, and the elderly couple who capsized almost directly off the dock and later wrote a thank-you letter for the soaking.

We walk by the gas station, where the company car, a beater '90s Jeep Cherokee, is getting its water pump replaced. ("Worth saving?" Manarik shouts to the mechanic as we pass. "Heck, yeah," comes the reply.) This is not a population desirous of glamour, and Manarik tells me, Mayor Daley-style, that she's wary of taking out a journalist for a night paddle; after all, it might bring too much attention to bioluminescence, and she's concerned about disturbing the bay, which recently ranked as the cleanest in California.

But, as I'm learning, conditions are a natural filter. These microorganisms generally appear only from summer through late fall, when the sea is warmer and calm enough to allow for dense blooms of dinofla-gellates. Even then, to really see the aqueous aurora, one needs a moonless night--with not too much wind. "And we get wind from all sides," Manarik says. Indeed, not long after she tells me her theory on why the bioluminescence has been increasing over the last decade (climate change, among other things), the wind has picked up to 20 knots and Manarik cancels the trip. Again.

The extra time gives me a chance to chat with John Largier, an oceanographer at University of California, Davis, who studies Tomales Bay's ecosystems. Basically, Largier explains, the coast gets slammed by cold northwest winds in the spring, upwelling chilly nutrientrich water that diatoms, the most common ocean algae, love. The wind subsides briefly over the summer, warming the surface of the water enough to give the dinoflagellates a chance to do their thing.

Like Venus flytraps, dinoflagellates seem almost more animal than plant. The majority of them photosynthesize, and like fireflies, they use a light-emitting molecule called luciferin in conjunction with a catalyzing enzyme, luciferase, to produce cold light.

It all sounds very alien, but only to us landlubbers. A 2010 paper published in the Annual Review of Marine Science reminds us that it's often harder for scientists to find organisms that don't light up than ones that do. "Some of the few prominent lineages which are not known to be bioluminescent," the authors note, "are flowering plants, and terrestrial vertebrates like birds, amphibians, and mammals."

As to the question of why dinos illuminate when touched, it may just be the age-old drive not to be dinner. The most common theory goes that, by lighting up, they shine a spotlight on one of their shrimplike predators, thereby luring in one of its larger predators, like a tiny baitfish. The flash sends a message up the food chain: Come and eat. This distracts the immediate predator, giving the dino a chance to escape.

I like to think of these plants as flighty artists, here one day, gone the next. They wash in with the tide, thickening near the bay's mouth before getting swept out the very same night. Some of them get caught up in the eelgrass, creating rogue bioluminescent communities as far south as Inverness.

Largier doesn't know why the dinos appear to be increasing, or even if those rumors are correct. But whether humans are the catalysts for the blooms or not, we are certainly the ones enjoying the show. Or at least excited about the possibility. After three days of bumming around Point Reyes, I finally get the call: Conditions, Manarik says, are perfect.

ON A WINDLESS FRIDAY NIGHT, we meet at the launch site, on the east side of the bay, for a gentle mile-long paddle toward White Gulch beach. It's me, three couples in sun hats, and Brett Miller, our guide. We paddle slowly, letting darkness take its time. "Pun fact," Miller calls out as we pass by guano-scented rocks close to where Hog Island oysters are farmed. "Cormorants have solid bones and are almost better swimmers than they are flyers!"

An hour later, we drift up to White Gulch beach, where Miller lays out a spread of hot cocoa and cookies from Bovine Bakery. Then he starts in on a history lesson that stretches from the original Miwok inhabitants to today. We learn that at one point, Point Reyes was slated to be developed as the Malibu of Northern California. I take a mental snapshot of the scene around me and feel instantly grateful.

By 8:30 the sky is dark and we return to our boats. And that's when the first shouts begin.

"It's under my feet!" shrieks Orla, a cheery Irish woman from San Mateo, California. "No, seeeeriously. You've got to see this!"

You really do. Every step we take in the water sends a ripple of twinkling light through the surf. I reach down to scoop some sand and seawater in my fingers. Each rub looks like the inside of a lava lamp spilling out before me.

Back on the bay, our oars are paintbrushes, we the painters, as we flick and swoosh lines of cool fire. Soon we're floating in beds of eelgrass, where the lightest touch of the water sends swirls of blue and green around the kayaks.

After about 20 minutes of playing like preschoolers in finger paints, we look deeper, beyond the initial glow, and notice subtleties: the streak of darting baitfish or, for the lucky few, the undersea comet of a bat ray or leopard shark.

Wanting, I suppose, something more accessible than biology and chemistry to describe this, I ask Miller if the Miwok had any legends about the bioluminescence. It's one of the few facts he doesn't have at his fingertips, but after drifting for 10 minutes in silence, I decide such a moment deserves its own spontaneous mythos, one to keep to yourself, one to rely on when the city lights lose their luster.


November is your last chance to catch the underwater fireworks this year. Here are three ways to do it (all tours are dependent upon the weather).


Flashy fish are just part of the draw on this night paddle. Spot harbor seals, seabirds, and tule elk on the bluffs above Tomales Bay. Weekend tours feature a dessert picnic with treats from Bay Area fave Bovine Bakery. From $76/ 3 hours; through early Nov;


On this 2.5-mile kayak trip around Tamales Bay, paddlers get a chance to see leopard sharks, bat rays, and moon jellies (yes, they're touchable). $78/3 hours; through Nov;

OCEAN INSTITUTE Board the Sea Explorer, a 65-foot research vessel that plies the plankton-illuminated waters of Dana Point, north of San Diego. During the 2 1/2-hour tour, guides collect samples of organisms to put under the ship's video microscopes to give you a better look. From $35; through Nov;


Jaimal Yogis is the author of Saltwater Buddha and The Fear Project. His stories have appeared in Afar and The Washington Post.
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Title Annotation:WANDERLUST
Author:Yogis, Jaimal
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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