Witnessing bioluminescence in Bocas del Toro, Panama was undoubtedly one of my trip highlights. This breathtaking natural phenomenon can only be seen at night and is so uniquely wonderful that it almost doesn’t feel real.
If you’re headed to Bocas and want to see this natural wonder for yourself, I’ll share my tips for getting the most out of your nighttime plunge.
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A Guide to Seeing Bioluminescence in Bocas del Toro, Panama
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What Causes Bioluminescence?
Bioluminescence is essentially the process used by some animals to create their own light. Fireflies are probably the first creatures to spring to mind but a number of organisms can do this, most of them marine animals such as algae and plankton.
Without getting too deep into the science behind the phenomenon, the light that we see emitted from bioluminescent life is the animal releasing chemical energy. Organisms commonly release light when they are disturbed. This usually comes in the form of physical movement.
Best Time to See the Bioluminescence in Bocas del Toro
The best examples of bioluminescence are only visible when the skies are really dark. This is around the New Moon period of the lunar cycle. For the most impressive experience, head out between the hours of 8 pm and 10 pm to see this spectacle.
Bioluminescent Tours in Bocas del Toro
There are a few ways to experience bioluminescence in Bocas del Toro. Many companies will run tours for visitors to the archipelago, taking them to a spot where the phenomenon is usually present. These tend to cost around $30USD per person. The Selina hostel chain is one of the most notable accommodation providers that offer to arrange this experience for their guests.
The main advantage of experiencing the bioluminescent plankton with a tour is that the guides will know exactly where the best spots are and you’ll have someone keeping an eye on you for the duration of your exploration. Bear in mind that this natural wonder is only visible at night so you’ll need to be very careful in you’re in the water!
Note that tours only run at certain times of the month and only on nights with ‘no moon’ (a.k.a New Moon). This is because you need the optimum level of darkness in order to see the bioluminescence.
Seeing Bioluminescence in Bocas del Toro Independently
It is also possible to see the bioluminescence in Bocas del Toro independently, however, this only really works if you know where to find the phenomenon. When I experienced the bioluminescence, I was staying on Isla de San Cristóbal, one of the lesser-visited islands in the archipelago. At our accommodation, we had our own dock and the bioluminescence was visible in the bay directly outside of the front of the accommodation.
If you want to experience this natural spectacle independently, I’d recommend heading to Dolphin Bay Hideaway on San Cristóbal Island (this is where we stayed) or asking around Bocas and seeing if anyone can you give you advice as to where to see the bioluminescence.
What to Bring:
- Change of clothes
- Mosquito repellent (make sure that you’re not wearing DEET if you intend on getting in the water – it is hugely damaging to coral reefs)
Tips for Experiencing the Bioluminescence on Bocas del Toro
1. Align your expectations
Not all displays of bioluminescence are created equal. I have experienced bioluminescence twice so far on my travels, once in Bocas del Toro, Panama and also in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand. While I loved my Bocas experience, the bioluminescence in Koh Phi Phi was much more blue and bright. Manage your expectations – the bioluminescence may appear blue, white, cloudy or clear.
2. Kayak if you can
If you have access to a kayak, either on your tour or at your accommodation, it is highly recommended that you use it. The paddling action will disturb the plankton and cause their light to glitter and glisten.
3. Don’t go alone
Entering the ocean at night is a risky business. You should always make sure you do this as part of a tour or with at least one other person. Tell somebody where you are going too, in case the worst happens.
4. Bring a light
This is a really important piece of advice. You can use your light to alert others to your location, a very important factor when kayaking in an area near boats or if you get into difficulty.
5. Don’t swim near boats
Darkness is an essential component for seeing the bioluminescence but it does make the practice of swimming with the bioluminescent plankton more risky. Never swim in an area near boats and remember to use your flashlight in case you need to alert others to your presence.
6. Snorkelling might be disappointing
Most of the bioluminescence tours from Bocas del Toro will provide snorkelling equipment for guests. Be aware that this may be something that you find a little disappointing. My own experience of snorkelling through bioluminescence is that the light often looks like bubbles under the water.
Personally, I find the experience to be better when my head is above the water and I am looking down at the lights from above.
7. Leave your camera at home
It can be easy to be carried away by the photos you see on the internet, many of which have been edited. Bioluminescence is notoriously hard to capture on camera, especially for those of us who aren’t professional photographers! Do yourself a favour and just be in the moment, you’ll only be disappointed by your photos anyway!
A nighttime kayak through a sea of stars finished off by plunging into the glowing waters is truly an unforgettable experience. I’d liken the experience of paddling with the phytoplankton to swimming through the Milky Way.
Lights flash and sparkle in all directions, stirred up by the movements in the water. Both times that I have experienced bioluminescence have been completely unforgettable and I will continue to seek out new destinations to experience this phenomenon on my travels. If you’re in Bocas del Toro, don’t miss the opportunity to see this prodigy of nature – it’s likely to be an experience you never forget.
Have you experienced the bioluminescence in Bocas del Toro yet?