FLYING 1,000 FEET ABOVE TREASURE ISLAND — “We’re coming up on a bloom right now.”
There it was, just as the maps had predicted: A rust-colored Red Tide bloom came into view offshore of John’s Pass, nestled between Madeira Beach and Treasure Island in Pinellas County. On this overcast Saturday morning, the tainted water clashed and swirled with the Gulf of Mexico like chocolate-vanilla soft serve ice cream.
“I’ll take us in for a closer look.”
Christopher Noth, a volunteer pilot with the Southwings conservation organization, banked his 1967 Piper Cherokee to the right to get a better visual. The toxic bloom lingered just feet from beachgoers on the shoreline.
This patch of algae was one of several that could be seen from above Pinellas County waters this weekend as the latest Red Tide event unfolds in the Tampa Bay area. Over the past week, state water testers have detected high concentrations of Karenia brevis, the organism that causes Red Tide, in 18 samples in and offshore of Pinellas County. That’s more than any other county in the state, according to the latest Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data.
At those high levels — more than 100,000 Karenia brevis cells per liter of water — Red Tide can cause respiratory irritation for humans and ignite fish kills that litter some of Florida’s most sought-after beaches. Cleanup crews on St. Pete Beach have already cleared more than 1,000 pounds of dead fish during this latest bloom event.
From the back seat of the Piper Cherokee, Emma Haydocy referenced the latest Red Tide map from the Florida wildlife commission to give Noth a better idea of where the worst blooms would appear. As the Florida policy manager for the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, Haydocy drove from the Florida Keys to document the ongoing toxic algal blooms.
Over the plane’s headset system, Haydocy would call out locations on the map where state samplers measured the most toxic levels over the past week: John’s Pass, Pass-A-Grille Beach and Fort De Soto among them. As the plane ventured south, closer to where Category 4 Hurricane Ian made landfall in September, streaks of Red Tide blooms appeared. Places like Turtle Beach in Sarasota County and Englewood Beach in Charlotte County had periodic algae patches.
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The images of the red-tinted blooms offshore of Pinellas County, shared with Yonggang Liu, the director of the University of South Florida’s Ocean Circulation Lab, match the university’s short-term forecast for where the blooms would be, and they also match where experts detected Red Tide in water samples last week.
“The dark color area should be Red Tide on our coast, consistent with last week’s observations,” Liu wrote in an email. And as for the near future: “Red Tide may continue to be lingering around in the next three days.”
Federal ocean scientists are also predicting the high risk of breathing problems at some Pinellas beaches over the next few days, according to an advisory issued Monday morning by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Similar advisories have been issued for weeks offshore of the Southwest Florida counties ravaged by Hurricane Ian.
Liu and other Red Tide experts have watched with bated breath as the toxic algal blooms crept northward. Low amounts of Red Tide were recorded near a Fort De Soto beach in southern Pinellas County by Nov. 30.
In the short term, at least, they’re here to stay.
“Over the next 36 hours, some beaches may experience a high risk of respiratory irritation from Karenia brevis (Red Tide) in Pinellas County,” the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science continued to warn on its Red Tide webpage at 9 a.m. on Monday. “Conditions may vary.”
Water samplers with the Environmental Protection Commission in Hillsborough County did their own testing last week, too. They found toxic “bloom” levels of Red Tide at four stations near Egmont Key, and low-to-medium concentrations at three other stations in lower Tampa Bay, according to Christopher Pratt, a senior environmental manager at the commission. The good news is they didn’t detect Karenia brevis in the middle of Tampa Bay.
This latest Red Tide bloom event hasn’t greatly affected much of the bay itself, unlike in 2021, when tons of dead fish were removed from St. Petersburg shorelines. Whether the bloom remains offshore depends largely on wind conditions and ocean currents, according to Liu.
Red Tide resources
There are several online resources that can help residents stay informed and share information about Red Tide:
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a website that tracks where Red Tide is detected and how strong it is.
Florida Poison Control Centers have a toll-free 24/7 hotline to report illnesses, including from exposure to Red Tide: 1-800-222-1222
To report fish kills and get them cleaned up in Tampa Bay, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-800-636-0511 or file a fish kill report online.
Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county’s tourism wing, runs an online beach dashboard at www.beachesupdate.com.
Pinellas County shares information with the Red Tide Respiratory Forecast tool that allows beachgoers to check for warnings.
How to stay safe near the water
- Beachgoers should avoid swimming around dead fish.
- Those with chronic respiratory problems should be particularly careful and “consider staying away” from places with a Red Tide bloom.
- People should not harvest or eat mollusks or distressed and dead fish from the area. Fillets of healthy fish should be rinsed with clean water, and the guts thrown out.
- Pet owners should keep their animals away from the water and from dead fish.
- Residents living near the beach should close their windows and run air conditioners with proper filters.
- Visitors to the beach can wear paper masks, especially if the wind is blowing in.
Source: Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County