My SCUBA diver instructor Captain Cachi checks my gear one last time, and we start slowly descending into the waves of La Parguera Bay in Puerto Rico. This is my first dive ever, and I’m both thrilled and nervous. I have done the basic diving exercises a few dozen times while still on the boat: Learning how to blow water from inside my mask, how to put the mouthpiece back on should I accidentally let it go, how to equalize the pressure in my ears as we descend—but doing so underwater is a different story altogether. As I sink beneath the ocean surface, leaving the air world behind and entering the underwater one, I instinctively hold my breath. Cachi points to my mouthpiece, instructing me to inhale. “Breathe!” he motions in silent language—and I finally start gulping the air, just as we become fully submerged. I look up and see the ocean surface of La Parguera Bay quivering above me—a mind-boggling sight I’ve never experienced before.
Once winter arrives in North America, people will once again flock to Puerto Rico for warm weather and holiday escapes. Most of them will get off the plane in the capital of San Juan, catch a cab to a nearby beachfront hotel, and stay for the duration. Some will venture out on rainforest tours, horseback riding, or snorkeling adventures, and then come back to San Juan. The rest of the island’s 3500 square miles of empty beaches, lush rainforest, towering mountains, and wildlife refuges, remain off their radar. So do the bioluminescent bays—bodies of water that glow in the dark, thanks to a natural phenomenon. There are only a few such unique places on the entire planet and Puerto Rico has three bioluminescent bays with only one you can take a boat to and swim in: The bioluminescent bay at La Parguera. One of Puerto Rico’s districts, La Parguera sits in the southwest corner of this vibrant tropical island, two hours away by car from its packed, touristy capital. Another big reason to escape there this holiday season—avoiding San Juan’s crowds.
Most importantly, La Parguera’s bay is the only place where I can swim in the mysterious bioluminescence, so getting here is well worth the two-hour drive. So is my SCUBA lesson with Cachi of Paradise SCUBA and Snorkeling, a local La Parguera company—he’s been doing this for 30 years. As we glide over the coral formations, Cachi points out some of its inhabitants. We can’t speak—only point and tap. The colorful underwater world undulates around me in slow motion, so tantalizing and mystifying that I lose track of time. As I chase a small school of fish, brush against velvety plants and touch sea stars, I start feeling like a marine creature myself. When we emerge an hour later, I can’t wait to dive back. But we have to eat first before embarking on our twilight adventure.
By the time we come back to shore, we are starving. We have just about enough time to grab a late lunch at Moons Bar & Tapas, feasting on the freshest seafood. After that, we board the boat again and literally sail off into the sunset. On the way, Cachi explains the origins of the bioluminescent phenomenon. The light is emitted by the microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates found throughout the ocean. When present in high concentrations and agitated by movement, they produce enough visible light, which in the dark looks like a surreal glow. Cachi descriptions don’t disappoint: When I jump off the boat into the black ocean waves in complete darkness, save for the faint moon twinkle, the water around me immediately lights up in golden streaks. The harder I paddle, the brighter it glows. I feel like a mermaid lighting up a Christmas tree underwater. Or decorating the ocean for the holiday season. Or setting off celebratory fireworks. What an antidote to the cold and snowy North American winter. And best season’s greetings ever.
When I finally get to my bed inside the Combate Beach Resort in Cabo Rojo, a nearby region of Puerto Rico, I fall asleep instantly, exhausted from my marine adventures. But the ocean’s magic stays with me. In my dream, I see corals, fish, and dinoflagellates. And myself, too—a mermaid setting the waves aglow for the holiday season.