Swimming with the Stars: Swimming with bioluminescence in Tobago

A version of this article was originally published in the Sunday Times in September 2014

The first thing to learn about stand up paddle boarding is that there is no rush. There’s no surfer’s dash to catch a wave, no diver’s limited oxygen. It is, really, a perfect sport for laid-back Tobago. And Tobago is perfect for paddle boarding. Clear waters make the scenes below the surface as enjoyable as those above, while tumbling into the tepid Caribbean is hardly something for inexperienced boarders to fear.

My stand up paddle boarding lesson had begun on the powdery sand of Pigeon Point. Instructor Duane Kenny used his paddle to sketch a “board” around my feet, and talked me through the basics: standing, moving, turning, stopping. We pushed the boards onto the swimming pool-blue sea, to a roped off area unbothered by boats, and paddled gently along the shoreline. The thrill of actually “doing it” was matched by my astonishment at the scenery – Caribbean-classic; all sand, sea and swaying palms.

Days later I was practising my new skills on the mangrove-rimmed Bon Accord Lagoon at night. This was astonishing for quite the opposite reason – I couldn’t see a thing. But as Duane swirled his paddle in the glassy water, magic began to happen. The paddle glowed. He splashed water onto my board, and it became specks of glitter.

Bioluminescence on the sand, Tobago at night. Glowing phosphorescence in Bon Accord Lagoon

Bioluminescence glitters on the sand. Photo by Henry Bush

I wobbled with anticipation.

“It’s the bio!” said Duane.

For two weeks around each new moon, bioluminescence flickers across Bon Accord. Movement sparks chemical reactions, causing the tiny organisms to gleam an indescribable colour, the shade of stars and static and glowworms. Fish darted past; shooting stars beneath a moonless sky. We glided under the mangroves where the darkness made the bio brighter, and Duane rattled a fat mangrove root, sending sparks streaking into the deep. He laughed and dived in after them, waving his arms and legs, a glowing snow angel. I don’t know how many times Duane had seen the bioluminescence, but he seemed no less excited than if it had been his first.

Swimming with bioluminescence in Tobago Bon Accord lagoon

Bioluminescence photo by Jay Joslin

I thought the point of paddle boarding was staying on the board. But now my instructor was telling me to do the opposite.

“Jump in!”

I plunged into the lagoon and thrashed my limbs into lightsabers. It was fantastic – an aquatic Northern Lights , and I was controlling them. In true Tobago style, Duane told me to take my time, but I’m not sure the whole lunar cycle would have been long enough for me to tire of playing human comet, as constellations shone above and below.


Stand Up Paddle Tobago offers one-hour lessons, plus longer SUP tours for all abilities, including swamps, Bloody Bay, bioluminescence and specialised stand up paddle surf tours.

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