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Bioluminescence Kayaking in the Bay Area: A Complete Guide

Last Updated on January 12, 2024 by Jess Grigsby

In This Article

bioluminescence kayaking bay area

Imagine paddling along the glassy water. The sun has set, and every dip of your paddle creates an ethereal blue-green glow from the seasonal marine bioluminescence below.

It’s a breathtaking experience that makes it possible to experience the Bay Area in an entirely new way. 

Here at Kayak Connection, we offer guided bioluminescence tours in the Elkhorn Slough. These tours allow people to enjoy an unforgettable evening on the water, right in the middle of one of nature’s greatest wonders.

In this blog, we’ll break down everything you need to know about these tours, the phenomenon of bioluminescence, and how to prepare for your starlight bioluminescence paddle. 

What is Bioluminescence? 

bioluminescence in the ocean
Bioluminescence blue glow from marine algae is activated when there is movement in the water at Woy Woy Waterfront on the Central Coast of NSW, Australia.

Bioluminescence is a stunning natural phenomenon. Classified as the production and emission of light by living organisms, bioluminescence illuminates the environment in which it occurs.

If you’ve ever seen a firefly, you’ve seen an example of bioluminescence.

The stunning light show doesn’t just occur on land; many forms of life – from bacteria to sharks – include some members capable of bioluminescence. 

Of the creatures that use bioluminescence, most do so to warn or avoid predators, lure or detect their prey, or communicate with other members of their species. 

What Causes Bioluminescence in the Ocean? 

In the ocean, bioluminescence is a type of heatless light generated by various marine organisms through complex chemical reactions. 

Present in a wide variety of life – from bacteria to large squid – bioluminescence occurs when a creature emits a flavin pigment known as luciferin. The pigment is then oxidized by an enzyme known as luciferase.

The light that results from marine bioluminescence tends to be blue-green. This is because, in the electromagnetic spectrum, blue-green light is near the point of maximum transmission for seawater, which makes it highly visible for most deep-sea organisms. 

While many creatures are capable of bioluminescence, most marine bioluminescence is caused by phytoplankton like Noctiluca scintillans or jellyfish. 

Why is Kayaking the Best Way to See Bioluminescence in the Bay Area? 

If you want to see bioluminescence in the San Francisco Bay Area, kayaking is the best way to get out there and experience it.

This is because most marine bioluminescence is triggered by motion or disturbance.

As you move along, the blade of your paddle and the hull of your kayak gently stir up the water, causing phytoplankton such as dinoflagellates to activate and emit their signature blue-green glow. 

When this happens, sitting above the surface of the water in a kayak allows you to look down at the ethereal, beautiful glow and appreciate it fully. 

What is the Best Place to Go Bioluminescence Kayaking in the San Francisco Bay Area?

kayaking bioluminescence elkhorn slough, california

Where are the best places to see bioluminescence in the Bay Area? We recommend checking out these destinations:

1. Elkhorn Slough at Moss Landing 

Elkhorn Slough at Moss Landing is THE place to be if you want to experience bioluminescence.

Thanks to its proximity to the Monterey Submarine Canyon, the Slough is home to a wide variety of wildlife, which means that kayaking through it is a true immersion in one of nature’s most diverse ecosystems.

This Monterey Submarine Canyon exceeds the Grand Canyon in terms of depth and complexity and provides ample nutrients that fuel the food chain and ensure a rich biodiversity in the Slough. 

Elkhorn Slough also harbors bioluminescent algae like Noctiluca scintilllians, which generate an incredible blue-green light at certain times of the year. The Slough is also perfect for beginning kayakers thanks to its protected, sheltered setting.

At Kayak Connection, our team has guided bioluminescence tours in Elkhorn Slough for years – in fact we’re the outfitter that’s been operating longest in the area. Join us from June-October to experience the shimmering bioluminescent waters of the slough and finish the evening with some comforting hot chocolate. 

Explore the Slough! Book your bioluminescence tour today!

2. Tomales Bay 

Tomales Bay is a hotspot for bioluminescence. A narrow inlet that’s about 15 miles long, Tomales Bay separates Point Reyes and the Marin Coastline.

The area is home to abundant wildlife, including shorebirds, elephant seals, and migratory gray whales.

Thanks to low ambient light, the bioluminescence here can really shine, and it’s a great spot to see the phenomena.

The conditions in the Bay can vary, however, and, like all water destinations, is subject to environmental conditions like weather and tide. 

Be sure to talk to an experienced kayak expert, like the guides at Kayak Connection, before you hit the water. 

Your San Francisco Bay Area Bioluminescence Tour Itinerary

bioluminescent plankton

You’ve booked a bioluminescence tour with Kayak Connection in Elkhorn Slough, and you’re excited. Now, you’re just wondering what to expect. 

We’re the originators of the bioluminescence tours! We provide a 3-hour tour, including gear-up, which equals about 2.5 hours on the water.

Here’s a brief breakdown of what your tour will look like:

Start Time: 1 Hour Before Sunset

At Kayak Connection, we like to get you out on the water while the marine animals are still active. 

Starting an hour before sunset ensures we’ll have enough daylight to see plenty of harbor seals, sea otters, and seabirds. There’s always lots of invertebrate life just under the surface that your guide will be able to point out, as well.

In this way, you’re getting a 2-for-1 tour: a sunset tour that also allows you to experience the wonder of the Slough at night. 

Cruising Through Elkhorn Slough

The first part of the bioluminescence tour involves cruising through Elkhorn Slough as the sun starts to set. We’ll see lots of active marine life during this period. 

As night descends, we gradually make our way back to the docks. At dusk, you’ll begin to see bioluminescence created by phytoplankton. 

As you dip your paddle into the water, the blue-green light of the bioluminescence will follow it, creating a truly magical experience. 

Streams of light also follow seals and fish that swim beneath your kayak. 

Of course, nature is unpredictable, so you never know what you’ll get. Sometimes you might see a lot of bioluminescence, and sometimes a bit less.

No matter what, though, you can expect an immersive, memorable experience. Glassy water, exclusive access to nature, and no crowds combine to create a serene tour you’ll be sure to remember for years to come. 

As you paddle along, your guide will share their knowledge about the phenomena of bioluminescence, the importance of sea otters, and the interconnectedness of everything in the Slough, which is one of the richest wetlands on the planet. 

Important FAQs

1. What time of year does bioluminescence occur in California? 

The best time to see bioluminescence is in the months between June-October. The phytoplankton is most active during these times, and the light they emit tends to be the brightest, typically peaking in the late summer/early fall. 

2. What should I wear when bioluminescence kayaking in the Bay Area?

Any time you hit the water, whether kayaking, paddle boarding, or fishing, it’s essential to dress for the elements. 

Depending on the time of year and the temperature, we recommend wearing a swimsuit, board shorts, and a long or short-sleeved rash guard or polypro top. 

Since nights do tend to be a little chilly, you should also layer a fleece jacket and/or a shell on top to keep you warm. 

You’ll wear a personal flotation device (PFD) over your layers and use a light on your boat to ensure visibility.

3. What should I bring on my bioluminescence kayaking tour?

When you book your tour, our team will ensure you have all the gear you need, including a kayak, paddle, and PFD. 

To keep yourself comfortable on tour, we recommend you bring a spare change of clothes for once the tour is over, snacks and water, and Dramamine or motion sickness bands if you tend to get seasick.

You’ll also want to bring a headlamp and anything else you think will keep you comfortable on the water. 

4. What can I expect during my tour? 

While the Slough is a dynamic and (sometimes) busy place during the day, it calms down at night. 

Kayaking at sunset ensures glassy water conditions, no crowds, and a relaxed opportunity to see wildlife. 

Temperatures can be a bit chillier at night, and you’ll want to dress accordingly. 

5. How do I book my bioluminescence tour?  

Easy! Just visit our booking calendar here. 

6. How many people can go on the tour at a time?

Have a group you want to hit the water with? Bring them along! Our starlight bioluminescence tour can accommodate up to 24 people at a time. 

7. How does Elkhorn Slough compare to Tomales Bay?

When it comes to Tomales Bay, bioluminescence can be a little more prevalent just because the area gets less flushed by the tides. 

Still, Elkhorn Slough offers a more complete tour experience because you’ll also get to see wildlife. We have the world’s largest population of southern sea otters in Elkhorn Slough, lots of harbor seals, and dozens of species of sea birds to enjoy. 

In fact, Elkhorn Slough is one of the Audubon Society’s top 10 birding destinations!

8. Is this tour beginner-friendly?

Yes. We have our most experienced guides on these tours, and you can trust them to guide an enjoyable and educational tour – even after dark! 

Beginning kayakers are welcome, but we ask that all participants be over 15 years old and reasonably comfortable with the water. This helps ensure a positive experience for everyone! 

Book Your Bioluminescence Tour in Elkhorn Slough Today!

Don’t miss your chance to experience one of nature’s greatest wonders – marine bioluminescence.

Here at Kayak Connection, we offer leading bioluminescence tours in Elkhorn Slough from June through October. Participate in the magic of Elkhorn Slough at night and enjoy an experience you won’t ever forget.

Book your bioluminescence tour in Elkhorn Slough today! Click here to make an online reservation.

Author: Jess Grigsby

Since 2012, Jess has co-owned and operated Kayak Connection together with her husband Dave. She is a lawyer, coach, avid kayak enthusiast and mother of two teenage girls. At Kayak Connection, Jess oversees a team of experienced kayak guides who are all CPR certified, with many holding advanced Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certifications. Our team is composed of environmental educators, naturalists and classroom teachers with experience working with all kinds of visitors, from school groups to large corporate teams.