Red tide at Sanibel Island

deserted beach at Sanibel Island during red tide

A deserted beach at Sanibel Island during red tide.

On a typical morning at Sanibel Island, the beach would be filled with shell collectors, walkers and joggers. All would be enjoying the beauty of the sandy beach, the waves and the sea breeze.

A dead 21-foot whale shark washed up on the Sanibel beach. Tests found that red tide probably was the cause. This isn’t what you want to discover while vacationing at Sanibel.

But this week, Sanibel Island is a victim of red tide, which has made the beach experience very different.

Red tide, which gets its name because it often turns the sea red or brownish, kills aquatic life and can cause health problems for humans — respiratory problems, eye irritation and skin rashes.

Usually when I visit Sanibel, I’m on the beach collecting shells and enjoying watching the seabirds along with dozens of other beachcombers.

Instead of the shells and birds, dozens of dead fish littered the beach.

Few people were on the beach because of the smell and the eye and respiratory irritation caused by red tide toxins being released into the air by the breaking waves.

My time on the beach was brief.

Effects of red tide

dead sea turtle on beach at Sanibel Island

Finding a dead sea turtle during a morning beach walk was a sad reminder of the impact of red tide. Sea turtle nests are in the background, marked by yellow tape.

During red tide, boating, fishing, paddleboarding, swimming in the ocean, and walking on the beach can lead to health issues. So that eliminates most of the reasons people choose a beach location for a vacation.

Even eating seafood can be a health issue. If caught or harvested during red tide, shellfish and some types of fish can cause digestive problems if eaten.

The saddest sighting during my beach walk was a dead sea turtle, marked with a big yellow X to indicate that it had been found by the crew that monitors the beach.

This turtle was one of almost a hundred sea turtles that have died in the Sanibel-Captiva area since October when the red tide algae bloom began in the area.

One of the tell-tell signs of red tide is coughing caused by the respiratory irritation. At the pool and in restaurants, you could hear people coughing what I recognized as a red tide cough. I had the cough, too.

What is red tide?

Scientists refer to red tide as HAB (harmful algal blooms). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes HAB:

“Harmful algal blooms, or HABs, occur when colonies of algae—simple plants that live in the sea and freshwater—grow out of control while producing toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, and birds. The human illnesses caused by HABs, though rare, can be debilitating or even fatal.”

A family of interntional tourists asked me why so many dead fish were on the beach. I was put to the test to try to explain red tide, which is a complicated issue even when English is your native language.

How can red tide be fixed?

“Why can’t red tide be fixed?” the father asked, perhaps hoping that the issue could be resolved in time for them to enjoy swimming in the ocean before they flew home.

I said that fixing red tide was a big, complicated situation. They knew they weren’t going to be swimming in the ocean on this trip.

The complicated situation is caused by many factors, including warmer weather, construction of water control systems that eliminate wetlands and natural water flow, and agricultural runoff.

An article in the Ft. Myers Free Press included several steps that are being taken in response to the red tide:

  • The Army Corps of Engineers is planning to use “pulse releases” of water to try and break up the algae.
  • A health advisory has been posted for this weekend for Lee County, which includes Sanibel Island.
  • Sanibel’s mayor says his office is planning to purchase three additional water monitoring systems for the county.

I hope red tide will be a priority for communities and legislative groups even when there isn’t a current red tide outbreak making headlines.

Red tide is destroying marine life, hurting Florida’s tourist industry, ruining vacations, and creating health problems for those living and visiting the affected areas.

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