INDIAN SHORES — From 1,000 feet up, ribbons of rust-colored water stuck out against the backdrop of white-sand beaches.
For many in Pinellas County, spring break has just arrived.
But this year, so has the red tide.
“Normally, this water up ahead has a Caribbean look to it. You’ll see now it looks nasty. That’s red tide,” said Christopher Noth, a volunteer pilot with the Southwings conservation organization.
Noth banked his plane to the east. Patchy streaks lingered just a few hundred feet offshore of Indian Shores as a steady 8 mph southern wind blew toxic algae up from Southwest Florida.
For the past three years, Noth has volunteered his piloting experience — and his 1967 Piper Cherokee — to raise awareness of environmental issues ranging from hurricane recovery to the 2021 Piney Point wastewater disaster. He flew over the same red tide bloom in December.
“I’m not a scientist and I’m not a politician. All I can do is give people a good view so they can see the full scope of this problem,” Noth, of Seminole, said from the cockpit.
That view on Friday morning was particularly problematic for Pinellas County, as root beer-colored water was seen offshore of popular beach spots like Honeymoon Island, Clearwater Beach and Indian Rocks Beach. The brown spots had even crept into Clearwater Harbor.
The visual evidence was consistent with recent scientific observations: State researchers have detected red tide blooms in 26 different samples over the past week in and offshore of county waters, and the latest University of South Florida modeling shows the worst of the red tide right now stretches from Belleair Beach north to Caladesi Island State Park.
Images from the Tampa Bay Times of the discolored water from that area were emailed to several Tampa Bay-area scientists.
“Those features are likely red tide,” wrote Yonngang Liu, the director of the University of South Florida’s Ocean Circulation Lab. “Our model indicated high concentrations of red tide in that area. The photos confirmed our model output.”
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It could also be mixed with organic debris, sand or both, said Kate Hubbard, the director of the state’s Center for Red Tide Research. Other types of algae could also be mixed in.
Scientists consider a “bloom” to be 100,000 red tide-forming cells for every one liter of water. Of the 79 blooms detected in Southwest Florida this week, 32% were in and offshore Pinellas County, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data.
Every coastal Southwest Florida county from Pinellas to Monroe saw blooms over the past week, data show.
On St. Pete Beach, cleanup crews earlier this week collected two 40-pound bags of dead fish per day, and roughly 1,000 pounds of fish have been cleared from beaches there since the start of the month, according to Mandy Edmunds, a parks supervisor with the city of St. Pete Beach.
About 20 tons of dead fish and debris have been cleared from Pinellas County beaches since Dec. 12, spokesperson Tony Fabrizio said.
Noth flew his plane between 500 and 1,500 feet during the 2-hour flight. From the back seat, his wife and fellow SouthWings volunteer, Justine, called out when she spotted dark patches.
She feels called to join her husband in their mission to raise awareness, she said.
“I’ve lived in Florida most of my life. And I love the water: being on the water. Being near the water,” she said.
“To not be able to access it in a safe way, it’s crushing. So much of our life revolves around being outdoors. And so when we can no longer be outdoors on beautiful days like this, we feel like we need to do something about it.”