SVI Journal: Day 8, Punta Tamarindo Grande back to Isla Palominos

Saturday morning I attempted to sleep in, but I only made it until 7:30. When I stepped up into the salon I found three teens sitting hungrily, wanting to know which food they were allowed to eat for breakfast. I tried to figure out which meal was planned, but Mary and Jayne had switched so many meals around that I had no clue. I just told them to eat cereal.

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After breakfast the teens headed back across the island to spend some more time exploring Flamenco Beach. Meanwhile I splashed back into the water to spend more time snorkeling the reef.

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The parrot fish, the trumpet fish, the blue tangs, the wrasse — they were all amazing. However, the real highlight of the morning was when a remora grande, also known as a shark sucker, cruised by under the boat.

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I’d never seen anything like it. I was half hoping we’d also see a big shark, so I could get a photo, but I was also relieved that we didn’t.

After snorkeling with me for a bit Mary tried to make her way to the beach to meet up with the others. Unfortunately her shoe blew out as soon as she hit the trail, and that put an end to her expedition.

We hung out as long as we could, but we saw a storm rolling in, so we decided to head west back to Isla Palominos.

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We didn’t completely miss the storm, but the rain gave me a chance to scrub all the mud off the foredeck that we’d picked up anchored in Dewey.

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Once the rain passed I grabbed a beer and laid out on the tramps — which was very relaxing until I fell asleep and poured cold beer all over my stomach.

We passed a little island identified on the charts as Cayo Lobo, which had two inviting mooring balls just off the beach. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to stop and explore it.

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It was late afternoon when we reached Isla Palominos, and it was PACKED. I think every boater in Puerto Rico had rafted up there to party.

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Every motor boater had their stereo cranked up, and they were all competing to be the loudest. People were grilling and swimming back and forth between boats.

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We somehow managed to find an empty mooring ball. Then another boat left just as Batubara arrived.

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Chateau du Mer had to take an unprotected outside ball, but it was the only option at the time.

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As the sun dropped lower in the sky, some of the motor boaters started disappearing back to Puerto Rico, but a few remained rafted up near the beach where they partied all night. The El Conquistador resort ferry took the last load of people back to PR at 6:30. After that the noise in the anchorage settled down.

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Chateau du Mer was finally able to move to a more protected spot beside Batubara.

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Just before dinner we got together to take a crew photo — or at least all of the crew except for me since I was taking the photo.

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Then we fired up the grill and had a delicious dinner of pork chops, baked potatoes, corn on the cob and salad, jamming out to Jack Johnson, John Mayer and Tom Petty while enjoying the sunset.

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I personally did my best to drink all of the beer, so that none would be wasted on return to the marina Sunday, but I couldn’t quite pull it off. We went to bed feeling accomplished but sad that the trip was about to be over.

SVI Journal: Day 7, Punta Tamarindo Grande and Flamenco Beach, Culebra

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Just after sunrise, the airport opened in Dewey, Culebra. Loud little Cessnas and other small planes were taking off right over the Ensenada Honda anchorage all morning long.

I had filled the 4GB SD card in my old camera the night before, so Mary went into town to explore the grocery store situation and look for SD cards while I helped gather fresh water jugs from the other two boats to re-fill our tank.

Chateau du Mer donated their two 5.5 gallon jugs as they still had plenty of water. We took those back to Caicu and emptied them out before making another run to the Dinghy Dock Restaurant with both their jugs and our jugs. The bartender turned on the water hose for us, and we paid 25 cents per gallon to fill up — we didn’t even have to lift the tanks out of the dinghy.

Even though the bar wasn’t officially open yet, the bartender from El Paso overheard that we were from Texas, so she still sold us a round of Coronas. She started telling us about the deer that swam from island to island. We had seen something that looked like deer droppings on Culebrita, but we took the story of swimming deer with a grain of salt.

Mary and Jayne appeared across the way on the municipal dinghy dock with grocery bags, so we downed our beers and went to pick them up. While we had hoped to grill steaks that night, the best non-fish proteins Mary found were some mediocre looking pork chops. However, they only went to the small market close to the bay, they didn’t venture all the way up the hill to the Ralph’s. More importantly, the dive shop, which Mary described as “more of a dive tent” had SD cards.

Once we got the water in the tanks, we pulled up anchor — along with a huge amount of sea grass and mud. I did my best to pull it off the chain as it was coming up, but I couldn’t get it all, and the windlass was basically flinging crap all over the foredeck.

We really enjoyed the atmosphere in Dewey, and we were a little disappointed that we couldn’t stay longer to explore more of the the town. That’s someplace I could see us hanging out for a while and playing music in the bars at night.

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We headed west around Culebra towards Punta Tamarindo Grande, and yes, we did notice that Batubara went in the wrong channel and took the scenic route towards Culebrita before finally turning wide and sailing back.

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We snagged a mooring ball in the nature preserve and just when we thought Culebra couldn’t possibly get any better, we took a snorkel and got absolutely blown away by the reef. It was the biggest one I’d ever seen.

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I spent the entire afternoon snorkeling and came across another green sea turtle.

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Later in the afternoon we dinked over to the beach and took the trail across the island to Flamenco Beach.

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On the way, what should we run into, but a deer. It wasn’t swimming, but we decided maybe there was more to the swimming deer story than we had thought. We also encountered several chickens as well as a quite smelly dead cat.

When we finally crossed through the chained but loose gate, which led into the parking lot of Flamenco Beach, we saw this sign. Glad I didn’t go wandering off the path to catch a photograph of those chickens.

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Flamenco Beach was picturesque with blue water and white sand ringed by hills.

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At the very north end of the beach some of the crew discovered abandoned army tanks covered in graffiti. I was really sorry I missed getting a photo of them.

We stopped by the drink huts for a pina colada before making the hike back across the reserve to our mooring field.

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The sun was dropping fast, but I took one more snorkel before dinner. Mary made stir fry with peanut sauce — another big hit with our crew.

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The crew of Chateau du Mer brought a special whiskey, so after dinner we all met on Batubara for a “wee dram.” I regret it now, but I passed on the whiskey that night because my stomach was feeling a bit rough, and I was already nodding off, even with Batubara’s bilge alarm going off every ten minutes. I went to foredeck to check out the stars and nap a bit while Mary enjoyed a game of charades with the rest of the crew.

When we finally dinked back to Caicu, I was out before my head even hit the pillow.

SVI Journal: Day 6, Tortuga Bay, Culebrita and Ensenada Honda, Culebra

One of my goals this trip was to catch the perfect tropical sunrise — except I snored right through it Friday morning in Bahia de Almodovar. However, when I finally got up and made some coffee, the view still wasn’t bad.

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My first task of the morning was to shake out my camera bag to see if I had any other spare SD cards on hand. I lucked out and found an old 4GB card in one of the pockets, so I had both cameras back in use for at least a day.

The next task on my list was to pull up the cabin sole in the starboard ama to find the air-conditioner raw water strainer. After a few minutes of searching I located it under the floor of the front cabin and opened it up. I’d never seen a basket that full of seaweed.

I dumped it all overboard and gave the basket a rinse, then put it back together. The HI PS code cleared, and we had air-conditioning on the starboard side again.

We’d been getting low on fresh water and had considered buying some in Esperanza, but it was decided to just conserve until we stopped in Dewey. That meant no more showers, so Mary set the standard for cleanliness with her patented floating noodle hair washing method.

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I noticed while snorkeling that morning that the starfish, which had been scattered all over the sandy bottom of the bay the night before, had disappeared. No idea where they went. I had no idea starfish moved around that much. Someone suggested that maybe they buried themselves in the sand, but I didn’t know they did that either.

Mid-morning we finally fired up the diesels and made the short motor across to Culebrita. Both catamarans had no trouble negotiating the mouth of Tortuga Bay, but the crew on the Jenneau didn’t like the way the cross current was pushing them around, so they turned back and picked up a mooring ball on the west side of the island.

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Tortuga Bay was beautiful. The turquoise water lapped up against a white sand beach while a mix of charter vessels, cruising sailboats, and local motorboats bobbed around on moorings or at anchor beneath the ancient lighthouse up on the hill.

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It was only a matter of minutes before the first green sea turtle was spotted swimming past Caicu, so we all hopped in the water to say, hello.

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We encountered at least four different green sea turtles (it’s kind of hard to tell them apart) while in Tortuga Bay, as well as two different sting rays shuffling about on the sandy bottom.

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I probably snorkeled with the sting rays a bit too long because when I got back to the boat I saw that everyone had already gone to shore to make the hike up to the lighthouse. At first I thought, no big deal, I was planning to swim in anyway. Then I realized that they had also taken my dry bag to get their shoes ashore for the hike. And yes, I offered the use of my dry bag — but my shoes, my camera, my shirt, and my water bottle that I had been planning to take in the dry bag were all still sitting in my cabin.

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I sucked it up and swam to shore doing the sidestroke with my dive camera dangling from my wrist while holding my shoes up out of the water. That was a much longer swim than I had expected, but I did make it to shore with dry shoes. Plus, I got to guilt trip Mary about taking my bag and leaving me stranded for the rest of the trip, so it was worth it.

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Culebrita has several trails and beaches to explore, but you definitely need shoes to hike them. The brush is prickly and there’s no shortage of cacti.

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Small lizards were running everywhere through the brush and we stumbled across a family of goats on our way to the lighthouse. We also saw what looked like deer droppings, but we never saw any actual deer.

The path up to the Culebrita lighthouse presents a couple nice views of the harbors on the north and west sides of the island. We could see where Chateau du Mer finally picked up a mooring ball as well as our own boats back in Tortuga Bay.

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Construction of the lighthouse began in 1882 and it was first lit in 1886. It was one of the oldest operating lighthouses in the US until it was closed in 1975. Currently, the lighthouse is in need of some serious restoration.

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Many of the walls have collapsed, as have the spiral stairs leading up the tower. The area around the lighthouse is also littered with junk. It was definitely worth the hike up the hill to see it, but don’t get your hopes up for some sort of restored historic building that you can tour. However, the view from the ridge is amazing. (My apologies for looking so haggard, shirtless and squinty. Someone took my dry bag without packing my shirt or sunglasses or sunscreen or water!)

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We heard more goats along the trail while we hiked back down to Tortuga Bay, and some members of our group who had lingered back a bit by themselves actually ran across a free goat sex show. Can’t say I was sorry to have missed that because after the hike, stepping back into the cool water felt amazing.

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Mary and I put both our shoes back in the dry bag and left it with crewmates to come back on the dinghy, then we swam back to Caicu.

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After the snorkeling, the swims, and the hike, we were all starving, so Mary cooked up some tacos for lunch, which were immediately devoured.

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Then we did some more snorkeling around the boat with turtles. I also came across a little trunkfish.

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We’d heard one of the best places to find spiny lobster was the reef just around the corner from Tortuga Bay, so several of us loaded up in a dink to head there while another group decided to go hike a few more trails and to check out The Baths.

The reef on the northwest corner of Culebrita was truly fantastic.

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Up to that point it was the best one I’d ever seen. There was also some old ship wreckage mixed in that had become part of the reef.

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I was very curious as to whether or not there was still wine in that bottle.

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As we were oooohhing and awwwing at all the fish, a huge, gray C-130 flew low over Culebrita and circled three times before heading out into the Atlantic. We later learned that the Puerto Rican Air National Guard maintains an entire fleet of C-130s to patrol the area and rescue sinking ships.

After a bit more snorkeling, I finally stumbled across a spiny lobster.

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It doesn’t really translate in the photo, but this lobster was huge. I would estimate the antennae to be three feet long (each, not combined), and it would have taken both of my hands to go around the lobster’s body.

Not a single one of us had ever actually grabbed a lobster before, so there was a lot of floating and staring at it before someone actually gave it a try. Nobody actually managed to grab it, which was probably good since it was as tall or taller than the bucket we had brought to put it in.

Defeated by the monster lobster and still needing to head back to Culebra before sunset, we decided to call it a day.

Meanwhile, Mary and Jayne were soaking in The Baths, which turned out to be pristine tidal pools on the other side of the island.

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We all rendezvoused at the catamarans and headed out to find a mooring in Ensenada Honda, Culebra — billed as the best hurricane hole in the Caribbean.

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As we neared the town of Dewey and civilization, we found the type of boats changed. We actually came across these two flamboyant houseboats in one mooring field.

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We also saw a homebuilt Piver trimaran, a small Gemini cat, and one 25′ sailboat that didn’t even have a mast moored right along all the hard core cruiser sailboats. It seemed living on the water was the cheap alternative in Culebra.

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The mooring fields were full in Ensenada Honda, so motored inward towards the municipal building.

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I’d like to say we were pros at anchoring by now, but as I was lowering the anchor using the remote control, it stuck. It just kept letting out chain. I vigorously tapped the remote with no result and finally pressed the “up” button, which promptly popped the breaker of the windlass.

Now we were stuck with the anchor half out and possibly dragging. I grabbed a winch handle and started trying to psych myself up for the job of having to crank in all that chain by hand while Andy went searching for the breaker box.

Thankfully Andy was able to reset the breaker, I let out some more chain, and we stopped dragging. Andy tried to dive the anchor to make sure it was ok, but the water was so dark we couldn’t see anything.

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Meanwhile Batubara and Chateau du Mer had arrived and dropped anchor as well. The first wave of crew headed to town to buy more booze and to scout the restaurants. The wind had picked up and our crappy dinghy motor made getting out of the shallows and away from the dinghy dock a real fiasco, so there was quite a delay working that situation out and getting the stupid outboard running again before we could go pick up the rest of the crew. (When chartering, never settle for a crappy outboard.)

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Once we were finally all ashore we took a nice walk through the streets of Dewey. While Esperanza had island dogs wandering the streets, Dewey had friendly cats that followed us for a bit before going back to lounging.

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The outstanding night spot seemed to be the Dinghy Dock Restaurant.

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They had tables dockside with lights under the water, illuminating the huge tarpon circling the area, waiting for someone to throw dinner scraps into the water. There was also a fishing bat that would occasionally swoop through and grab things out of the water. The food was great, and it was a really cool atmosphere.

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By the time we finished dinner, I could barely hold my head up. It had been an incredibly fun, but an incredibly long day. We walked back to the dinghy, climbed aboard Caicu, and went straight to bed.

But here’s one more sea turtle picture from our afternoon at Culebrita just because sea turtles are awesome.

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SVI Journal: Day 4, Esperanza, Vieques

Around 2:30 a.m. I couldn’t take the banging any longer.

We’d moved the kayaks around to the starboard side of the boat to give the visiting dinghies access to our transom, but we hadn’t moved them back. Now they were repeatedly banging against the side of the boat right beside our berth.

I got up and re-tied the kayaks to the stern pulpit and went back to bed until the sun was shining into our open hatches.

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It was dead calm but a rough morning. The salon looked like a fraternity house with empty cups, cans and bottles everywhere. We slowly started cleaning up the mess while Andy phoned the captain on call to find out where the air-conditioner breakers were located.

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We reset the main air-conditioner breaker, but then flipped off the breaker for the salon unit. We decided we didn’t need air-conditioning in the salon enough to deal with the mess or electrical problems it was creating.

Being a very calm morning I tried stand-up paddle boarding for the first time. It was much harder than I expected. I’m pretty sure I just looked like a wobbly clown.

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We pulled up anchor and headed southeast along Vieques. We’d been warned several times by the charter company that we were basically going the wrong way, and that it would be a rough sail, but we wanted to visit Bio Bay during the new moon.

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As we rounded Monte Pirata we saw a salty looking boat headed west, but that was the only traffic we came across until we arrived in Esperanza.

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Esperanza, Vieques came with special instructions from the charter company. The first was to call Christine to pay for the mooring ball, which would be $25 per night. Again, when we actually picked up the mooring ball, it also had Christine’s name and number, same as in our charter books, written on fenders in marker attached to the mooring balls. I have no idea of Christine’s last name. Apparently in Vieques you don’t need a last name.

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We called Christine, but we didn’t get to meet her. Instead, a woman named September dinked out to take our cash. We assumed she was working for Christine, but who knows? Either way, she said she lived with her husband on the big catamaran at the edge of the harbor, so if we needed anything, just come find her.

I put on a mask to check the mooring and found that someone had run giant chains across the bottom of the bay and all the mooring balls were connected to those chains, which I assume were secured at each end. It seemed to work.

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Of course, there were three wrecked sailboats clearly visible around the bay. Maybe that’s what happens to people who don’t pay Christine?

Our second instruction from the charter company regarding Esperanza was to lock our dinghies, lock our boats and to make sure that nothing was left on deck to go missing in the night. This admonition made Esperanza feel a bit suspicious from the get-go whether justified or not.

While the girls went to shore to do some shopping, Cade and I went to explore the sunken sailboat. We tied our dinghy off to the spreaders and snorkeled around it for a while. It was fascinating how many species of fish had taken up residence in and around the hull.

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Mary had an interesting time grocery shopping. Thankfully she did not add canned escargot to our meal plan. She and Jayne ran into some of the Vieques wild horses on their way back to the dinghy dock (but didn’t take a photo).

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We did our best to lock up the boat before heading to shore for dinner only to find that the big sliding door on the back of Caicu didn’t actually latch. Sure, you could lock it, but not being latched to anything the door would still slide right open. We did our best to make it LOOK locked and crossed our fingers.

After thoroughly locking up our dinghy we took a stroll up and down El Malecon, or “The Strip”, to check out the junk shops and survey our restaurant options.  Despite having discussed splitting up for dinner, so that we didn’t overwhelm any one restaurant, most of the crew still ended up at Duffy’s for dinner.

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Locals were cruising the strip in beat up cars with loud stereos hoping to be noticed while island dogs happily trotted back and forth between restaurant patios hoping for a handout.

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After dinner some of the group grabbed drinks at Bananas while we waited for the sun to go down then we headed back to the dinghy dock to meet the bus that would take us to Bioluminescent Bay.

While waiting near the street in the dinghy dock parking lot we noticed a guy that sent a young kid, maybe five or six years old, down the dock with a flashlight to check the locks on all the dinghies. Then a few minutes later a car came in, pulled right down to the dock and angled it’s headlights for a view of the dinghies. It saw there a minute or two, then pulled back out and drove off.

Perhaps people were benevolently making sure all the dinghies were secure. And maybe those guys in the car were just looking to see if their friend was ashore. However, it felt pretty suspicious from where we were standing.

A few minutes later an old yellow school bus arrived to pick us up and take us to the Island Adventures Bio Bay headquarters, so we could all pay for our scheduled tours. We had just enough time to grab one drink in the Bio Bar before getting back on the bus and heading to Mosquito Bay.

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There was a time when you could swim in the bay, but these days your only option is to take a guided tour by kayak or aboard an electric pontoon boat. Since we had a crew of 17, and I hoped to get some good photos of the phenomenon, we opted for a private pontoon tour.

We were greeted by a very enthusiastic, pony-tailed docent on a sidewalk covered in phosphorescent spots. He immediately explained the difference between phosphorescence, reflecting light, and bioluminescence, generating light.

Our guide gave us the rundown on the single-celled organisms Pyrodimium Bahamense, the dinoflagellates that give off a blue glow when the water is disturbed. Then we cast off and there was a lot of banging and kicking the boat in an effort to make fish jump, which would resulting in glowing water, but obviously the most intense glow was coming off our propellers on the back of the boat.

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Then the guide went into a long explanation of the lifecycle of mangrove trees, which was kind of interesting, but everyone just wanted a photo of the glowing water. However, the flash photography and lights from the phones was irritating the guide, and he insisted everyone turn off their electronic devices.

I had all my camera equipment aboard, but even with an f1.4 aperture at ISO 3200, I still couldn’t get any sign of the bioluminescence to appear without resorting to long exposures.

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Even when captured in photos, the glow just looks like underwater LED lights, so you lose the magic of the moment. It is really cool when the guides let you put your legs in the water and kick and suddenly it starts glowing around them like magic fairy water. They also did the “bucket challenge” where a volunteer got a bucket of water poured on their head, which glowed as it doused them. That was pretty neat as well.

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Everyone agreed that Bio Bay was worth the experience … once.

We saw more scruffy horses on our way back to the dinghy dock. Our dinks seemed fine, and our boats had not been bothered while we were gone.

Everyone was too tired to party. As soon as they were aboard the boat they headed for bed.

The wind picked up quite a bit during the night, and the cat was rolling enough that I kept having dreams that we were underway.

Exploring the reefs of the Spanish Virgin Islands

I shot just a little bit of video during our week in the SVIs — most of it by accident when my thumb hit the video button while gripping the camera case. I do apologize for my underwater video skills. There’s not really anywhere to practice here in Galveston Bay, and I can’t actually see where the camera is pointed underwater. However, I hope this is still watchable.