On a recent trip to the Oaxaca surf mecca Puerto Escondido, Natasha Hecher musters the courage to jump into a murky swamp to party with luminescent plankton.
PUERTO ESCONDIDO, Mexico – My gumption had abandoned me. Just as I was about to jump into a dark, murky swamp that held magical, sparkly secrets. I have a girly fear of things unseen, but I didn't want to back out. Especially because the six year old behind me was getting eager for her dive.
I'm on a boat on Laguna de Manialtepec on the Pacific Coast of Mexico near the surfing mecca Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca. I am not a surfer, but every year I spend a month here before or after working the ski season in Europe. I am attracted to the aesthetics of the surf, the sunshine, the laid-back lifestyle, the lack of tourists, and the very affordable cost of living. Each time I come back, I discover something new. This time it was swimming in phosphorescence.
Plankton thrive in the lagoon during the rainy season between May and November when the lagoon is connected to the ocean. The combination of fresh water, sea water, and spring water provide pockets of hot and cold which are optimal conditions for breeding. What are not optimal conditions for breeding are humans kicking around your space. When plankton are aggravated, luminescent enzymes are triggered as a defense mechanism. The desired effect may be to look scary and send a warning message, but all humans see is water that looks like fluorescent glitter. Which say is really pretty and really sparkly.
The phosphorescence illuminated what was beneath that dark surface: so many fish. They looked like a trance warehouse party, only instead of glowsticks they were fluro fishies. Nothing too scary. Besides, I figured, if there was a crocodile in the lagoon, at least I would see it coming. I had been assured there wouldn't be, but the lagoon's name derives from the Nahuatl Aztec words manine (lizard) and tepetl (place), so I wasn't convinced. Can you imagine if the last thing you saw was a fluro croc cruising towards you? It wouldn't be a fun way to go. Still, I jumped in, moments before the six year old.
To my horror, I could touch the bottom. My natural reflex was to start kicking, which of course further aggravated the plankton. Multiply this effect by eight (the number of tourists on the boat), and in no time we made a fluorescent Jacuzzi. To avoid touching the bottom again, I took refuge at the boat ladder for a few minutes and thought, "wow, really pretty, and I'm done." But when I lifted myself up the ladder, the glittery water cascading all over me inspired a change of heart. I was no longer a traveler looking for kicks. I was Natasha, Resplendent Swamp Nymph. So I dove back in and pulled myself out again and again, thinking, "Luminous lady in swamp. Luminous swamp nymph."
At the end of the trip, I found myself alone on the boat. I tried to take photos, but my camera could not do justice to the sparkle, to the wonder of it all. I squeezed my bikini top to get the water out. Because it was still filled with irate plankton, my body began twinkling all over. I found myself humming in a low voice while squeezing out what seemed to be a neverending supply of twinkles. Because that is what nymphs do: We sing.
SEE THE GLOW
Tour Operator: organized my trip to the lagoon.
When to Go: The phosphorescence is at its best between late October and mid December.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
We wrote a whole guide: A Few Days in Puerto Escondido