Jamaica In-Depth: The Luminous Lagoon

Jamaica, the tropical haven of the Caribbean and a popular bucket-list destination for many travellers and holiday-makers alike. Settled in the marshlands of Trelawny – one of the island’s fourteen parishes – on the North Coast is the Luminous Lagoon, a place unlike any other. Also referred to as Glistening Waters, if you are visiting Jamaica make sure to take note of this fantastic spot. It makes for a completely unique experience and it is one of the more unusual things to get up to at night on the island, with the waters here doing much more than ‘glistening’ as the Sun goes down.

Stretching from a small community called the Rock to the town of Falmouth, the Luminous Lagoon sits at the point where the Martha Brae River flows into the Caribbean sea. It is an area where salt and fresh water combine, making warm brackish water that is shallow at around 2-3 metres deep. Surrounded by mangrove trees, you can often see lights in the distance from passing ships out on the ocean but the Lagoon most definitely does not get its name from these views. The water is home to millions of microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates that radiate a blue-green glow at night when disturbed. This is bioluminescence, and in the dinoflagellates’ case it is believed to be a defence mechanism to ward off predators. They are thought to thrive in brackish water and they have done just that at the Luminous Lagoon. Though dinoflagellates are found in waters all over the world, there are not usually enough in one site to create this effect, which presents as if the water itself is glowing brightly and makes for an unbelievable sight to witness. These types of bioluminescent ecosystem bays are exceptionally rare and the Luminous Lagoon is frequently rated as the best and brightest out of only four discovered over the Earth.

If you are planning on taking a trip to explore the Luminous Lagoon, be aware that the water – apart from where the dinoflagellates spark their glow – will naturally be dark because people can only see this bioluminescent phenomenon at night. Some people are uncomfortable with swimming in dark water and light is kept to a minimum because it reduces the visibility of the bioluminescence. If you are not comfortable with swimming in dark water, then be prepared to visit for the views rather than diving in, which is still nothing less than awe-inspiring. Due to light interference, you are not allowed to take photos using flash and despite the stunning effect of the glowing water on the naked eye, it is very difficult to capture on camera. Most, if not all, tour providers have a photographer on board who will provide you with some shots, usually sent to an email address for a moderate sum. If you do not want to do that, resign yourself to the fact that you may not be able to get pictures of the experience to save disappointment.

Many travellers love to get stuck into adventure and some shy away from organised, tourist-centric excursions but there is no way to properly and safely explore the Lagoon without using an experienced guide. We went with Glistening Waters, a hotel, restaurant and marina. The marina is where the Lagoon is accessed from and you can arrange to take a boat tour from here in many ways, specifically online on their website, booking through your hotel, or if you are driving you can buy tickets right at the harbour front. We went on Valentine’s Day and had a great time with them. The guys on the boat were friendly and informative, we spent around 45 minutes out on the water, the boat was full but not overly packed, and we saw some fire breathing and dancing at the marina afterwards too. Children are allowed on the tours but unfortunately the boats have no disabled access. We were advised that the boat would not be suitable for those who get motion sickness, but as someone who often gets sea-sick the trip was smooth and far from choppy.

If you visit the Lagoon, you might find it useful to bring some water shoes as there is a thick layer of muck covering the floor. It is really not nice to touch, but having some coverage over your feet may make it less unpleasant if you do accidentally plant one down. In case you were wondering, the guides are adamant that there are no water predators in the Lagoon and there are no records of any accounts that suggest differently, but another traveller was told that predators were kept out rather than not naturally inclined to be there. Without a doubt there is life in the water, with some telling of the water lighting up as fish zip around. It is also worth knowing that the dinoflagellates’ bioluminescence is reduced or intensified in certain conditions, but as there has been little scientific research conducted it is hard to say exactly when the best times to visit are. It is thought that on rainy days or nights when the light from the Moon is strong that the glow from the water is duller and when we visted, the water was much harder to agitate but after taking a dip, our clothes were still sparkling for hours after.

The Luminous Lagoon is a magical place to see in the flesh and it is one of Jamaica’s most intriguing sites. You can find other clearer images of the glowing water online if you are interested in seeing more of this amazing area at its best. Let me know in the comment section if this article has inspired you to go, or what you thought if you already went!


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