Night Swimming

The night we went swimming in stars happened in high summer, as close as the Bay ever gets to the Arctic Circle and heaven. This is when twilight seems to stretch itself across the evening. Night, when it finally does come, is like a favorite blanket, soft and warm with memory. These are nights of dreams and magic, when I never want to go to sleep.

We had left Annapolis around four o’clock on a windless afternoon and motored out of the Severn River. Right around Tolly Point the breeze began to fill in, fashionably late, and we set sail and took off. It was beautiful and uncomplicated—flat water, big sky, a fast boat on a close reach, a happy crew—the kind of sail when everything falls into place and you wish it would never stop. We passed Bloody Point and reached up Eastern Bay as the sun was setting. Our daughter, despite her most stubborn efforts to fend off the inevitable, crashed asleep just as we were dropping the hook in the long saucer of cove off Rich Neck. By the time we tidied up the boat and poured a glass of wine, twilight’s story was ending in a streak of raven sky in the west, and the deep summer night wrapped itself around us. Time for a swim.

Johnny was the first one in; I was staying on deck for a bit, and our son Kaeo, who had never been swimming at night before, was perched on the ladder thinking it over. Suddenly he yelled. “Daddy! You’re sparkling!” I looked over the side. He was right. Everywhere Johnny moved he left a comet’s tail like glowing ginger ale. Kaeo jumped in, with me right behind him. I have seen bioluminescence in the Bay, but nothing like this. Every move—even just wiggling our fingers—made the water come alive with golden, soda-fuzzy light. We paddled our arms and made glittering water angels. We kicked our feet below and made flutes of champagne. Fish started past in streaks of light. I put on a mask, held my breath and swam underwater as far as I could; I was swimming through a million stars. We played as kids played, immersed in the moment, wanting nothing else.

A couple of months later we were having dinner with friends on the Eastern Shore and recounted the story. One of the dinner guests was a waterman who explained what we already suspected: The glowing water was bad news. Bioluminescent algae had caused the intense sparkling. And of course algae generally mean trouble for the Bay. When they live and bloom, they prevent seagrass from getting enough light. When they die, they suck up oxygen, suffocating fish and crabs. That summer, he said, was the worst he’d ever seen.

I wanted to feel bad about it, I really did. I wanted to be literal and logical and believe the grim scientific reasons for our extraordinary glitter ball swim that night. But then I remembered some lyrics from one of my favorite bands, R.E.M., about innocence and joy and how easily they are lost: “Night swimming deserves a quiet night / I’m not sure all these people understand / it’s not like years ago / the fear of getting caught / of recklessness and water / they cannot see me naked / these things they go away / replaced by every day.”

And so I decided: I’ll just hold on to that one, that one night when the summer night’s sky, so full of dreams and magic, lent its stars to the water below.