ENGLEWOOD — The beach is back — at least for now.
“It’s lovely,” Port Charlotte resident Rachel Goff said of Englewood Beach. She and her son, Eli, celebrated his first birthday at the public beach Monday morning.
Joined by Amanda Wargo and her 16-month-old daughter, Willow, Goff said the beach was free of any dead fish, any other signs or discomfort from the toxic red tide algae that’s been plaguing Englewood since the beginning of June. They also went swimming.
They weren’t alone.
“It’s wonderful,” said Pat Bodey, a winter resident who described Englewood Beach as “the only place to be.”
In the last eight days, water samples collected by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission showed no signs of the red tide algae from Marco Island in Collier County north to Bradenton. It’s been a welcome respite for beachgoers and people whose livings depend on those who enjoy the beach.
But the bad news is, the current red tide bloom is not gone from Florida’s Gulf Coast, and Hurricane Michael didn’t do anything to drive it away, according to scientists.
While winds from hurricanes may help break up algae blooms, they also bring heavy rains, which cause runoff from the land. The runoff carries nutrients into the Gulf, which can feed the red tide.
Since Michael came through the Gulf Oct. 10, red tide has been reported in Pinellas County and northward along Florida’s west coast.
“The factors that contributed to red tide outweighed the ones that would reduce it,” Robert Weisberg, a scientist with the University of South Florida, told The Associated Press on Monday.
The red tide algae is natural to the Gulf. However, when cell concentrations increase to 100,000 or more per liter of water, fish kills can result and humans may suffer respiratory irritations. A million or more cells can stain water a reddish brown.
The current bloom formed in the Gulf in November 2017. It hit Englewood and Boca Grande hard during the first week of June 2018, and stuck around, causing several weeks of fish kills and repulsive odors.
After subsiding around the July 4 holiday weekend, it returned, killing more fish and marine animals like dolphins, manatees and endangered sea turtles. It expanded up the west coast of Florida in August and September, and by October was even reported on the East Coast, hitting beaches from Miami to West Palm.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers have called this red tide “unusually persistent.”
“Hurricanes in the past have not caused the blooms to dissipate, though the number of cases where blooms and hurricanes occurred at the same time is small so we will be watching to see what effects Hurricane Michael has on the current bloom,” NOAA spokesperson Jerry Slaff said in an email Monday.
But the algae counts are ticking down in the waters off Englewood, Boca Grande and Venice in recent days, according to the FWC, and that has brought people back to the beaches.
Still, red tide isn’t the only organism affecting the health of Gulf waters.
Manasota and Nokomis public beaches remained under a “No Swim” advisory from the Florida Department of Health since Oct. 10, due to higher-than-recommended levels of the enterococcus bacteria.
Health officials suspected the winds and rains from Hurricane Michael may have helped stir up accumulated pollutants in sediments and the enterococcus bacteria from birds, other wildlife and pet feces and humans, into local waters. After tests last week, officials issued the advisory for most of the beaches in Sarasota County. By Saturday, officials lifted the advisory for all public beaches except Manasota Beach and Nokomis Beach.
Sarasota Health officials retested the waters at the beaches Monday and the results should be available today.
Health officials in Charlotte County last tested the waters at Englewood Beach on Oct. 1, and the water conditions were good. Officials were also retesting the waters Monday.
Clean water, better business
Red tide forced Mark Timchula to close his umbrella and chair rental business on Englewood Beach for months. Known as the “Beach Guy,” he has gone to the beach almost every day, and has posted “beach condition” videos on his Facebook page. He hasn’t opened his business since July 7.
Timchula could smile Friday — the first day he could reopen — and encouraged his customers to come back to the beach. He wasn’t quite ready to encourage them to go swimming, due to the cloudy color of the water.
Not claiming to be a meteorologist nor a marine scientist, Timchula did suggest a weather vane is needed to know which way red tide blooms blow. Offshore winds out of the east blow the red tide blooms farther away from shorelines.
Locals returning to the beach this week have been a good sign, said Toby Delbridge whose family has owned and managed for the Barefoot Trader for decades across from Englewood Beach on Manasota Key. Restaurants at the beach enjoyed good crowds over the weekend, according to reports.
While he knows red tide is not new to the area, Delbridge said, “This summer really tested us.”
Information from the Associated Press contributed to this story.