This column was first published August 12, 2006

Wasn’t last weekend a gem? I had the opportunity to spend most of it on the salt water, and I took advantage of it by paddling old familiar waters and exploring some new.

Friday evening I visited paddling friend Karen Francoeur in Castine, accompanying her on a “phosphorescence tour” with Castine Kayak Adventures, checking out the resident dinoflagellate population. I’ve told you before about these amazing micro-organisms that emit a blue-green light when disrupted or disturbed by the movement of a paddle or boat on the water. Even moving your hands through the water will set them to glowing for an instant.

When they’re really “in bloom” and you sweep your paddle down through the water, the whole length of the shaft and blade can trace a magical glow reminiscent of an eerie, sparkling Milky Way. It’s awe inspiring to say the least. Once you see it, you’ll want more. Everyone I go out with on these forays has the same reaction – they ooh and aw incessantly, it can’t be helped!

Our phosphorescence tour on Friday night was made even more awesome by an electrical display in the heavens. As we neared Hatch’s Cove where the lights of town fade and make viewing dinoflagellates better, the northern sky began to light up. I later learned the storm was north of Bangor, more than 40 miles away. We had clear skies, but to the north a large cloud bank would light up, often sequentially from west to east, from lightning within it. Tall white, billowy cumulus clouds would be silhouetted by the brilliant flashes behind them.

And making it even more fascinating was a brilliant moon lighting up the sky behind us. As we drifted in the dark and stirred the water with our paddles the phosphorescence would glow beneath us, the sky to the north would explode sporadically with lightning while the moon glowed over our shoulders. What more of a light show could you ask for?

Here’s a little bit I stole from the Web to tell you something about these wondrous critters. “Dinoflagellates are tiny plants which live in the sea and obtain energy from sunlight during the day. In darkness, they emit bright blue light in response to movement within the water. The mechanism of luminescence is regulated by activity of enzymes (luciferases) upon luminescent proteins (luciferins) and requires oxygen.

“The ability to produce luminescence is strictly dependent upon the day/light cycle. In a 12-hour light/12-hour dark cycle, dinoflagellates will only flash brightly during the dark phase. Light emitted is brightest after several hours of darkness. Early in the morning, glowing activity is reduced and they no longer luminesce upon shaking. During the day, the dinoflagellates appear as ellipse-shaped cells, pigmented red, indicating the presence of chlorophyll, which enables photosynthesis to occur so they may harvest light from the sun.

“The luminescence is transient and the cells soon return to their resting state. Most cells flash for less than a second, however others appear to glow for 1-6 seconds. Upon repeated stimulation, light emission is much reduced and the lux-system becomes ‘saturated.’ Within about half an hour of rest, the luminescence becomes brighter again.”

In a dozen or more trips out at night to watch these critters, I’ve never seen them glow for more than a second. Usually the glow is shorter than a firefly’s. I know this because one night we were in Hatch’s Cove near the shore where there was a stand of tall sea grass. Fireflies were doing their thing above the water while we agitated the water to get the bioluminescence going and could compare the two.

The icing on the cake for me Friday night was the break in the heat and humidity from earlier in the week. I felt like I was in heaven.

Saturday dawned clear, cool, and dry with the promise of a true Down East summer day. Castine Harbor was calm most of the day with a breeze picking up later in the afternoon. The outgoing tide provided a great opportunity to paddle through the shipwreck of the Gardner G. Deering in Smith Cove and explore the low tide line. The Deering was built in 1903 at Bath and abandoned in Smith Cove in the 1930s and was partially burned. Today all that remains are some of the starboard ribs and the wood structure that was below the waterline. She was a five-masted schooner of 251 feet in length, 44 feet in width, and she drew 25 feet.

Sunny Sunday exploration

Sunday morning, while sipping coffee and catching up on the weekend paper, I got a call from my buddy Robert Causey, who had the day free and was looking to do some paddling as well as exploring.

We discussed several possibilities – fresh water vs. salt, lakes vs. ocean, north vs. south, etc. – and settled on the Hancock County coastline. We agreed to make a final decision once we were in the area – the tide and launch sites being key factors. A beach launch site at East Sullivan proved a bit muddy and the ramp at Sullivan looked a bit uninviting so we opted for Sorrento.

This harbor is one of the prettiest ones around. As for the view looking across to Mount Desert Island, well, there’s nothing better. We unloaded the boats on the stone beach, parked, outfitted the boats and hit the water.

It hadn’t been more than a minute or two when an approaching paddler waved and said hi. It was Mindy Rice followed by her husband John, Bangor friends we’ve paddled with on occasion. They were just winding up a day on the water and we rafted up and talked while we bobbed amongst the moored sailboats. It was a pleasant surprise to see them again.

After a fashion we bid adieu and paddled out of the harbor, deciding after clearing Dram Island we’d head west. A large island between Sorrento and Hancock Point beckoned. Had I remembered to put my chart case on deck, I’d have known it was Bean Island. Off we went.

Wind out of the southwest pushing over our left shoulders kicked up some medium-sized waves until we surfed around the western end of the island and into the millpond smooth northern lee side. Several motor boats and a sailboat swayed gently at anchor. Bean Island is privately owned.

After a brief rest in the lee, we headed back across the channel toward Sorrento’s Back Cove and explored some more. In the meantime, the wind kicked up out of the south and combined with the incoming tide to make for some interesting waves. We took the opportunity to head out into open water outside Dram Island to play a bit before heading back into Sorrento Harbor.

In all we’d only covered a little more than five miles, but we decided our next trip here would involve more exploration of Sullivan Harbor.

Mark your calendar

I heard from Theresa Torrent-Ellis at the State Planning Office the other day. She wants you to know that the 20th annual celebration of Maine’s coast — Coastweek — will be held Sept. 16-23. Coastweek 2006 begins with the popular Coastal Cleanup on Sept. 16. Each year more than 2,000 volunteers clean up Maine’s beaches and shorelines and conduct underwater cleanups at Maine’s ports.

Volunteers record their findings to identify sources of litter and help the Coastal Program with prevention and reduction efforts. “This is one of Maine’s largest and most successful volunteer events,” Torrent-Ellis said. She is Maine’s Cleanup coordinator.

“In 2005, 2,670 volunteers fanned out over 111 miles of Maine’s coastline, taking more than 8 tons of trash with them. Besides being unsightly on Maine’s beautiful coastline,” said Torrent-Ellis, “trash in our coastal waters is dangerous to fish and wildlife, threatens our high quality coastal habitats, and damages boats and engines.”

Gov. John Baldacci lent his support for the annual effort saying, “I encourage people young and old to join this year’s Maine Coastweek efforts.”

Maine’s Coastweek is part of an international effort including 127 nations to keep trash out of our oceans. John Phillips, director of the New England Office of the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that coordinates international cleanup efforts, said, “Over the 20 years we’ve been sponsoring cleanups, 6.2 million volunteers across the globe have removed a grand total of 109 million pounds of debris from the world’s beaches and waterways.”

Much of the debris in the ocean is plastic. Plastic does not decompose but rather, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces – in sizes that are easy for fish and wildlife to ingest. “The threat from plastic pollution in the ocean is not yet well understood,” said Torrent-Ellis, “but it could prove to be a substantial source of toxic contamination for marine life.”

She cited studies in California (www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Synthetic-Sea-Moore.htm and Plastic Debris, Rivers to Sea Project – California Coastal Commission), bits and pieces of plastic actually outnumber phytoplankton – microscopic floating plants that are the most important food source for marine life.

If you’re interested in helping to clean up the coastal beaches and waterways during Coastweek 2006 or to coordinate a coastal cleanup, visit the Maine Coastal Program’s Coastweek Web site at www.mainecoastweek.org. If you need assistance with registering your cleanup, please call Theresa Torrent-Ellis at 287-2351.

Jeff Strout’s column is published Saturdays.