See Glowing Waters at These Bioluminescent Hubs in Florida

These vibrant blue-hued waters will blow your mind.

From humpback whales to grizzly bears and the California condor, there’s a massive array of fascinating animals to see all across the United States—yet one of the most dazzling forms of life on the planet is totally invisible to the naked eye. Known as dinoflagellates, many varieties of tiny phytoplankton create light when disturbed in the water, transforming a still shoreline into a vibrant mosaic of color for visiting kayakers.

While the phenomenon can famously be spotted in Australia’s Jervis Bay and Puerto Rico’s Mosquito Bay, you don’t need to travel outside of the Lower 48 to witness it firsthand. There’s a wealth of plankton-rich destinations scattered all across the state of Florida as well.

As you plan your next ecotourism-focused voyage to the Sunshine State, the following destinations offer an opportunity to witness this incredible natural phenomenon of bioluminescent waters firsthand, with no shortage of prestigious tour companies in place to ensure optimal viewing conditions.

How does bioluminescence work?

If you’re a budding natural historian, you may be wondering: What exactly makes these tiny organisms tick (and glow)? For the phytoplankton, the answer lies within two molecules in particular: luciferin and luciferase. Upon exposure to oxygen, the two spark up and begin to glow, with blue being the most commonly occuring color due to how light penetrates water.

Scientists theorize that the organisms have evolved to crank up the brightness when faced with predators to attract even larger predators, with hopes that incoming fish will make a quick meal of the phytoplankton’s assailants—and while it’s unclear just how effective of a strategy it is, it certainly makes for a marvelous spectacle for visiting tourists.

When to see bioluminescence in Florida

For a truly unforgettable experience, you’ll want to aim for the late spring and early summer. The creatures are at their best and brightest from roughly July to August, while the entire season typically spans from May to October. Visitors will want to schedule their trip during the new moon to reduce light exposure and ensure bright colors—but fortunately, the plankton can still be seen even with a completely full moon.

If your schedule doesn’t quite align with a peak summer visit, have no fear—plankton aren’t the only glowing marine life to be found across the state. During the winter, comb jellies (a type of jellyfish-like invertebrate) gather in abundance, each one equipped with the same brilliant traits found in Florida’s native phytoplankton.

Where to see bioluminescence in Florida

While glowing organisms abound all across the Sunshine State’s shores, the undisputed champion of bioluminescence ecotourism is the Florida Space Coast. Best known as the home of the Kennedy Space Center, this 72-mile span of shoreline also offers some of the most pristine natural landscapes in all of the state, with major environmental protections put in place back in the early 1960s.

Cities like Titusville and Cocoa Beach are equipped with hotels, bars, and restaurants to keep you fueled and rested during your trip, but the local phytoplankton spend their time just outside of city limits. On the northern edge of Brevard County, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge serves as one of Florida’s crown jewels for ecotourism, equipped with 140,000 acres of scrub forest, dunes, and marshland. The preserve has earned abundant acclaim for its incredible birdwatching potential, but beyond avian life, visitors can also spot alligators, turtles, bobcats, and—of course—bioluminescent plankton.

Cocoa Beach serves as a fellow gateway to the Indian River Lagoon and—more specifically—Florida’s Banana River. These lush natural features serve as a cradle for Sunshine State creatures both large and small, with crabs, fish, dolphins, and manatees all thriving along its tangled mangrove forests.

Beyond Brevard County, there are a few other spots across Florida that advertise bioluminescence tours. On the opposite side of the state, the Gulf of Mexico hosts high concentrations of the fauna, with tours available during high summer around cities like Naples and St. Petersburg. And for anyone exploring the very tip of the continental United States, Key West boasts its own pockets of bioluminescence, offering dazzling night shows to enjoy in between rum tastings and diving tours.

Tour companies that offer bioluminescent experiences

While it’s technically possible to set off solo in search of bioluminescent plankton, Florida’s many tour companies offer added expertise to make sure that you’re seeing the brightest spots possible.

For visitors hoping to dip their toes into the spectacular biodiversity of both Merritt Island and the Indian River Lagoon, Fin Expeditions has mastered the art of bioluminescence tourism, offering a wealth of curated tours for visitors to enjoy. Guests can reserve a sunset journey for added natural beauty and the bonus opportunity for manatee viewing. For a totally unique experience, fellow outdoor adventure company BK Adventure offers the only bioluminescence rafting tour in the state of Florida, providing visitors with the same stunning views enjoyed aboard a paddle raft, and Sobe Surf gets visitors out on the water after dark on stand-up paddle boards.

Down in South Florida, the phytoplankton tourism scene isn’t quite as developed as its northern neighbor, but there are still a few companies offering trips. For avian aficionados, Naples Outfitters’ Sunset Bird Rookery Tour combines bioluminescent kayaking with birdwatching, transporting guests to Rookery Island to spot hundreds of shorebirds all convening to roost overnight.

Similarly, Key West visitors can discover the spectacular biodiversity of the region firsthand on a night kayaking excursion with Blue Planet Kayak Eco-Tours. As the sun dips below the horizon, guests can marvel at a massive array of native birds, while the dead of night offers the perfect opportunity to view nocturnal Sunshine State wildlife with a headlamp, all while stirring up glowing phytoplankton with each stroke of the paddle.

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Jared Ranahan is a freelance writer focusing on travel, wildlife, and food & beverage.