Bioluminescence is the stuff of legends. Seeing living creatures – microscope ones, to boot! – emitting visible light is a legitimately mind-blowing experience. Prior to moving to the Bay Area, I never experienced bioluminescence in person. But it wasn’t long after purchasing our kayaks that we started hearing stories about what it was like to be out on the water, surrounded by the faint glow emitted by plankton living in the seawater. Our friends regaled us with tales of splashing their paddles in the water, creating sparkles across the surface as if the paddle was a magic wand. Before long, my excitement got the better of me, and I knew that I had to experience the bioluminescence for myself!
How to See Bioluminescence in Tomales Bay
The first question was how to experience this marvel! We asked around, did some research on Google, and even contacted Point Reyes National Seashore (at Bear Valley Visitor’s Center) for more detailed information. Most of what we found out was pretty obvious, but there were a few surprises in store. We opted to paddle over to a beach on the Point Reyes Peninsula and camp there, enabling us to have the entire night to experience the mystical glow of the water!
We’ll tackle the most important details categorically below.
Where to go to see Bioluminescence
There are a number of places up and down the California coast where you can experience the glow of bioluminescence. The most powerful light and most well-known locations in the Bay Area are concentrated in and around Point Reyes Seashore and Tomales Bay State Park, both along the Pacific Coastline and within the more sheltered (and safer to paddle) Tomales Bay.
Located about an hour north of downtown San Francisco, Tomales Bay is a very long, narrow inlet of ocean water, framed by Point Reyes Peninsula to the west and the mainland to the east. If you’re driving up from the San Francisco Bay area and you have the extra time, I strongly recommend taking the Pacific Coast Highway (Shoreline Drive) instead of US-101. Not only will you avoid potentially crushing traffic delays, you are going to be absolutely stunned by the natural beauty of what is easily one of the greatest back roads in the country!
I digress. Bioluminescence in the Pacific waters requires impact or strong motion, so that limits where and how you can experience it. Bioluminescence is most plainly visible in two places: in the crashing waves along the coastline, or out on the water in Tomales Bay. The Bay is sheltered enough from the violence of the coastal current that its waves are tiny – often non-existent without wind, actually – so the primary way to experience the natural glow there is to paddle out into it.
Because our experience was in Tomales Bay and in our kayaks, that’s going to be the only topic I cover here.
When to go see Bioluminescence in Tomales Bay
In all seriousness, aside from the obvious answer above, the best time of year to see the bioluminescence in Tomales Bay is during the late summer and early fall. The months from July through October are traditionally when the plankton are the most active, though they can be visible year-round. Conditions of water and weather generally cooperate most during the aforementioned months, not least because the dense fog that the Bay Area is so famous for helps to wipe out most of the minimal ambient light in the area.
In addition, because the plankton put off such a relatively dim light, the best time each month is to go during the 6 day window surrounding the New Moon. As I quickly found out while learning how to take pictures of the night sky, even a relatively small sliver of moonlight can completely wash out the stars in the sky. The same is true of bioluminescence – virtually any light, whether from the moon, from flashlights or headlamps etc, will eliminate your ability to see the light on the water. Thus your best bet is to plan your trip around the New Moon schedule.
On my first attempt kayaking out in the bay at night, at roughly 9pm or so, I did not see any bioluminescence at all. It wasn’t until my second attempt, at roughly 10:30pm, that I witnessed the bioluminescence firsthand. I’m not sure if there’s anything to that timing, but if there’s anything to be learned here, it’s that you should not give up if you don’t see anything at first. Wait another hour or two and try again – and keep your headlamps on red light only! Any green, blue, or white light will ruin your ability to see the bioluminescence.
A quick word of warning for those planning on kayak-in camping on Point Reyes for the bioluminescence:
The beach campsites along the inner shores of Tomales Bay will often book weeks or even months in advance for peak bioluminescence season. So if you’re planning to spend the night out on the Bay, be sure to plan ahead!
How to Camp on Tomales Bay to see the Bioluminescence
Before I dive into the topic of camping on Tomales Bay, there are a few caveats I would like to express upfront:
- This is not going to explain the basics on how to camp, start a campfire, etc. You must be an experienced camper – or be traveling with one – in order to kayak-in camp on Tomales Bay. Most boat-in beach sites are considered dispersed sites, meaning they have no access to any facilities. This is NOT the place to learn the ropes.
- Similarly, this post is not going to explain how to kayak – you and everyone in your group should be experienced kayakers – especially on open, tidal waters – before attempting.
- Unless you are extremely experienced with both skills listed above, do not attempt this alone.
Now that we’ve gotten the unpleasant parts out of the way, let’s dive into the more important information!
Kayak Camping on Tomales Bay
In order to camp on the beach in Tomales Bay, you must first go to the Recreation.gov website in order to reserve your boat-in camping space. This can be quite confusing to do, even if you’re experienced at making National Park camping reservations. There are a few things to know ahead of time before trying to make your reservation:
- How many people will be in your group. Boat-in sites are reserved based on how many people will be using them: 1-6, 7-14, and 15-25. Be sure to pick the correct site listing based on your group!
- When the relevant New Moon dates are. Again, because eliminating ambient light is critical, you’ll need a reservation for the six day window around the New Moon each month. June through October New Moons typically have the highest level of bioluminescence.
- Boat-in campsites are first-come first-serve, even with a reservation. Even though you’ll have a verifiable reservation for your selected dates, you will NOT have a specific campsite reserved for you. Your reservation is only good for the particular size of site, not the exact location of where you’ll be camping. Thus, it’s best to get an early start in order to ensure you get a great spot!
- You are going to need a separate permit if you want to have a fire at your campsite. You can only have fires at beach sites, and you need to have a fire permit in order to burn on the beach at Tomales Bay. You can ONLY get beach fire permits in person, the day of your reservation and BEFORE you leave, at Bear Valley Visitor’s Center. Do not burn anywhere on Point Reyes without a permit, as the fines are very steep.
- Have several headlamps with red light capability. In addition to needing to use red light to prevent night blindness, you absolutely must have at least one headlamp tied to the back of your kayak, canoe, or boat for visibility. The last thing you want is for a boat to hit or swamp you because they didn’t see you in the dark.
A few other critical items to be aware of while preparing for your boat-in adventure:
- If you are kayaking in, you will have very limited space to pack your gear. Be prepared, be organized, and plan ahead. Be sure to have a good multi-tool, a small shovel (I prefer a folding shovel because it can also be used to split small pieces of wood), a WAG bag, TP, hand sanitizer, a gallon of water per day, a bear canister to store food, and a medical kit at the very least. If you are going to have a beach fire, I recommend taking a large bag of kindling only – true chunks of firewood will likely be too heavy for most traditional kayaks.
- The weather in the Bay Area, particularly at the coast, can be unpredictable and is often foggy. Bring as many layers as you can fit on your kayak, and you are almost certainly going to need a completely waterproof outer shell (and tent) to keep you dry. If you get socked in with fog, it will likely also be misting, so you will get pretty damp if you’re not prepared.
- In addition to the fog, you might also battle against strong afternoon winds, plus the incoming (or outgoing) tide. So be prepared for the elements, as they can be quite vindictive along the coast!
- Be sure to have – and leave turned on – some form of light aimed at or inside your tents to illuminate your campsite. The prospect of getting lost out on the water after dark is both very real and very dangerous. Do NOT rely on being able to find your site using your headlamp, NOR on setting and leaving a fire going on the beach. Turn on a bright white headlamp or lantern inside your tent to illuminate it without causing night blindness. Test the visibility of your site – with someone still on shore – from at least 100 yards out to ensure that you can see it from the water. If you can’t see your site, communicate with your friend on shore to navigate back and try alternative options. If having the light inside the tent is too dim, set it up just in front of the tent, aiming towards the tent to illuminate its fabric.
- Even if you’re having a beach fire, bring a portable grill with you. Especially given the unpredictability of the weather, this could be a lifesaver. Having a small portable grill not only gives you flexibility of where and how to cook, it will give you a fallback plan should the weather prevent you from starting a beach fire (or if you can’t get the permit because fire conditions are unsafe, which is common in summer months). Compact Option. Larger Option.
- Shove off as close to 11AM-Noon as possible. As I mentioned above, boat-in campsites are first come first serve, so the earlier start you get, the better chances you’ll have of getting a great spot. Plus, fog rolls in starting relatively early in the afternoon at Tomales Bay, so the earlier you start, the better off (weather-wise) you’ll be. Boat-in sites are not available until noon, and it’s likely going to take you about an hour to boat across the bay. So shove off around 11AM if at all possible – which means arriving at Bear Valley Visitor’s Center when they open – 9:30AM – to give you time to get your permit, drive up to your launch site, and get your kayaks loaded and ready!
- Beach campsites are very limited due to rising high tides! This is a critical point to keep in mind when selecting your site. You might well be kayaking in at low tide, meaning that what looks like a great beach to camp on in the afternoon might leave you scrambling to salvage your gear and potentially pretty waterlogged. Ask the staff at Bear Valley about the tide information – they will show you the tidal charts and give you crucial updates about how high and low to expect the water. In our experience, we were camping on a night where high tides were just close to being a king tide, so they were around 2-3 feet higher than usual. Look for signs on the beach of where the high water line will be. Nature tends to leave clues, so look for kelp, dampness lines, and other signs indicating how high the water will get at high tide.
- If at all possible, find a sheltered beach within a cove. The more that your beach is surrounded by tall hills and trees, the less wind, fog, and precipitation you’ll have to battle. What you should avoid is a site that has any sort of valley or gully opening from the west – this can create a wind tunnel that funnels powerful gusts directly through your site. Avoid this at all costs! Do your best to camp so that you have a hill and/or tall trees behind your site.
Even though Tomales Bay is only roughly one mile wide, you will be battling against the ever-changing current, paddling a heavily-laden boat and potentially fighting against rough winds and choppy seas. You need to be a strong, experienced paddler to attempt to camp on Tomales Bay. Mother Nature can be quite unforgiving – do not give her any opportunities to ruin your experience by going unprepared!
Check the NPS website for updates, information and closures before you go. If no one in your group has camped on Tomales Bay before, please be sure to ask the staff at Bear Valley to give you a map and show you where you can and cannot camp. It can be confusing once you’re out on the water, so be sure to study the map ahead of time to know where you want to go!
What Does the Bioluminescence Look Like on Tomales Bay?
Be prepared to have your mind blown.
Sadly, I will not be able to show you what it looked like to us that night. We tried several different techniques, but could not manage to get the bioluminescence to show up, neither in pictures nor video. So you’ll just have to get out there and see it for yourself. In a way, I’m glad for this, because any photos or videos we managed would not nearly capture the insanity of witnessing – and creating – bioluminescence firsthand.
That said, it’s well worth the intense effort you’re likely going to put into experiencing it.
Though many other write-ups describe the bioluminescence as being light blue, what we saw that night was more yellow in color. Its glow was very reminiscent of highlighter ink illuminated by a black light. The more motion there was on the surface of the water, the brighter and more visible it was. When kayaking, the wake of our boats would light up, as would the water disturbed by the ends of our paddles. We spent a lot of time just splashing around, making different patterns and shapes in the water with the ends of our paddles. If you skimmed the top of the water just right, it created a wild sparkling effect that reminded me of Tinkerbell’s Pixie Dust.
If you have any questions, you can always feel free to email me! I’m happy to help you explore and experience the magic of California and Bay Area. I hope that you enjoy your time out on the water, and wish you the best of luck in witnessing bioluminescence!