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Image / Living / Travel

A beginner’s guide to: Starlight kayaking on Ireland’s glow-in-the-dark lake


By Geraldine Carton
10th Apr 2022
A beginner’s guide to: Starlight kayaking on Ireland’s glow-in-the-dark lake

A couple of summers ago, Geraldine Carton did something really special; she went starlight kayaking in the bioluminescent waters of Lough Hyne in Co. Cork. Scroll on to hear what this other-worldly experience was like. 

Did you know that there is a lake in Co. Cork that glows in the dark? Me neither. At least, until I was invited to go kayaking on Lough Hyne and experience the glowing magic for myself.

First things first, I will say that unless you live in a nearby town in Cork, the journey to this part of the country will most likely be a long one, so leave yourself ample time for roadworks and wrong turns. This is something I didn’t do, and it’s why I arrived to the Atlantic Sea Kayaking meeting point at Lough Hyne half an hour late and pumping sweat after bombing it through the country roads of West Cork in an effort to get there on time.

Sigh of relief

When I arrive I see a group of fellow kayakers getting briefed on the do’s and don’ts of kayaking. I immediately breathe a sigh of relief when I see what they are wearing. As opposed to the pungent, damp wetsuits I expected (*shudders* at the thought of water sports experiences in the Gaeltacht), the kayakers don waterproof gear over their own clothes. This ensemble is accompanied by “cockpit covers”, which look like ridiculous skirts when standing, but are very effective contraptions that ensure maximum dryness throughout the kayaking experience.

Soon the only light source we can see comes from Declan’s eerie red headlamp floating ahead, one or two houses along the coast; and the sparkling water beneath us.

The great story-teller

Declan Power is our instructor for the evening and assures us that we will not be getting wet; that the kayaks are very secure and so long as we pay attention, we will be fine. I don’t think he realises how uncoordinated I am. I look nervously over at the kayaking partner I have been paired with, and hope that her competency will cancel out my blundering clumsiness.

Declan is a man with a sharp wit and a serious passion for the history and nature of the area, and he is known as the “Great Seanachí” storyteller) amongst the Atlantic Sea Kayaking crew. If you listen to Declan wax lyrical for five minutes, the reason for this nickname will become abundantly clear. Deliberate pauses create suspense within his tales about the local folklore and history, while a lilting Cork accent and frequent wisecracks add charm and much amusement to each tidbit of information he provides.

Lough Hyne during the day // Image via Ed Fitzgerald

From dusk to dark

For the next two hours we follow Declan’s lead in captivated silence, enjoying a gentle kayak across the lake as we do so. It’s 7 pm when we take to the water, which means it doesn’t take long for the sky to change from dusk to pitch black. Soon the only light source we can see comes from Declan’s eerie red headlamp floating ahead, one or two houses along the coast, and the sparkling water beneath us.

If you’ve never heard of Lough Hyne before, let me first establish that it isn’t just a lake. Rather, this is the only saltwater lake in Europe, doubling as a marine nature reserve, too, thank you very much. Today the lake contains a variety of species that would otherwise only be found in the likes of Barbados and the Pacific Islands. However here you’ll find up to 1000 species of marine life; the exotic living side by side with the native, including seals, sponges, triggerfish and – the star of this evening’s show – phytoplankton.

This sparkly display of nature’s wizardry is like something you’d see in an Avatar movie, or at very least on a New Zealand postcard.

The star of the show

The Phytoplankton is what causes the glow-in-the-dark effect (bioluminescence) at night. It’s thought it could be a defence mechanism, but nobody is really sure.

At first, we see nothing as we peer into the lake’s water, but the sky darkens as we make our way around the lake and soon the sparkles start to appear. Gradually with time, they become brighter, more luminous, and more magical than I ever could have expected. At one point I put my hand in the water and it looks like it’s been covered in a sparkling, water-reactive UV paint. It feels like having magical powers; the power to make lake water look like a star-studded Milky Way sky, simply by touching it.

Bioluminescent jelly fish

The stuff of fairytales

This sparkly display of nature’s wizardry is like something you’d see in an Avatar movie, or at the very least on a New Zealand postcard. It’s certainly not what you’d expect to find in Skibbereen, that’s for sure. In fact, so magical is this lake and its glowing water that I cannot fathom why it never got a single mention in Irish folklore throughout the ages. Surely an actual glow-in-the-dark lake would provide some solid subject matter for bedtime stories? And in this age of mass information and social media, how has news of Lough Hyne’s magic failed to spread like wildfire?

Lough Hyne is something that every Irish citizen should get the chance to enjoy; a natural treasure that deserves so much more attention than it has received up to this point. With that in mind, the next time you find yourself in need of a weekend break, I suggest you drive down to Cork and enjoy the magic of this bioluminescent lake.

An experience not to be missed and never to be forgotten, just be sure to give yourself lots of time for the journey down. It takes ages.   

Inchdoney Lodge and Spa‘s Moonlight Kayaking Package:

Including two nights in a luxurious bedroom with its own private balcony with stunning views and breakfast in the Gulfstream Restaurant. You can enjoy access to their heated Seawater Therapy Pool, Sauna, Hammam and Relaxation Areas, and a very special moonlight kayak where you will take to the water with the professionals from Atlantic Sea Kayaking and enjoy a leisurely and atmospheric kayaking experience in the moonlight.

There are both kayaking breaks and family deals available and you can find more details over on  www.inchydoneyisland.com.