Bioluminescence in Tomales Bay

I would characterize myself as “non-aquatic” but when our good friend Emily was in town and planning a kayaking trip to Tomales Bay, we couldn’t resist!

Marshall Beach at low tide

Emily got a group campsite for 25 on Marshall Beach in Tomales Bay, a mere 1 hour drive from San Francisco. A group of 15 of us joined, driving up Saturday morning.

Our route in blue: Tomales Bay expeditions up to South Beach, then camping at Marshall


On our drive up, Marty made a wrong turn that turned into the most right turn ever, because we came upon a magical little Tea and Tie Dye stand! Replete with our tie dye treasures, we made our way to Tomales Bay Expeditions where we were renting our kayaks.

My new favorite shirt

Faffing and kayak packing took up the next hour or so, and Marty and I realized we had packed a _lot_ more than everyone else. Good thing the water is carrying it all!.

ABC: Always be Schlepping

And we were off! Marty steered and I provided the *muscle*. And by that I mean Marty steered and powered while I halfheartedly dipped my oar in the water and took copious breaks. We were going upwind and fighting the current, so we stuck close to shore whenever possible. We stopped in a little cove for a break and some snacks.

Cool red moss creeping up the rocks

We saw so much beautiful wildlife: dive-bombing pelicans, jellyfish that I tried to touch, elegant egrets, some seals, and even a manta ray! Even though it wasn’t climbing, it was still pretty nice :P. My arms definitely got sore though, because I didn’t listen to our How to Kayak 101 instructor on how to use my core

Eventually, we made it to Marshall Beach, which is characterized by a big downed tree on the shore and many tall trees around it. It was pretty busy though with 4 other groups, so we opted to keep going to Tomales Beach to scope it out. Unfortunately that beach was even more crowded, and had fewer trees. George, Wen, Marty and I made an exploratory foray into the even deeper beaches, but those were generally too narrow to fit our large group. So back we went. The others were pretty tired and close to mutiny, but luckily I had my 150cc Marty to power us back. We got to camp, set up, then chilllllled.

Our camp on Marshall Beach

In our numerous bags I had stashed away some poi and darts, and several people were pros at spinning. I learned some antispins, we played with the silks, and threw the dart around. I also brought some watercolors and sketchpads and someone else brought crosswords, so there was activities galore. There was also napping available but who takes naps?!

Marty takes naps

Snack queen and her loyal subjects (left). Emily proving to us she is not in fact a bear (right).

good old fashioned dinner chaos

After dinner we went on an evening constitutional, walking to the edge of the beach and admiring the pink sunset. We skipped rocks, poked some weird jellies that had washed ashore, and generally made merry.

We got some real nice pinks and purples at sunset

We got back to camp, and then, the Raccoon Nation attacked. They were all over, trying to get into our coolers, making terrifying noises, and being devious little rascals. Marty threw my croc at one, but the little bandit was undeterred. We eventually fought them off, and did a better job hiding our trash. Raccoons love trash.

At this point, it was dark and most people were making eyes at their cozy sleeping bags, but Cathie, Ember, Marty, and I wanted to go on a night kayak to try and see the bioluminescence. We promised Nate, Aurora, and Emily that if it was cool enough to make you go woah, we’d wake them up.

Spoiler alert: It made us go woah. At first we just saw the hint of a sparkle in the warm, dark water. We had been advised to go to warm, shallow, still water to see it best, so we hugged the shoreline, eventually seeing incredible bioluminescence next to Lairds Landing. We kayaked through the pitch black water, trailing our hands and oars, and saw them light up with a thousand twinkles. On our way back to shore to alert our friends, we passed through thickets of moss in the water that when you hit one end with the paddle, the entire network would light up, zipping like lightning through the water. I had never seen anything like it.

We woke up just about everyone, and they hopped in to admire the bioluminescence. We paddled, we admired, we whacked more moss. It was truly magical. We returned to shore sleepy and content.


We awoke to a beautiful still morning. After some breakfast and packing, we were off! We were definitely the last ones off the beach, but hey, more beach time for us.

So still, so calm, so muddy
The whole crew! Assembled by Emily, I don’t have this many friends

On the way back the wind was on our side, and we got to see some beautiful misty morning bay water. I tried to rig up our tent tarp as a sail to capture the water, but Marty informed me that I was much more useful paddling (which is saying something about how poor the sail was). We stopped and ate lunch, and finally made it back right as the sun was getting to be high overhead.

Julie lounging, Marty paddling
Our lunch spot on Sunday

On the way back to San Francisco we stopped at the tea and tie dye shop once again, and Nate got some sweet tie dye shorts. We had tickets to go see the Ansel Adams exhibit at the De Young, so we went straight there (after a burger and shake stop at Annie’s) and admired more of the beautiful vistas of California.

Cathie and Emily totally not exhausted and very excited to be in a museum (left). Admiring the Turrell Skyspace (right).

It was a quintessential Northern California trip!


Key stats:

  • Miles paddled: 7mi Saturday, 4 mi Sunday
  • Hours paddled: 12pm — 4pm Saturday, 10am — 12:30pm Sunday
  • Corns consumed: 6
  • Beaches landed: 5
  • Jellyfish touched: 3

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