a bloom of her own bloom

Published Sept. 4, 2006

a gray-haired woman who walks with a cane and frequently cries "Holy Toledo!'' is on high alert as Red Tide drifts ever closer to the mouth of Tampa Bay.

Her name is Karen Steidinger. She has bursitis in both hips. She will be 68 on her next birthday. For 43 years she has studied Red Tide, the scourge of Florida beaches, at Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute lab.

Red Tide is to Steidinger what Professor Moriarty was to Sherlock Homes, a hateful foe that befuddles and bewitches her at the same time.

"When I hear 'Holy Toledo!' coming out of the microscope lab,'' says lab aide Jennifer Wolny, "I know she's in the building.''

Red Tide is known in scientific circles as Karenia brevis. The Karenia in question is the Karen of "Holy Toledo'' fame.

She was not so conceited that she named the fish-killing organism after herself. A scientist in Denmark did that. All over the world, Steidinger is considered the mother of Red Tide research.

Karenia brevis is a single-celled organism no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. Steidinger calls Karenia brevis a "plantlike'' organism, though if you peek through her microscope you'll see something that looks more critter than carrot. The evil one resembles a stingray with two tails, one of which protrudes from its stomach.

Each tail seems to have a different job. One, flailing about like a fire hose on the loose, spins the creature in circles. The other tail, the jet engine so to speak, propels it forward at a hang-on-to-your-hat 3 feet every hour.

"Isn't that cool?'' Steidinger asks, her enthusiasm echoing down the hall.

The weird critter seems harmless enough. But in great concentrations they are toxic. They can kill fish, manatees, dolphins, turtles and seabirds and damage the waterfront economy to the tune of $50-million annually. That's the worry as Red Tide, last detected near Manatee County's Anna Maria Island, creeps into Tampa Bay. Again.

Remember those acres of rotting, stinking fish along the sea walls last summer? Those fish-eating cormorants with the drooping necks? The dead manatees? The nagging cough on the day you drank a margarita at the beach bar?

That was the work of Steidinger's namesake, Karenia brevis.

Holy Toledo!

Despite the "Holy Toledos," Steidinger is not from Ohio. Born in Connecticut, she grew up in New York but spent vacations with her grandparents in Sarasota starting in 1942. The little girl's Huck Finn lifestyle included climbing trees, going barefoot and catching mullet with dough balls.

When Steidinger says "there were rattlesnakes'' in grandma's woodpile, she actually sounds wistful. She misses that Florida, the wild Florida covered with dew.

She wrote a poem about it when she was in her 20s.

Deserted beaches and shimmering shells,

Sand dunes and rustling oats.

Rosy spoonbills and wood storks.

Banyan trees and Spanish moss

Citrus fragrance in a fresh rain.

Shaded porches and gentle breezes.

Children walking to school in bare feet

along dirt roads.

Maybe in her next life Steidinger will study poetry. But when she moved to Florida in 1963, she went to work immediately at the marine lab while studying zoology at the University of South Florida in her spare time.

She was also beginning the kind of all-day, all-night marathon only an energetic youngster ever dares undertake. She worked full time during daylight hours on Red Tide and earned her master's and doctorate part time, at night, over the next decade. Sleeping was optional.

She held almost every job at the marine lab, including bureau chief, before she retired in 2003. Retired? Fat chance. She was not finished with Red Tide and came back to the lab on a special contract.

She knows more about Red Tide than anyone else.

That said, she confesses that she doesn't know enough.

What role does global warming play in Red Tide? Still under study.

Pollution doesn't cause Red Tide, but it may make it worse. How? Unknown.

When waves crash onshore, the Karenia brevis organism can float on the breeze and cause enough coughing and sneezing to send an asthmatic to the emergency room. But what is the long-term effect on human lungs? Under study.

Does Red Tide fulfill a natural purpose? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

"Basically we know it is born at sea. Then something happens to fertilize it. As it moves toward shore, the dead fish fertilize it even more. Then it's over," she says.

"I think we'll have answers to questions in about 10 years.''

Her ignorance irritates the heck out of her.

"Heck,'' by the way, is about as salty as she gets. She's not exactly a beer-drinking, carousing, bohemian Doc Ricketts, harvesting marine samples in the tide pools of Cannery Row.

A teddy bear sits on her office shelf.

Steidinger usually refers to Red Tide phenomena as "harmful algal blooms.'' If she is in a hurry she might talk in shorthand about HABs.

HABs have been around for thousands of years, possibly more. They're a natural phenomenon that shows up in oceans throughout the world.

Five centuries ago, Spanish explorers noted the characteristic fish kills in Tampa Bay. In 1880, a number of Floridians got mysteriously sick after eating oysters. Their mouths, tongues and lips turned numb. Holy Toledo! Karenia brevis affects the nervous system.

Eating a fish sandwich shouldn't make a human sick. We eat the flesh, not the digestive system, where the toxin collects.

When Red Tide is suspected, scientists collect samples of seawater. If they find 5,000 Karenia brevis organisms in a quart, the state closes shellfish beds.

If they count 100,000, they anticipate a significant fish kill.

When they collect 1-million cells per quart, the mass of the organisms may color the water a reddish hue.

A 1947 Red Tide killed an estimated 500-million fish.

In 1996, Red Tide became an international story when it killed 149 endangered manatees.

Last year, Red Tide-slain fish stank up the Tampa Bay waterfront for months.

Steidinger has been known to swim through a raft of dead fish to sample the Karenia brevis organisms below. She is so focused she loses track of everything around her. Fortunately, she has colleagues who tell her when a shark gets near.

She never married - colleagues say she has been married to her work for four decades - but loves cats. She loves to travel, especially to romantic Italy. She loves old movies. Her favorite is Dr. Zhivago, a scientist who wrote poetry.

"I would like to write children's books,'' Steidinger says. "I'd like to try some more poetry.''

But only after she finishes her Red Tide research. Then perhaps she'll try to marry harmful algal blooms with iambic pentameter.

Karenia brevis might be dangerous, might kill fish that stink up the bay, but those wonderful vowels just roll off the lips.

A poet could do something with all those vowels.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or


For more information about Red Tide, see the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute Web site, http:// Click on "Red Tide."