SARASOTA -- The huge red tide bloom offshore of Hernando and Pasco counties is growing.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, it’s now 80-miles long and up to 50-miles wide.
The bloom is currently sitting 40-miles offshore and is responsible for killing thousands of fish.
Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota is studying the bloom in hopes of learning more about red tide and the conditions that might be affecting it.
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On Friday, two underwater robots were deployed by Mote and the University of South Florida.
“We have our autonomous underwater vehicle glider called Waldo, who is out surveying for physical perimeters, and for red tide presence,” said Dr. Kellie Dixon, Manager of the Ocean Technology Program at Mote.
Dixon said while satellites capture the bloom’s surface appearance, only underwater robots and water sampling crews can verify the presence of the red tide algae, Karenia brevis, and detect the bloom beneath the surface.
The robots are able to stay in the water for long periods of time and gather more data per mission. Mote’s robot, “Waldo,” carries a Mote-designed red tide detector called an optical phytoplankton discriminator, nicknamed the “BreveBuster.”
This instrument examines microscopic algae in the water and tells scientists how closely they resemble K. brevis.
In addition, Waldo’s equipment measures salinity and temperature, two physical factors that can affect blooms and help scientists develop better short-term forecasts of bloom movement.
USF’s AUV, nicknamed “Bass,” collects physical and optical oceanography data, including chlorophyll from algae, oxygen levels and water clarity.
Data from both AUVs will support mathematical modeling of the bloom for short-term forecasts developed by the USF-FWC Collaboration for the Prediction of Red Tides.
Waldo is programmed to move south along the shallower eastern edge of the bloom while Bass is set to move south along the deeper, western edge.
Both gliders will dive up and down, collecting data at various depths and then surfacing every few hours to send updates to scientists using satellite transmitters in their tails.
Since deployment on Friday, Waldo has been patrolling within about 40 miles from the Pasco/Hernando border and has found red tide at the surface and to depths of about 25 meters (82 feet) in areas where it was indicated by satellites.
Bass has been transecting the outer portion of the bloom and has found elevated chlorophyll associated with the red tide into waters as deep as 40 meters (131 feet).
For now, the beaches in Manatee County and surrounding areas, are free of red tide.
However, that could change.
“If it hangs together, it will certainly move with the water,” said Dixon. “The water is in the process of moving south so it certainly could, I wouldn’t be surprised. If we get a big blow, a big front that comes through like we did a few weeks ago, then we could never see it again.”
Beachgoers are worried about the red tide moving south.
“I don’t want it to happen because then it will ruin our vacation,” said Valerie Santinello, who is visiting from Staten Island, NY.
If the red tide moves closer to shore, it will affect beachgoers.
Red tide causes irritated eyes, and respiratory symptoms, especially for those with asthma.
At this time, no Florida beaches have been impacted by red tide.
If beachgoers are concerned
They can check beach conditions by visiting: visit mote.org/beaches.
If you’d like to see Waldo’s position, visit: http://coolcloud.mote.org and click “Glider Operations.” Google Earth users can see Waldo and Bass’ positions at: http://ooma.marine.usf.edu/CROW/.
Mote and USF are partners in a major environmental monitoring collaboration called GCOOS – the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System.
GCOOS provides timely information about the environment of the U.S. portion of the Gulf of Mexico and its estuaries for use by decision-makers, including researchers, government managers, industry, the military, educators, emergency responders and the general public.
Both gliders are reporting data to GCOOS’s Data Portal (http://gcoos.org/products/) in support of these efforts.
“In the future, we’d really like to compliment satellite imagery in the Gulf of Mexico with our underwater robots' findings continuously, so that we can see what’s going on below the surface before a bloom initiates and starts killing fish and potentially impacting our coastlines,” said USF’s Chad Lembke, recently named leader of the Gulf Glider Task Team organized by GCOOS to assist in the coordination of glider efforts in the Gulf region. (“Glider” is another name for these AUVs or underwater robots.)