The 30-acre man-made island known as Nathan Benderson Park was created by developers close to the border of Manatee and Sarasota counties specifically to showcase the area to the entire world.
Designed for special events, like world-class rowing canoeing and triathlons, not to mention local use by avid bicyclists, runners, joggers and walkers, the park’s reputation has been soaring the past three years, culminating with a well-received World Rowing Championship two weeks ago.
We always put the safety of our athletes first. We had our medical delegate and our head technical delegate go out do some testing in the water and the tests showed the algae in the water was too high so we had to make that call based on the safety of our athletes.
Chelsea White, International Triathlon Union, on swimming ban
But the park received a bit of a disappointment last week when its lake was ruled off limits to swimmers due to a blue-green algae bloom during the first ever Sarasota-Bradenton International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Cup, which featured athletes from roughly 16 countries.
The ITU was forced into a contingency plan that called for a duathlon, a run-bike-run, instead of a triathlon, or swim-bike-run.
While some spectators may have been disappointed, Steve Huard, a Sarasota County Health Department spokesman, said park officials and the ITU made the right decision.
“We suggest that you not swim in it period,” Huard said Wednesday of blue-green algae blooms, which often look like green paint on the water. “If you do come in contact with a bloom, wash in soap and water immediately.”
Although there is some debate among park officials whether the blue-green algae was toxic or non-toxic, Huard said all blue-green algae is potentially dangerous.
“Oh, absolutely, you want to make the decision in favor of good health,” Huard said. “Some people may be sensitive to an algae and some not. Some people may develop a rash from contact, others not. But some who don’t get a rash may get respiratory problems. It’s all very personally based when it comes contact with algae.”
Bob Whitford, the director of facilities for the non-profit Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, also known as SANCA, which operates the park for Sarasota County, said he was disappointed in the cancellation of the swim even though it was beyond his control.
“We’re here for the athletes and we wanted to have a pristine environment for them to train in,” Whitford said Wednesday.
A ‘perfect’ algae storm
Knowing the triathlon was coming, SANCA began testing the lake at Nathan Benderson Park for algae or other lifeforms many months ago.
Every detail checked out fine up until a spate of unusual weather including heavy rains in August, then Hurricane Irma in early September and then warm weather that drew nutrients up from the cooler portions of the lake, Whitford said.
Huard called it “a perfect algae storm.”
“This kind of algae blooms when conditions are right,” Huard said. “It can come and go quickly. There is no way to tell. It’s just a natural bloom that happens. We had the perfect conditions, including a lot of rain, some runoff, warm temperatures during the day. It was the perfect algae storm and the organizers made the right decision calling off the swimming.”
The final test of the lake for blue-green algae content a week before the triathlon showed there were 159,000 live blue-green algae cells per milliliter of lake water, which exceeded ITU’s allowable limit for athletes to swim in of 100,000 live cells of blue-green algae per milliliter.
Are some algaes non-toxic?
Although Huard would have been yelling out, “All triathletes out of the water” no matter what type of blue-green algae was floating there, Whitford is still seeking answers for future triathlons about whether there is “good” blue-green algae that people can swim through.
Blue-green algae is still something that is a little ambiguous on the world stage, Whitford added.
“We know there are toxic blue-green algae and non-toxic blue-green algae and the ITU is now working to identify what is potentially dangerous,” Whitford said.
Huard said he has never heard of toxic and non-toxic blue-green algae and chooses to stick to his belief that all blue-green algae can be toxic to some and non-toxic to others.
When asked about the algae, ITU spokeswoman Chelsea White more or less agreed with Huard: “We always put the safety of our athletes first. We had our medical delegate and our head technical delegate go out do some testing in the water and the tests showed the algae in the water was too high so we had to make that call based on the safety of our athletes.”
Whitford and his team want to work with Sarasota County and Southwest Florida Water Management District officials to learn if there is anything they can do to combat blue-green algae at future swimming events.
“There are many parts to this,” Whitford said. “We are in a freshwater watershed that brings drinking water all the way to Bradenton. There is nothing that one entity can do. It has to be done on a regional basis.”
All in all, Whitford and other “island” officials are expected to bounce back from the triathlon disappointment and once again have flawless outcomes like the World Rowing Championships.
“From all accounts that went off very well,” Whitford said of the rowing. “The world came to Sarasota and that was the intent of the park to bring people to the region to have them enjoy our beautiful facility.”