26 August 2010
Cynthia Paulson, Wakulla September Coastline
It is quite obvious why visitors are drawn to vacation along the Forgotten Coast. I would venture to guess, however, that many of our visitors are not aware of the amazing natural shows of light that can be seen here. Our geography offers the ideal conditions favorable to create such diverse light phenomena. The daily shows may change from season to season and vary slightly according to venue, but each and every performance has potential to make a stellar mark. If you happen to be in the right place at the right time, you might even be fortunate enough to witness several happening together. You just never know. No two shows are ever the same. Be sure to bring your camera.
I had been excitedly anticipating one such performance this particular evening ever since receiving the invitation from my friend, Robert Seidler. Robert and I are connected through our relationship as certified green guides. Certified green guides have undergone a rigorous 90 hour training program through the Ecotourism Institute of Tallahassee Community College and are prepared to lead guests on a variety of nature and heritage tours. Tonight Robert was hosting a group of fellow green guides on an ocean kayak tour into the night which promised to be especially spectacular.
All afternoon had been stormy with eruptions of bright lightning sporadically streaking the overcast sky. Thunderstorms are an almost daily occurrence during our hot, humid Florida summers and caused by the rapid upward movement of warm moist air as it connects with the cooler air above. A healthy respect for lightning has replaced my childhood fear, and I have grown to truly appreciate the beautiful power and magnificence of a lightning storm. Most often the afternoon thunderstorms disappear as quickly as they arrive, but on this day they lingered. I knew the dense clouds still covering the sky would obscure any chance to catch a brilliant sunset as I had hoped.
I have seen my share of Florida sunsets, but I never tire of watching the sky fill with vibrant hues and dazzling color – the yellows, oranges and reds, the pinks, blues, and purples of varying degree - as the sun sinks lower toward the horizon and prepares to drop behind the earth. It is a calming transition between day and night, connecting daylight to darkness. If you watch the sun set over water, in the second or two directly at the sunset point, you may be lucky enough to glimpse the mysterious “green flash.” This does truly happen because I have seen it myself. And even though I know it is really a mirage, because the green flash phenomenon is so elusive, to actually witness one seems magical. But this was not to be one of those times.
Tonight was the predicted peak of the annual Perseids meteor shower and since the moon was close to new and the moonlight dim, the night sky could seize the extra darkness to enhance the celestial show. The Perseids meteor shower happens every summer. It is associated with the comet Swift-Tuttle which leaves behind a trail of dust and gravel each time it passes though our part of the solar system. When the specks of debris from outer space connect with our atmosphere, they disintegrate into flashes of light. These meteors, some with astoundingly long pronounced tails, can shoot across the sky at a rate of one every minute at the height of the shower. Aptly named the Perseids, they appear to radiate from the constellation of the mythical Greek hero, Perseus. If you ever have a ringside seat from which to watch this incredible meteor fireworks display, you will certainly want to return every year.
Now the sky begins to darken signaling our approach into the night. The afternoon storm has moved off shore. The distant sky faintly flickers with intermittent bursts of soft light. There is something soothing about watching heat lightning, the way it illuminates the far night sky in unpredictable gentle bursts. Just a few days earlier as I flew through the darkness, I watched an exceptionally stunning performance as I sat mesmerized behind the thick glass of my window seat. A heat lightning storm far out at sea puts on an impressive show as well. If you have ever watched one yourself, I am sure you know what I mean.
As we loaded and secured the boat in preparation for our nighttime tour, suddenly I noticed the surrounding woods beginning to fill with the tiny blinking lights of fireflies. How many of us used to pretend on the warm nights we played in the spring and summer, that our woods were alive with hundreds of dancing fairies? Fireflies or lightning bugs seem to evoke a universal sense of wonder and enchantment. This small little insect creates its big light through a phenomenon known as bioluminescence, meaning “living light.” Most bioluminescence occurs in the ocean and most creatures above the sea do not have the ability to produce light. Fireflies are one of the few that can, so they really are somewhat magical after all.
Bioluminescence is a form of luminescence or “cold light” that an organism produces within itself. The bioluminescence that can be seen on the ocean surface is made mostly by tiny creatures called dinoflagellates. For a few months during the warmest parts of the year, they can be visible in large amounts creating spectacular displays. Dinoflagellates respond with brilliant blue-green flashes that scatter when they are disturbed with any motion. The result is an incredible light show like no other. Tonight, this is the show we are seeking.
The moment we cross the Ochlockonee Bridge, we can easily see the clouds swirling about over the area where we are headed. By the time the entire group assembles on the beach at Lanark, the wind has picked up and waves are crashing with glowing sparks of light as far as the eye can see. The sky is clear and the stars are sparkling brightly against the blackness. Only the hardiest will attempt the mile paddle across to the Lanark Reef. Trails of exploding shimmering light follow each boat and every stroke of the paddle creates underwater fireworks as the group moves through the darkness. The roar of the wind is deafening, the darkness blinding. The air is charged with energy so intense all one can do is just grab it and hold on. It is a night everyone there will remember.
The next morning, Robert basks in the afterglow of the amazing experience and his astounding reunion with the sea and sky the night before. A full descriptive account is better left to one’s own imagination, but a scene straight from the movie, Avatar, perhaps comes close. “Waves were breaking fire, stars were flying…” Robert trails off, “words just can’t do it.” It was one of those times you simply had to be there.
Even though our fantastic light shows may not be the primary draw to Wakulla County and the Forgotten Coast, they can be an exciting, sometimes serendipitous side attraction. Through the cooler months of fall and winter, bioluminescent jellyfish often congregate in our area waters providing their own unique glistening light show in the darkness. And stargazing along the shoreline in the still crystal night of the winter months is my favorite time. Show time can start at any time, and it is always the right time, because you never know what wonders you may see. A standing ovation and hats off to Mother Nature!
Registration is now underway for individual classes and field trips, or the full 90 hour course of the Green Guide Certification program. Classes begin September 20 and continue through December. Contact the TCC Wakulla Center, 850-922-6290 or www.tcc.fl.edu for more information.