In the Caribbean, there are a few such bioluminescent bays or lagoons that glow year-round: three in Puerto Rico, one in St. Croix, one in Jamaica, and one in the Cayman Islands. That this combination of unlikely, astounding factors comes together to create a perennial nursery for a diverse community—fish, mollusks, birds, insects, reptiles, and more—is remarkable. Bioluminescent bays are vastly understudied, says Michael Latz, a research biologist at the University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. But they shouldn’t be.
“They’re excellent natural laboratories to look at ecosystem competition, the effect of nutrients, and the impact of environmental conditions,” he says. “Why are they so successful? It’s a scientific mystery. We don’t have the full answer.”
Embedded in the mystery of bioluminescent bays is their extraordinary resilience. Hurricane Maria tore through both Laguna Grande (the bioluminescent lagoon at Cabezas de San Juan) and Mosquito Bay, on the nearby little island of Vieques. But nature varies in its resilience, as people do—as such, Mosquito Bay and Laguna Grande responded differently to Hurricane Maria.
“The lagoon is a fresh book to read,” she says. “Sometimes you can have bioluminescence when the conditions are not supposed to be good for it. And sometimes you have the good conditions but you don’t have bioluminescence.” Biologists hope to figure out how and why these anomalies occur. What do these strange and beautiful phenomena have to teach us about the dynamics of tropical ecosystems, and just how resilient are they? Scientists are still on the hunt for answers, but one thing’s certain: It’s hardship that brings to life nature’s capacity to repair and renew.
So what I've learned today is the following: