Did you know that Florida has bioluminescent life forms in its waters? I sure didn’t and I spent almost two years living in Orlando when I worked at Disney World. Thankfully, I saw the light (Get it? The bioluminescent kind) and discovered that you can actually go bioluminescence kayaking in Florida and took full advantage of that newfound knowledge on my most recent trip. We went in the winter, when you can find comb jellyfish that produce light in some of the waters of coastal Florida, though if you visit in the summer you can take tours designed to see bioluminescent algae instead. It was definitely a phenomenal experience (in addition to being a great way to burn off all of the mac & cheese and Dole Whip I had on vacation) and I’d highly recommend it for anyone visiting central or Eastern Florida. Keep on reading to find out everything you need to know to plan a visit.
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Our experience with A Day Away Kayak Tours
We opted to book our bioluminescence kayak tour with A Day Away Kayak Tours, which operates year round in the Cape Canaveral area. This wasn’t sponsored – we paid for our tour, so all opinions are definitely my own. We met up with our group, which included a guide and a family of five, in Kiwanis Island Park, which is part of Merritt Island right between Cocoa and Cocoa Beach. This company also offers departures from Titusville, which is slightly closer to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. We got glow sticks and life jackets with mini flashlights and some optional bug spray, and then received a thorough safety talk from our guide. After the safety briefing, he showed us how to paddle correctly, and how to work as a team in the double kayaks. Spoiler alert: the friend who I was with and I both listened to the teamwork part carefully and still were terrible at paddling in unison. And also steering on occasion.
Once we were fully briefed, we headed back to the little opening to launch our kayaks. My friend and I were the first ones in, and pushing off into the quiet, perfectly still water under a sky full of stars was amazing. We floated in place for a few minutes while the rest of the kayaks launched and then our group set off. Before reaching the area where we expected to find the bioluminescent comb jellyfish we were in search of, we had to first pass under a bridge carrying the main road and then parallel the shore for a decent distance.
Warning: it does require a little bit of physical effort to do all of the paddling, though you don’t have to be in peak shape to participate (I’m certainly not, and all of my former arm strength from years of softball has melted away thanks to busy adulthood). Our group included three elementary school aged girls, including one who was on her own in a single kayak, and no one seemed to struggle. I did a distance measure of our approximate route on Google Maps and it came out to be somewhere between two and three miles round trip. I expected my arms to be super sore the next day, but only my hands had a little bit of an ache to my surprise.
Our destination was a mangrove area and as we got closer, the kids in our group started squealing with delight. They seemed to be spotting jellyfish left and right. After about ten minutes, my friend and I had only managed to maybe see one (I’m still not sure if it was a jelly or just moonlight reflecting) and then run ourselves into a bush trying to loop around to get back to look at the spot again. We were feeling a bit inadequate so we finally asked our guide what the heck we were doing wrong. What we hadn’t realized is that the jellyfish only light up when they’re disturbed by something like a wave or a kayak paddle. So our strategy of coasting along and looking over the side was all wrong. Once we knew to look at the spots where our paddles were entering the water, we started seeing them all over.
The comb jellyfish in the area don’t sting, so you can actually hold them in your hand if you can fish them out. They’re basically clear little blobs that feel like a glob of snot in your hand. We saw some as small as a penny and one big enough to fill most of my palm. Moving your hand around while holding them caused them to light up and you could see streaks of light coiled inside as their natural chemicals mixed inside of them.
We collected a few of them in a mason jar so we could see how they’re structured inside. The comb jellyfish get their name from the comb-like structures inside, so by holding a light up to the bottom of the jar, we were able to see the detail. Don’t worry – the jellyfish were released into the water right away.
We spent some time paddling around, catching and releasing more comb jellyfish, marveling at their magical light, running into another bush overhanging the water, and enjoying the gorgeous night out on the water. We never did quite get the hang of paddling together as a team, but we had an awful lot of fun trying not to hit our paddles together or splash each other. Once we were done, we made the long paddle back to the park. We ran a little bit beyond the scheduled two hours for the tour, but I was perfectly happy to spend extra time out on the water.
Tips for going bioluminescence kayaking in Florida
- The photography conditions are not favorable. There’s a reason this post doesn’t have much in the way of stock photos. Unless you have some very expensive camera equipment, you’re unlikely to get anything close to usable. I managed one photo of a comb jelly that I deemed worthy of posting on my personal Facebook, but you’re bobbing on a kayak in the dark trying to take a photo of a faint light that is only visible when being jostled. So put the camera away and just enjoy the experience.
- The tour groups are small, so book ahead of time to ensure you get to go on the date you need.
- We used A Day Away Kayak Tours, but there are a couple other bioluminescence kayaking tour providers in the Cape Canaveral area. You can go with the best option for times and departure locations depending on where you’re staying or driving in from.
- It only takes an hour to get to the departure points for these bioluminescence kayaking tours from Orlando, so you can do it as part of a day trip if you’re visiting the theme parks.
- If you choose the same departure location we did – Kiwanis Island Park – despite the email instructions from the tour company warning about a lack of bathrooms, there actually are some there. And they were open past nine pm. I suspect those warnings were for the Merritt Island National Wildlife Preserve location – which apparently frequently includes manatee sightings.
- The comb jellyfish bioluminescence tours are only available from November-May due to the seasonal nature of their presence in the area. Don’t worry though – during warmer months, there are bioluminescent dinoflagellates in the area, and you can take a nighttime kayaking tour to see those instead. These tours run from June-October and you also have the option for clear kayaks.
- You don’t need to have a ton of kayaking experience to enjoy the tour. We went at a leisurely pace and I didn’t feel like I was getting too much of a workout. I’ve kayaked a few times before, but I’m certainly no expert and I’d rate my fitness level as a solid average.
What should you bring for a bioluminescent kayaking tour in Florida?
- Bug spray – Our guide gave us some, but that’s not something I’d go in expecting. We had brought some of our own, but I could tell that there were lots of bugs out so I added a little more. I love these wipes because I hate spraying it since it inevitably ends up in my mouth.
- Water shoes – I was packing super light so I went with flip flops instead of water shoes, but if you’re not trying to fit five days of stuff into a Spirit-sized personal item, I’d definitely go with the slightly bulkier shoes. Your feet will definitely get wet, and you won’t have to deal with flip flops slipping off in the kayak all the time or worrying about losing your shoes if you fall in.
- Long sleeved dry fit shirt – The comb jellyfish tours take place in the winter at night. While we had a super warm night, it can often get chilly. A breathable long sleeved shirt will keep you warm on the water and keep some of the bugs off. If it’s a particularly chilly night, you may want to add a thin waterproof rain jacket to keep your body dry.
- Gym shorts or board shorts – Sitting in the kayak, your shorts are almost certainly going to get wet. Some light, breathable shorts, or even swim trunks for guys will be much more comfortable.
- Small towel – Unless you fall in, you won’t get completely soaked, but your legs are likely to get a little bit wet. I like these lightweight, packable towels for traveling because they dry you off nicely without taking up a ton of space.
- Waterproof phone case – I bought one of these for the trip, and I loved that it fit my Pixel, including an Otterbox case and pop socket on the back. You won’t get much in the way of photos, but it was nice to have the phone with me.
- Water bottle – I left mine in the car while we were kayaking and I was ragingly thirsty by the end of the tour. There isn’t a ton of space in the kayaks, but it’s worth tossing a water bottle in.
Check out these other great things to do in Florida!
- Visit the Kennedy Space Center right in Cape Canaveral – it’s the perfect activity to pair with this kayaking tour.
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- Fifty Bucket List-Worthy Things to Do in the Southeastern United States