Red tide drifts into Gulf Coast, causing respiratory problems for Walton County beachgoers

Sierra Rains
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — Some beachgoers might have noticed difficulty breathing or a slight allergy-like irritation while on the sand in Walton County this week.

On Saturday afternoon, a harmful algal bloom known as “red tide” appeared in low concentrations in the area. South Walton Beach Safety Director David Vaughan said red tide has emerged in areas east to west of the county, causing purple flag warnings of the conditions to fly across the 26 miles of beach. 

“We’re getting pretty uniform reports of irritation and it making the overall experience unpleasant for some people,” Vaughan said. “If you have an underlying respiratory condition or if you’re prone to being irritated by pollen or allergens, red tide is probably not going to set well with you.” 

Red and purple flags fly at Dune Allen Beach in South Walton County as a precautionary warning about possible red tide in the water.

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Red tide is one of the most commonly known harmful algal blooms in the United States and occurs nearly every summer along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Not all algal blooms are harmful, but a small percentage of algae such as the species that causes most red tides, Karenia brevis, produce powerful toxins that can kill fish and cause illness in people.

“If you go, it can make a day at the beach a lot less fun just because you get this nasty, tingly, irritating taste in the air, for lack of a better way to describe it,” Vaughan said. “It’s irritating.”  

Although unpleasant for people with minor to severe respiratory issues, Vaughan said the levels of red tide in Walton County appeared to be moderate Tuesday. In higher concentrations it can cause the water to appear murky or tinted red. Levels usually go from moderate to severe when dead fish start washing up on the beaches, he said. 

South Walton Beach Safety lifeguard Trenton Fuller keeps an eye on the hundreds of swimmers at the Miramar Beach Regional Access. Beach safety officials have hoisted purple flags at the beach this week because of potential red tide.

Rebekah Nelson, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said the FWC has received several reports of fish kills, respiratory infection and discolored water in the area that indicate a “potential of red tide being present in the water.” 

The FWC was collecting water samples Tuesday and will test the samples in the coming days. Red tide status updates are posted Wednesdays and Fridays at https://myfwc.com/research/redtide/statewide/

Red tides can last for as little as two weeks to longer than a year. According to the FWC, the duration of a bloom depends on physical and biological conditions that influence its growth and persistence such as sunlight, nutrients and the speed and direction of water and wind currents. 

People enjoy a day at the beach in South Walton County. Beach safety officials have gotten reports of red tide being present in the water.

“It’s usually a byproduct of runoff,” Vaughan said. “So when you get the combination of factors such as high heat and time to cook up and brew up, this time of year it’s not unusual for that to coincide with the height of hurricane season."

In some years such as 2020, Vaughan said red tide never appeared at all. But in others, it has stayed around for quite some time. 

“In the past we’ve had periods where once it settles in it can hang around for a while,” Vaughan said. “And I know we’ve also had experiences where it pops up, causes some distress for a while, and then all the sudden it’s gone as quickly as it appeared. We don’t know which version we’re going to get.”

South Walton Beach Safety Director David Vaughan said Tuesday that red tide levels appeared to be moderate along the county beaches.

Swimming is safe for most people. However, red tide can cause serious illness for people with severe or chronic respiratory conditions such as emphysema or asthma.

Vaughan said people with respiratory issues should use their best judgment when visiting the beach. In case of respiratory emergency, alert the nearest lifeguard or call 911.

“If you’re going to come to the beach, pay attention to the flag system,” Vaughan said. “This is one of those times where we fly the purple flags, and we mean it. Pay attention. Be situationally aware.”