Swimming In Stars

May 2, 2017

When I was visiting my son on Vashon Island, in the Puget Sound, he told me one evening that we were going on an adventure (unspecified) and that I should dress, for instance, as though for canoeing: a bathing suit, maybe, but something warm, too. The directions were vague, and, anyway, when we got in the car, the canoe wasn’t with us. He couldn’t mean I would be swimming, could he, not at that hour, not in the Puget Sound? Walking in the starlight? Then why the swimsuit? It was all very mysterious.

It was like creating Van Gogh's starry sky with a sweep of my arms or conducting a silent orchestra with Tinkerbell's wand.

Just at the edge of dark we parked at a beach on Quartermaster Harbor and walked up the driveway of Fat Cat Paddle Boards. There I learned the nature of the adventure: we would paddle into the bay to see the bioluminescence of the Puget Sound—the emission of light by otherwise invisible marine organisms. 

I tugged myself excitedly into the wetsuit I was given, then followed Ela, four other adventurers, and Reed, our guide, down to the beach, where we climbed onto our paddle boards and paddled, under a dark sky and over black-mirror water, into the bay.

Lights of a few houses glowed in the distance. Occasionally the beam from a car’s headlights glinted beyond the bay. A small yacht lay at anchor in front of us, barely visible in the dark, barely rocking in the windless sea. Scattered stars shone between hazy clouds. Seven silhouettes of stand-up paddlers drifted slowly over the dark water.

Reed told us to swish our paddles in the water. When I did, I gasped. Hundreds of tiny sparks swirled around my paddle. I was enchanted, but when Reed said, “The real thrill is to be in the water,” I slipped immediately off the board into the darkness below me, where I found the real enchantment.

I swirled my arms, and bioluminescence swirled like sparks. I kicked my feet, and the sea lit up as though I had disturbed a nest of lightning bugs. It was like swimming through stars. It was like kicking sparks from burning logs. It was like creating Van Gogh’s starry sky with a sweep of my arms or conducting a silent orchestra with Tinkerbell’s wand: music transformed into light. I kept my begoggled face underwater to see the lights more sharply. When I stopped kicking and came up for breath, everything went as dark underwater as the sky overhead. I did surface dives, swirled my arms, kicked my feet, marched in place, conducted my silent orchestra, swam through galaxies, fireworks, twinkling lights by the millions, and brilliantly glowing, billowing, underwater clouds. 

I have had many spectacular swims—in the full moon in Maneaten Lake, in the tannic-acid-brown Manatee River at midnight in Florida, with icebergs in Yosemite, with whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez, at 11,892 feet in the high Sierra, for half an hour in the azure waters of Crater Lake, at sunrise and sunset and every hour in between on both sides—but the most magical swim of all was that bioluminescent swim in underwater galaxies in the Puget Sound.

Diana Coogle has lived in the mountains above the Applegate River for 45 years. Her new book, Wisdom of the Heart—essays written to accompany paintings by Applegate artist Barbara Kostal—is available in local bookstores or from dicoog@gmail.com.