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Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Sick, Dude!: Longtime surfer Boots McGhee is suffering from a long-lasting respiratory infection he believes was caused by red tide.

Surfers in The Red

Better get used to those long, nasty red tides. They could be here to stay.

By Steve Hahn

Alayna Nathe has spent the last month regretting one particular surf session at the beginning of November. For Nathe, an occasional competitor, it was a normal morning. She went out to Pleasure Point and starting suiting up, but within minutes she realized the water was a brownish-red color and that few of the other surfers gathered along East Cliff were willing to test the waters.

She decided to brave the red tide anyway. After coming back the next day and surfing again, she says she felt "something sink down" into her lungs. For the next month she had trouble breathing and found herself running out of energy as early as 3pm in the afternoon.

In the Santa Cruz surfing community, Nathe is not alone. Many Pleasure Point surfers have recently reported falling sick. They're blaming this year's red tide, which is shaping up to be one of the lengthiest in decades.

Red tides, known in the science community as algal blooms, are natural occurrences that involve microscopic single-celled organisms multiplying at a rapid rate. The cause is still debated—warmer waters and fertilizer runoff are often implicated—but UCSC associate professor of ocean sciences Raphael Kudela, who has studied the phenomenon since 1991, says one thing is true of the past three years: blooms have been longer and more frequent. This year the bloom started in mid-September and has continued on and off up to presstime. Red tides usually show up in late summer or early fall and clear up by the beginning of December.

"We've had, starting in 2004, more frequent red tides than we've had in the last 20 years in this area," he says. "This year it also seemed to extend much longer than in previous years. Usually they're gone by the beginning of December, but they're still hanging out here this year."

Local scientists have just begun to explore what has been causing the increasingly resilient red tides, but Kudela thinks warm surface water temperatures and weak upwellings may be a factor.

For physician and surfer Ben Littlejohn, this year's bloom will be remembered as not only longer lasting, but also as particularly irritating.

"Usually I'll surf during a red tide without getting sick," says LittleJohn. "But this year I was surfing for about a week in the red tide before I suddenly realized I was getting sick. I was getting a stuffy, runny nose and my throat felt stuffy as well."

Jeff Pappas, a bartender at Clouds Downtown and a regular surfer, also noticed many of his fellow surfers forced out of the water due to upper chest and sinus irritation.

"This was definitely the worst red tide I've experienced in these waters," he says. "Usually it is isolated to the coves and beaches where the water doesn't circulate as much, but this year it was so thick it was out in the open ocean, which I've never seen before."

Jim Henton, a medical technician, blames the red tide for body aches and a 102-degree fever lasting three days.

"Every surfer I knew was sick to some extent," he says. "I felt sick for two weeks."

Kudela estimates that this year's algal bloom caused an increased rate of illness because there were larger waves than normal during the bloom.

"The waves being big churns up the organisms," he explains. "These red tides produce compounds like methyl sulfide, which is a gaseous compound that gets aerolisized and irritates the lungs. I think that's just because the waves are churning all that stuff up and the cells are being ripped open and turned into gaseous compounds."

Many experienced surfers were feeling sick and staying out of the water, but amateurs didn't seem to mind as much. Dylan Greiner is a surf instructor at the Santa Cruz surf school, and while he personally reported experiencing minor eye irritation and losing his sense of taste for a week, only a couple of his students decided against braving the red tide."I make sure everyone knows what could possibly happen by telling them what happened to me, but it doesn't affect my business too much in that the average person who is new to the ocean is basically ignorant of the red tide," he says. "But we have had a couple of cancellations after I tell them."

Many of the surfers out at the Point said the older guys and the asthmatics had the biggest problems. Boots McGhee, the 60-year-old former chairman of the Santa Cruz Surfrider Foundation, unfortunately found himself in both of these categories during his mid-November surfing sessions at Manresa Beach.

"I'm still suffering from respiratory problems where I couldn't stop coughing and thus couldn't' t breathe deeply," he says. "I couldn't carry on a conversation without coughing. I got some relief from inhalers, but I couldn't sleep until I got cough syrup w/codeine."

Scientific research into algal blooms is still in its early stages, but Kudela says that the measurements he's been collecting over the past few years seem to indicate the increased length and frequency of the red tide may continue for the next couple years.

"These blooms are occurring much more frequently," notes Kudela. "It really stands out if you look at the long time series. If it were just a year I would say it was a blip on the radar, but this is now the fourth year in a row and they've been getting bigger and lasting longer into the fall every year. So I would expect that we might see them for at least next year, and maybe for the next few years."

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