Wearing goggles to surf: Kook status or Florida Red Tide?

1 Aug


Summer Science explained: 

Summer Science explained is a new blog series on Layman’s Terms Media. Each week, phenomena that are unique to summer time will be broken down and explained. I am currently taking suggestions for topics, so if there is something you’ve always wondered about feel free to contact me and pitch an idea!


I took a deep breath in. Smelling the saltwater has always been my ritual before starting the process of unloading my surfboard.

But, this time I did not feel refreshed or enlightened by the beach breeze. My eyes started to water.

I walked closer to get a better look at the water to see what might be the culprit of what seemed to be an instant allergic reaction.

What I saw before me was not the crystal turquoise of the Emerald coast. The water was murky, brown and my instincts were telling me it was best to stay out.  But the glassy waves were too tempting and a rarity for Florida.

I decided to catch a couple waves on my longboard before working my night shift at the restaurant. I stopped at the coastline, put on my leash and took a more hesitant leap in than normal.

Dunking my head under, I forgot to close my eyes and the burning sensation was unbearable.

No surfing today.

That was a few years ago in Pensacola along the Gulf of Mexico. There was no chemical leak from the nearby power plant and BP oil had not yet tainted the waters.

What I experienced that day was a naturally occurring algal bloom.

Although algal blooms are normal, scientists classify this particular one as a harmful algal bloom, better known along the Gulf coast as Florida Red Tide.

Red Tide refers to the reddish-brown color caused by the abundance of algae and the word tide is sort of misleading since the bloom has nothing to do with tidal movements.

The harmful algal bloom that we experience in Florida is caused by the microscopic marine dinoflagellate Karenia brevis, a photosynthetic organism (algae) that propels through the water with its two whip-like flagella.

Karenia_brevisWhen in low concentration, K. brevis can be beneficial, producing oxygen for other organisms. However, when the chemical condition of the water is changed, for example due to fertilizer run-off, the algae bloom in high numbers. In 2001, the annual Saharan Dust clouds from Africa blew over and fertilized the Gulf, causing one of the toxic blooms.

Since more organisms are produced, they have to scramble to compete for space and sunlight.  Most of them die from lack of natural resources, and as they die they release neurotoxins, similar to how yeast produces alcohol as a byproduct.

The neurotoxins released into the air and sea caused my eyes to tear, but I was lucky I didn’t experience any other side effects.

The toxins, specifically brevetoxins, are known to cause gastrointestinal as well as neurological effects in marine life. The symptoms can be deadly.  If humans ingest shellfish they can also be infected with PbTx-2, the most common brevetoxin produced by these blooms.

Humans and marine mammals who simply inhale the toxins experience symptoms watery eyes, irritated throat, congestion and coughing and wheezing.

Local surfers know these symptoms all too well. Since good waves aren’t handed on a platter in the Sunshine State, adrenaline junkies usually suck it up and dive in a midst the danger.

“It always reminds me of being exposed to pepper spray fumes,” Zack Jud, a local Florida scientist said. “You can’t smell it, but it makes you cough like crazy. When it’s bad, you can’t stop coughing until you move into clean air.”

Some surfers get creative to overcome the Red tide.

“I remember surfing with goggles when we were young,” Pensacola local Jeffery Waters said. “Not that it helped the coughing, but at least you could see!”

Surfers, fisherman and other human beach goers aren’t the only ones affected by the bloom. Schools of marine life can die from the depleted oxygen and local economies that rely on the marine life for food and tourism also suffer.

Just this summer scallop seekers in Pine Island saw an expected decline in scallop yields due to a Red Tide that occurred last winter. Last year, the total number of scallops caught was 400—this summer only 24 were found.

Manatees, an endangered species, also suffered from the Red Tide, when 174 died in March.

Scientists told the Miami Herald the manatees were infected by eating the sea grass that the algae settled on. The toxins caused the manatees to lose coordination hindering their ability to swim to the surface for air.

Other marine grazers will sense the toxins and choose to starve instead of feed on infected organisms. Current research shows that although the starved species produce less eggs, their survival rate is greater than those who choose to ingest the toxins.

While marine organisms may not know when Red Tide is coming, humans can always check before they head to the beach. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission provides a current status report online for Floridians to keep track of the blooms. The reports are published every Friday.

With words like toxins and death associated with this species, I don’t want to give K. brevis an entirely bad rep. It is still a part of the marine food web, but just like humans, too much of it can cause harm.

Let’s end with a fun fact about these algae: because they have two flagella, they can travel up to 100,000 times their body length (between 20 and 40 mm) in one hour!

Jud said Florida estuaries have also been experiencing another type of algal bloom called a “brown tide.”  Although the organism Aureoumbra lagunensis does not produce toxins like  K. brevis,  abundance of the organism can disrupt the ecosystem, leaving certain organisms homeless.

“The microscopic algal organisms involved in these blooms are harmless, but they become so abundant in the water column that they can completely shade out the seafloor. If the bloom lasts long enough, this shading can kill thousands of acres of seagrass beds,” Jud said.  “This is important since sea grass beds serve as a critical nursery for many marine organisms. It has been speculated that the primary cause of these blooms is fertilizer-laden runoff entering the estuary through canals and rivers. Both commercial agriculture and the fertilization of residential lawns is to blame.”

That’s all for this edition of Summer Science Explained and I’m still taking topic suggestions.

One Response to “Wearing goggles to surf: Kook status or Florida Red Tide?”


  1. Editor’s picks for 2013 | Layman's Terms Media - December 2, 2013

    […] Wearing goggles to surf: Kook status or Florida Red Tide?: I took a deep breath in. Smelling the saltwater has always been my ritual before starting the process of unloading my surfboard. But, this time I did not feel refreshed or enlightened by the beach breeze. My eyes started to water.—> Continue reading […]

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