Swimming with bioluminescent plankton in Cambodia

Cambodia is one of the few places on earth where you can see, and swim with, bioluminescent plankton.

You may have seen the phenomenon visualised in the movies The Beach, Avatar and Life of Pi. Most of the pictures we had seen on the internet showed the plankton glowing blue, but we saw white sparkles, a bit like fire flies or Christmas tree lights in the water.

We booked our trip from a café on Otres Beach I in Sihanoukville. The tickets cost $9 each for a joint tour but when we arrived at the pick-up point, it soon became clear that they hadn’t sold any other tickets. They wanted us to pay double for a private tour and then marched us up and down the beach trying to find another tour company to take us when we refused! Eventually they found a fisherman willing to take us out on his long-tail boat.

We were taken a short distance to what looked to be a private island. We anchored close to the shore and had the opportunity to go snorkelling if we wanted. The water looked oily and I hate snorkelling at the best of times, so we declined, and opted for fishing instead.

I had never been fishing before and it was surprisingly enjoyable. The fishing rod the boatman had brought with him was jammed so he made some makeshift rods out of a plastic bottle, reel and hook and he chopped up squid to use as bait. You basically dangled the hook into the water and all sorts of fish appeared: sergeant majors and other exotic, but small, fish. Basically, I was just feeding them as they swam up, grabbed the squid and disappeared. I didn’t catch any, but I was happy about that. My husband caught a couple of fish but they definitely had the upper hand!

The sun set and literally as soon as it got dark, the fish disappeared. We waited another 30 minutes and then looked in the water for the bioluminescent plankton. At first, I kept thinking I could see something sparkle in the water. It was close to where the ladder went into the sea and it happened every time the boat rocked (obviously disturbing the plankton). I called my husband over and we put our hands in and splashed about, and then we saw them! It was truly magical. Every time you put your hands in the water, there was a shower of white sparks.

I decided to brave the sea at night and got in with them. I felt like a mermaid! I clung on to the ladder and moved my arms and legs and every time I did the plankton glittered. It was one of those experiences you can’t really capture in words on in a photograph. We had so much fun watching them and playing in the water.

It was a little bit scary being in the sea at night as the water was pitch black and you couldn’t see what’s underneath you. I kept seeing a white blob which I was a bit concerned about (are there sharks in Cambodian waters?) and touching things in the water that could have been jellyfish, but was more likely litter, so I came out after a bit. Apparently, the plankton can bite you, and I had experienced that during the day, but I didn’t feel anything that night, apart from sheer elation.

Eventually, and reluctantly, we turned around and headed back to shore. As we moved through the water, we could see the plankton deliver waves of bioluminescence. It was probably the best effect as we ploughed through the dark waters (most of the fishing boats didn’t have lights). We had to wade through the sea to get to the shore and felt a bit like aliens emerging from the water into the bright lights of the beach-front restaurants and bars.

We took a risk and walked back to Otres Village along the deserted and pitch-black shore. We saw more plankton in the sea as we walked, kicking up the waters. It wasn’t as impressive as it was when you were out at sea, but it’s amazing that it was there on the shore and yet hardly anyone was out and about looking for it. As we got to the village, it disappeared.

I recently had the opportunity to swim with bioluminescent plankton again in Krabi, Thailand, but it wasn’t a patch on the experience I had in Cambodia.

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