Colored buoys attached to their bodies floated alongside nearly a dozen swimmers as they paddled and kicked through the Gulf of Mexico on a foggy Sunday morning.
AMI Open Water Club, a local open water swimming group, meets nearly every Sunday morning on Anna Maria Island at the public beach at the end of Manatee Avenue to swim the waters of the Gulf.
For the past few months, they’ve been swimming through red tide algae blooms but the latest report says that battle could be over.
It’s been a weekly tradition for avid swimmers — including those training for events such as triathlons and even some who are just there for fun — for about five years.
Most Sundays around 8:30 a.m., a group of up to 10 people help zip each other into their wet suits and take a picture together before diving in for a mile-and-a-half swim north along the shoreline. The swims typically end with breakfast or a drink.
Garry Fenimore, one of the club’s co-founders, usually arrives to the beach first and does a final check of the conditions about an hour before others start to gather.
The AMI Open Water Club formed gradually, Fenimore said, after he started swimming off the island in 2012. He started hanging out on the beach in the mornings, looking for other people to swim with, and they formed an open water swimming group.
“Why can’t we? We have the best beaches,” Fenimore said.
By 2013, they had a regular date and time set for their swims. They officially registered as a group with the U.S. Masters Swimming in 2014.
The club welcomes locals as well as visitors from across the globe, including Liz Mcgirl from London, who joined the group last week while on vacation. She was most excited to swim in December, as she usually has to wait until summer for the waters near London to warm up.
“It’s nice to have someone come out with you,” Mcgirl said. “Its such a diverse group of people. ... There’s something for everybody,”
While open water swimming provides a more scenic view than that of the pool, there are also conditions that could make their swims difficult. In the days prior to the swim, Fenimore will check forecasts and red tide conditions to ensure swimmers will be safe.
Fenimore recalled one day when effects from red tide were so bad, they cut their swim short. It was in August, when red tide first hit the waters off Anna Maria Island and they were paddling through the water, occasionally bumping into floating dead fish and struggling with the respiratory effects known to accompany the algae bloom.
“All of us ended up getting out of the water,” Fenimore said.
One way the red tide affects swimmers is what Fenimore called “fizz mouth” — think of an Alka-Seltzer tab dissolving in your mouth. Swimmers also felt irritation in their lungs on days when red tide conditions were present.
John Davis has been swimming off Anna Maria Island for about four years — though he’s been swimming for about 35 years total — and has seen red tide conditions before, but said those in 2018 were the worst.
For Davis, the respiratory conditions were worse than the dead fish.
“The taste of the water gets in your throat and lingers the rest of the day,” Davis said.
More than once in 2018, red tide conditions forced the club to swim elsewhere. It was also the first year they’ve had to cancel a swimming event because of the conditions.
Staying optimistic, the temporary relocations were more of a fun field trip for Fenimore, who said the club went to Clearwater beaches three times to avoid red tide.
Fenimore may not have to check red tide conditions anymore; the latest report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission found no presence to only background levels of the Karenia brevis or red tide organism in waters off Manatee County shores.
The news made the last official swim of the year for the group a special one.
“Anytime we don’t have red tide, it’s a good day,” Fenimore said.
Todd Woods, one of those joining Sunday’s swim, said the news of red tide possibly being gone was “the best thing ever.”
Mcgirl said she was worried red tide would keep her from getting to swim. She said she regularly checked conditions. Luckily for her, red tide appears to have gone away for now and she was able to swim at least three times last week.
As of Friday, the latest report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Karenia brevis cells which cause Florida’s red tide were measured at not present or background levels, including in Manatee County. Background or not present levels are considered 1,000 cells per liter of water or less, and no effects are anticipated.