Red Tide Warning

Living on Florida’s Gulf Coast means having to coexist with pervasive and toxic algal blooms—and neighbors who don’t always believe what they see

In September 2018, thousands of fish killed by a toxic algal bloom were removed from. North Redington Beach, Florida. (Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times via Associated Press)
In September 2018, thousands of fish killed by a toxic algal bloom were removed from. North Redington Beach, Florida. (Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times via Associated Press)

The first sign is posted in the window of the empty ranger station and written in the style of a ransom note: w-A-R-n-i-Ng. The second flashes on a giant electronic sign just below the largest American flag I have ever known—alternating between park closure dates and announcements for an upcoming triathlon: warning. The third is fastened to a wooden stake stabbed into the edge of the dunes, its sides curling scroll-like in the morning wind:

Red tide present.
May cause eye, throat, or skin irritation.
May cause coughing or sneezing.
Avoid the beach if you have asthma or a respiratory condition.
Onshore winds and rough surf worsen its effects.
Can kill fish and other sea animals.
Do not swim near dead fish or touch them.
Wear shoes to prevent injuries from stepping on bones of dead fish.
Keep pets away from the water, sea foam, and dead fish.
Red tide is caused by naturally occurring algae.

Today, my dog, Arrow, and I are the only ones on this Tampa Bay beach. Everyone else has either heeded the warnings or flown back north, spring breakers and snowbirds having taken their fill of Florida sunshine. Things quiet down around here in midspring, just before Easter and its season of rebirth.

As I watch from the shore for bottlenose dolphins, I contemplate the use of bold type on the third warning sign. If the sign were a poem submitted in one of the classes I teach, I might chastise the author for being seduced by the siren call of a lazy typeface over the arduous but satisfying work that good prose requires. While my students’ eyes stray to the screens of their phones, I might ramble on about the perils of underestimating their readers’ intelligence. I would remind them that the point isn’t, in fact, about naturally occurring red tide. The fault, I would say, is that the bold highlights the wrong information, misguiding readers, leading us down the wrong path.

The earliest records of red tide on Florida’s west coast have been widely misattributed to the 16th-century Spanish conquistador Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, one of four survivors of a 600-person crew that attempted, but failed, to colonize the region. Led by Pánfilo de Narváez, the venture was beset by gross miscalculations, shipwrecks, mutinies, indigenous attacks, and disease. In La Relación, a firsthand account of the event and the subsequent eight years he spent traversing the New World, Cabeza de Vaca writes of the Indigenous peoples he has come to know well: they “judge of the seasons by the ripening of fruits, by the time when the fish die.” Although he is describing fish kills, it’s unlikely they were due to red tide. By this point in his journey, Cabeza de Vaca and the other men who’d survived Narváez’s utterly incompetent leadership were on the coast of Texas, where, even today, red tide is rare. Karenia brevis, as it is officially known, has been reliably recorded in Florida only since the 1840s, a time that, the older I get, I realize is not so very long ago.

Though there’s ample evidence to suggest that the incidence of red tide has been exacerbated by humans, Florida’s leaders blame this year’s case, in part, on another naturally occurring phenomenon: Hurricane Ian.

Red tide is an algal bloom, a layer of microscopic plantlike organisms that grow rapidly in warm waters, causing discoloration and scum buildup on the water’s surface. Freshwater algal blooms typically appear bright green and are relatively harmless, but red tide carries toxins that, when dispersed by wind, can cause coughing, sneezing, burning eyes. Some research suggests that algal blooms harm local economies; in recent years, conflicts have arisen between rental property owners and vacationers who want their money back because the bloom kept them from enjoying the beach. But red tide can also be dangerous. In some rare cases, it can be life-threatening to people with respiratory conditions. Eating marine life contaminated with red tide can make people sick, and some hospitals have seen an increase in respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses during years when blooms have been especially intense.

Red tide is naturally occurring, but only to a point. Historically, in the Gulf of Mexico, red tide peaked in the summer, when the water temperature was at its highest, and slowed down in the winter, when temperatures cooled. But on the morning Arrow and I go to the beach, red tide levels are moderate to high and have been for months. Though there’s ample evidence to suggest that the incidence of red tide has been exacerbated by humans, Florida’s leaders blame this year’s case, in part, on another naturally occurring phenomenon: Hurricane Ian. The storm didn’t create red tide but tossed it around, pushing it toward the shore where the water was shallower and warmer. Once there, the bloom thrived.

Driving back home from the beach, I listen to a radio report about the upcoming hurricane season. The scientist being interviewed explains how conditions begin to ripen when waters in the Gulf of Mexico reach 76 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit, and that hurricanes can form at 79 degrees. “Portions of the Gulf have currently recorded water temperatures of 80 degrees Fahrenheit,” he says.

The silence following this statement hangs just long enough to suggest that the reporter hopes the scientist will elaborate. Perhaps in the same way that, when I write, I presume a reader’s intelligence, the scientist presumes the same of his listeners.

“When does hurricane season begin?” the reporter finally asks.

“June 1st, officially,” says the scientist.

“It’s only April,” says the reporter. “What you’re saying is we have hurricane conditions in April.”

There is a question in there somewhere, but the scientist can’t or won’t answer it.

The calendar is outdated, obsolete. But no one is yet brave enough to accept the immense responsibility of devising a new, more accurate one.

Every morning, before the beaches open to the public, county employees and contractors paid by the hour rake the sands for dead fish and other wildlife, scoop the bodies into front-end loaders, and pile the detritus into industrial-size dumpsters that have their own special signs: For dead fish and wildlife ONLY. News outlets and scientists report the dead animals not in pounds but in tons. Once the dumpsters are full, they are trailered to a waste-to-energy facility where a small percentage of their contents is incinerated. The rest—the majority of the dead matter—ends up in a landfill, which officials assure the public won’t contaminate groundwater.

This morning, the dumpsters on our beach have been emptied. The air does not stink of rotting sea; the wind does not make my throat itch. Arrow appears unbothered. I might’ve begun to believe the worst was behind us were it not for the color of the water, which, depending on the time of day and amount of cloud cover, should appear aquamarine, jade, turquoise, or sapphire, but not, as it does today, like dried blood.

Down the beach, a man struggles to walk a chocolate Lab. The dog pulls on a leash attached to a choke collar, a training tool that, when misapplied, can bruise the esophagus, crush the trachea, cause spinal and neck injuries, kill. The man yells and yanks. The dog snatches the leash in her jaws and yanks back, eager to be free. As Arrow and I draw closer, man and dog greet us, the Lab’s bark like an emphysemic’s cough.

“I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” says the man, nodding at the red tide warning staked into the dunes. “There aren’t any dead fish on this beach.”

“They cleaned up this morning,” I say. “The dumpsters are all empty.”

“They?” The man casts his gaze around, searching. We are the only ones on the beach, and in the absence of any evidence to support my claim, he remains skeptical of the ever-mysterious they.

Leaning over, he unclasps the leash from the Lab’s collar. She wheels around and kicks up plumes of sand as she barrels down the beach. Beside me, Arrow watches with mild interest, though not enough to chase after the other dog, who throws herself into the rust-colored bay. For a moment, the water parts for her, providing a glimpse of the bay as it should look before its discoloration pools back up around her.

“I’ve been living in Florida all my life,” says the man. “Red tide happens every year. Hasn’t killed me yet.”

When I first moved to Florida, I erroneously called red tide crimson tide until an old friend of mine—who supported the University of Alabama’s famed college football team with near-religious fanaticism—corrected me.

In the mid-1990s, just a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Romania, teaching English to middle and high school students. For two straight years, every time I walked into my school’s main office, the secretaries there would ask me if I was a member of the CIA. It was like an Abbott and Costello sketch, minus the slapstick and laughter.

“Of course not!” I’d say. “I’m just here to teach English.”

“Sure you are,” they’d say, nodding in an exaggerated manner clearly reserved for idiots and toddlers.

“Really,” I’d insist. “I’m just a teacher.”

“Uh-huh.” They’d wink.

At that time, households in Romania were multigenerational; young adults lived with their parents until they married and started families of their own, and sometimes even after that. It was inconceivable to these women and most of the Romanians I knew that an American woman who’d only just graduated from college would willingly come to their country without family and friends and live there alone for two years. These women had lived through decades of a totalitarian regime that spied on its citizens and recruited citizens to spy on each other. It made sense that they would find the CIA an entirely plausible explanation for my being there. In the past, even Americans have launched the same accusations at Peace Corps volunteers, though no one has yet been able to provide solid evidence to support a connection between the organization and the CIA. The fact was, I had no way of disproving the secretaries’ claims, and my protests only fueled their staunch belief in my secret life of espionage.

In my classroom, I ran into a different but related challenge. With the Iron Curtain finally removed, my Romanian students were making up for lost time by learning everything they could about the West, particularly the United States. They did this mainly by consuming hours of Western television. Though I explained that what they saw in episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 and Dallas wasn’t the way average Americans lived, and that reruns of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman perpetuated racist stereotypes of Indigenous peoples, I could tell many of them were skeptical. Why would they take my unsubstantiated word over what they saw with their own eyes on TV every day?

Karenia brevis was named after Karen Steidinger, a researcher at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute who dedicated her professional life to the study of red tide, enhancing our current understanding of its causes and effects. The name strikes me nonetheless as a dubious honor, one I’d feel reluctant to celebrate or be so intimately associated with.

When my husband and I first moved to Florida, in 2015, I erroneously called red tide crimson tide until an old friend of mine—who supported the University of Alabama’s famed college football team with near-religious fanaticism—laughingly corrected me. Still, the imprecision of both names has always bothered me. Aren’t tides controlled by the moon? Aren’t they supposed to recede? Receding would be terrible for a high-ranking college football team, but a receding red tide would be excellent for all those enraged vacationers unable to get refunds on their beach rentals, to say nothing of the sea life killed by algal blooms and the thousands of humans whose health can be threatened.

Red tide also reminds me of another scarlet phenomenon that to this day refuses to recede: the Red Scare. Throughout American history, the Red Scare has mostly been a hoax concocted by leaders ruthless in promoting their political agendas. The most notorious among them, Senator Joseph McCarthy, resuscitated his dying political career when he delivered a speech on February 9, 1950, to the Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia. In it, he raised alarms about espionage in the U.S. government, claiming that he had a list of 205 known Communists who worked in the State Department. In a telegram to President Truman, McCarthy later revised the number to 57; their names were never made public. Red Scare tactics have also been used to flame anti-immigration sentiment, discredit the labor and civil rights movements, and delegitimize left-leaning politicians and their proposed policies. The message is always the same: Communism is coming to get us and will bleed its way into all the crevices of our culture if we don’t stop it first.

Red tide is named for the way it discolors water; Red Scares get their name from the red flags of Communist countries. In Communist countries themselves, the color was (and in some instances still is) identified with the blood of the proletariat, the workers who sacrificed themselves for the betterment of the state. In Florida (as elsewhere in the United States), the people most likely to resemble former dictators—who are better described not as Communists but as authoritarians—are the same people who insist red tide has nothing to do with us and claim to be protecting American freedom from socialists. But the American flag has always had red in it.

The next time I take Arrow to the beach, it is May. Soon, it will be too hot and wet for us to come. Hurricane season will bring heavy rains, and the mosquitoes will make it impossible to enjoy our weekly walks. It will also bring the sea turtles that nest on these beaches.

In the distance, a truck carves two even lines of tire tracks in the sand. As it approaches, the park ranger behind the wheel slows down, waves. She, like all the rangers here, is easygoing and warm, smiling at Arrow even as she points out the sign that says No Dogs Past This Point, placed to protect the site of the sea turtles’ delicate nests. “Keep your dog close,” she says as she reaches down from her open window to hand Arrow a biscuit.

Red tide produces toxins that damage the animals’ nervous systems; within 30 minutes of ingesting these toxins, the turtles begin to swim in circles and bob their heads, appearing sleepy and uncoordinated, drunk.

When we arrive at the sign, Arrow veers away from the bay and onto the park utility trail that runs behind the dunes. Overhead, ospreys eye us from their nest atop a plywood platform fastened to a telephone pole, the last remaining after our most recent hurricane. One of the birds launches, swoops, and dips especially close to Arrow, who is oblivious. It is not a threat so much as a warning: Do Not Mess With the Nest.

At the breakwater where the bay meets the Gulf of Mexico, we encounter another ranger. He is leaning over the concrete barrier, peering down below. When I draw close, he greets me before returning his attention to a narrow patch of sand. A wide, shallow track runs from the Gulf up the shore and to the breakwater where it reverses, making a U-turn back toward the water.

“A false crawl,” says the ranger. Some turtle lost sight of its destination.

Mature sea turtles are supposed to return to the place of their birth to make their nests and lay eggs, but sometimes false crawls happen instead. Scientists don’t know why, though they suspect it has something to do with the artificial light produced by humans. Turtles, like so many other creatures that migrate each year, follow Earth’s magnetic fields. The theory is that the light and perhaps other human-made disruptions throw them off course.

“It’ll find its way, though,” says the ranger. “They usually do.”

Even if most false crawls end up corrected, human activity still spells collateral damage for the turtles. Each year, scientists count the number of sea turtles—which can live to be 100 and have been on this earth for approximately 110 million years—along this beach and others on Florida’s west coast. Although the latest report says that the numbers are down from the previous year, scientists don’t yet have enough evidence to say whether this is specifically because of red tide. But red tide is certainly killing the turtles, along with manatees, bottlenose dolphins, and birds; just like the fish, their bodies wash up on the shores. Red tide produces toxins that damage the animals’ nervous systems; typically within 30 minutes of ingesting these toxins, the turtles begin to swim in circles and bob their heads, appearing sleepy and uncoordinated, drunk. Their muscles twitch and jerk. Turtles, like manatees and dolphins, swim to the surface to breathe. But red tide paralyzes them. Cause of death? Drowning. When scientists conduct necropsies, they uncover traces of red tide in the folds of the sea animals’ brains.

The next time we go to the beach, the Lab and her owner have returned. They are far from where Arrow and I stand, having walked beyond the sign that forbids dogs (and presumably their owners) from passing. Along the edge of the dunes, the dog digs furiously, tearing up beach grass, unearthing what no doubt does not wish to be unearthed.

“Maybe we should move,” says my husband whenever I report the conditions on the beach. One of the reasons we moved here was for the beach. It’s been a huge plus. “If we can’t go, what’s the point?”

Years earlier, I would’ve thought the same thing. Just move already. Why stay? I have always been confounded by people who remain in places that appear inhospitable, even hostile. But after eight years of making Florida my home, I understand better. Now, when my husband suggests moving, I feel paralyzed, one hemisphere of my brain afire while the other shuts off completely, my train of thought looping endlessly around and around as if I were paddling with only one flipper.

Before we moved from Boston to Florida, a neighbor said we were brave. To leave behind what you have for years understood, to be open to learning something you did not yet know, he said, took courage and humility, two things most people don’t possess. At the time, I found his words embarrassingly grandiose. We had enough money, cardboard boxes, a moving van. It seemed simple, actually. Straightforward. At the time, I did not understand my neighbor’s meaning. Now I do.

After my husband and I are done talking, I go upstairs and lie down on the bed, drifting and bobbing through unsettled, restless dreams, coming up gasping for air so many times, I eventually wake more tired than I’d already been. The thought of moving, doing it all over again, saddens and exhausts me. I do not want to go. Not only because this place has found its way inside me with its unexpected and daily bursts of beauty, not only because my husband and I have bought and made a home of our own here when we’d never truly had one before, not only because I am unsure where I would go next, but also because of pride. To leave feels like a failure. Perhaps our old neighbor was wrong: I do not possess courage and humility after all.

In the beach’s empty parking lot, I open the back door of the car and let Arrow out. He jumps down and pauses to sniff the air. He sneezes.

As we approach the beach, my eyes sting and throat burns, and the stench of the dead sea grows and grows. On the path in front of us is the carcass of a brown pelican. Before I can stop him, Arrow runs up to it and leans in, rubbing his shoulder against feathers the color of dishwater. I call him away; there’s no point in going any farther. Behind us the beach flashes silver in the early morning sun, light reflecting off the dead fish, mirrors signaling a useless SOS.

In Romania, I was astonished by how much my students appeared to know. Not only did they speak English far better than I ever could have taught them to, but they also knew its grammatical rules far better than I did. Some of these students, kids no older than 13 or 14, also spoke French, German, and Hungarian and could recite poems in these languages. They could rattle off facts about world history and culture or mathematical and scientific equations. At the same time, they blamed eating too much ice cream for the onset of a sore throat, or a breeze coming through an open window for a head cold, never considering that the child they sat next to in science class had had these same ailments a week before. A good Romanian friend recently mentioned that as a student, she was taught to memorize historical facts and figures but not to think about or interpret events. What was missing for her and for my students was what appears to be missing in America today: critical thinking.

Recorded cases of red tide have been increasing dramatically in recent decades, and the outbreaks last longer. Scientists correlate this with global warming. Warmer winters mean the seas don’t cool enough to slow the growth of the algal bloom and break it up. Scientific evidence also indicates that red tide is made worse by sewage and chemical runoff from farming and yard fertilizers.

Every year, the neighbors who live in the dozen or so houses that also overlook our pond ask us to help pay for a service called the Pond Doctors. Men in small trolling boats come and spray the water to kill off an algal bloom that appears on the water during times of intense heat and drought. Our neighbors have gone so far as to indirectly suggest that the bloom is our fault. My husband and I allow vegetation to grow on the outer side of our fence so that birds, particularly the common moorhen, can nest along the shoreline, and our neighbors think the vegetation encourages the algal bloom. They do not equate the bloom with the chemical herbicides they spray on their lawns every year, or the sprays and fertilizers from the nearby golf course that make the neighborhood smell like a cattle ranch. And when, this year, the moorhens fail to come and our neighbors lament the birds’ absence, they still do not make any connection between their behavior and the altered state of their immediate environment. But I have no obvious evidence to present them, beyond scientific reports that would no doubt raise skeptical eyebrows and questions about my sources—nothing persuasive enough that they might question their own theories and absolve my husband and me of blame. To my neighbors I appear, as they do to me, to have nothing but personal conviction, and so we remain at an impasse.

Another regular occurrence since we moved to Florida is the dumping of raw or partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay. In 2021, Piney Point, a phosphate plant for chemical fertilizers on the bay and about 20 miles from where we live, caused a public health crisis when its reservoir’s liner began to leak. A state of emergency was declared, a nearby highway was closed off, and people who lived in the immediate area—more than 300 households—were ordered to evacuate. To prevent an estimated 20-foot-high surge from directly hitting local communities, officials decided the best response was to release much of the bulging reservoir’s untreated contents—water that, environmentalists noted, had 10 times more red tide–feeding nitrogen in it than raw sewage does—into Tampa Bay.

Recently, Florida’s legislators have proposed a bill that would allow construction companies to use radioactive phosphate waste, like that from Piney Point, to rebuild state roads and highways. This proposed rebuilding, they assure us, would pose no threat to public health and safety.

I replace my weekly trips to the beach with visits to a county park not far from our house. It has a meandering bike trail and picnic shelters where people gather to celebrate baptisms, quinceañeras, graduations, retirements. A small inlet, shaded by sea grape and mangroves, that washes out into the bay borders another side of the park. Recreational boaters launch from the inlet, and herons and egrets loiter there, begging fishermen to throw them bait scraps.

I leave the car at the far end of the park and walk Arrow past a group of Frisbee golfers searching for errant discs in the dense scrabble of sabal palmetto. We follow the trail through a copse of palm trees and past a sign indicating an Indigenous shell midden that holds scraps of pottery thousands of years old. In the bay, a boat lists in the shallow water. The vessel is encircled by a gelatinous, dull gray scum of dead fish. The shoreline is an archipelago of death, and the islands of floating fish look unnatural, like flotillas of discarded plastic bags and fast-food wrappers, replicas of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in miniature. Maybe there’s no simile required here: the fish are trash, at least in the minds of some.

The wind pushes the infected air onto shore, and I am overpowered by the stench. Though it is sunny and clear, I feel as uneasy as I do when walking an unfamiliar street in a strange city at night. I steer Arrow away from the bay toward the boat launch. Here, the red tide’s grip loosens and pockets of fresh air open. I wouldn’t call it normal—but the scent is weakened enough for us to continue our stroll.

From the parking lot, a car horn honks; someone shouts. Our next-door neighbor waves from behind the wheel of his pickup truck. On his days off, he takes his boat out into the Gulf to fish; he has come to the park to check out the conditions.

“We can’t go out,” he says.


He throws his long arm out in the direction of the water, sucks on his teeth. “The water’s awful. Wouldn’t want to catch anything living out there right now. But—”

Please, I think. Don’t tell me it’s naturally occurring.

“—maybe in a week.”

“A week!” I laugh. “I like your optimism.”

He removes his baseball cap, runs the palm of his hand across his head, slips the cap back on. “It has to go away eventually,” he says. “Right?”

I am about to debate his point when our conversation is interrupted by a sound like punctured tires releasing air. In the inlet, just beyond the boat launch, a small pod of dolphins has made an appearance. Where they swim, the water is dark but untainted; the blood-red algae has not yet extended its tentacles there. I count the seconds as the animals submerge, disappearing, the surface of the water stilling, and wait for them to come back up. Just at the moment it seems they are gone for good, the dolphins reappear, shooting sprays of seawater from their blowholes into the air as they take in oxygen, the deepest of breaths, the deepest of sighs. Watching as the animals slip effortlessly above and below the water, I hope, despite all evidence to the contrary, that my neighbor, this time, is right.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Lenore Myka’s work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Poets & Writers, New England Review, and other publications. The recipient of numerous awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship, she is currently at work on a memoir.


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