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Blog Home > Tom Watling Shares the Beauty and Wonder of Bioluminescent Bay
Tom Watling Shares the Beauty and Wonder of Bioluminescent Bay

Did you know that Grand Cayman is home to one of only a handful of bioluminescent bays in the world? Bioluminescence is a fancy name for “light-up” creatures like fireflies, glow worms, and jellyfish. In Cayman, tiny light-up creatures live in the waters off the north side of the island, a short boat ride away from Rum Point. We recently took an unforgettable tour of the bioluminescent bay led by Tom Watling, who helped us see these enchanting creatures up close.

Tom and Lisha Watling are the owners of Cayman Kayaks, who offer eco-friendly tours of the bioluminescent bay by double kayak or by boat. Cayman Kayak tours run only on moonless or low-light evenings so the experience with the bioluminescence can be as enjoyable as possible. The tours embark from Rum Point, and while it’s a bit of a drive from West Bay, it’s well worth the trip.

We took the boat tour of the bay, and the boat itself was almost as neat as the tour! Tom’s boat, Moonless Moments, might look like a regular catamaran at first glance, but it was custom designed with the touring experience and the utmost safety of the bioluminescence in mind. The boat is electric, which protects the organisms from harmful fuel emissions, and its walls are high and painted black to help block out nearby streetlights. Panels in the floor of the boat pop out, allowing tour goers to get up close and personal with the bioluminescence without swimming in the bay. Tom explained to us that everyday things like sunscreen, lotions, perfumes, and hair care products are harmful to the bioluminescence, so swimming in the bay is strongly discouraged and tour goers are advised to avoid or wash off any sunscreen or lotion beforehand.

As we entered the bay, Tom passed around a paddle to put in the water. When we looked over the side of the boat, suddenly the water surrounding the paddle lit up a bright blue. It was impressive and beautiful, and that was just the beginning of the light show. Once the boat stopped inside the bay, Tom popped out the panels in the boat’s floor, and we were able to play in the water and see the bioluminescence up close. With every swipe of my hand, dozens and dozens of little creatures lit up blue along my movements like fairy dust. Though small, the light provided by these creatures is mighty!

Tom and a friend kayak in the bioluminescent bay (Courtesy of Cayman Kayaks

Though the organisms in Cayman’s bioluminescent bay haven’t been studied officially, Tom told us that they are believed to be Pyrodinium Bahamense. Dr. Michael Latz of the Marine Institute in San Diego, California, toured the bay with Tom and noted that the organisms were very similar to those in another, extensively studied bay in Vieques, Puerto Rico—Mosquito Bay. Though he didn’t put the Cayman creatures under a microscope, he felt there were enough similarities to hypothesize that Cayman is also home to the Pyrodinium Bahamense.

In addition to the magic of the bioluminescence, getting to chat with Tom during the tour was a treat in itself. He told us that his parents first visited Cayman from Canada on their honeymoon in the 1980s and immediately fell head-over-heels for the island. It would be almost a year before they went back home at all! As a first-generation Caymanian, Tom is a strong advocate for protecting and conserving Cayman’s natural beauty. He recalls the first time he really noticed the bioluminescence, saying, “I was out on my back out on a dock looking up at the stars—the star gazing is great this side of the island. I went to shore and picked up a coconut and brought it to the end of the dock, threw it up in the air, and watched it splash. It didn’t splash as per usual, though—it glowed, sparkled, and because the end of the dock was in shallow waters, shoals of fish shot out from every direction of impact from the coconut hitting the surface. Phosphorescence! I thought to myself. Incredible!

When asked what it is about the bay that invokes such passion in him, Tom answered, “It’s the small things that makes the muscle behind my eyes tighten and my heart squeeze into tears of joy. That is what Cayman’s wildlife is all about to me—the knowledge of what you are looking at, and then getting up close to the tiny life structures and truly appreciating these life forms.”

A naturalist in every sense of the word, Tom shares his passion for nature with those on his tours. One of my favorite moments of the tour was when he stopped the boat and took the time to point out some of the constellations in the sky above, gently encouraging each of us to take a few moments, breathe in the ocean air, and be present in nature.

With Tom after our tour. 

Next time you visit the island, I highly recommend you book a tour of the bioluminescent bay—it will be an experience you won’t soon forget! And if you’re interested in helping keeping the bay happy and healthy for generations to come, you can read more about how you can support Tom and Lisha’s efforts here.


*Cover photo courtesy of Cayman Kayaks
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COMMENTS
Sher & Pete Dejonge MARCH 2 2019
Loved loved loved....another tick off the bucket list! ...so glad I was able to have the tour with Tom and hospitality of both Tom & Lisha sharing knowledge of the beautiful Caymans đź’ž
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