A scuba diver’s view of red tide

red tide diver crab
This dead crab was spotted three miles offshore of Bradenton Beach. - Curt Bowen | Submitted

The recent red tide produced fish kills that littered the Island’s Gulf-side beaches and this begs the question: Are there any fish left in this part of the Gulf?

Sarasota-based professional underwater cinematographer, photographer and explorer Curt Bowen has some answers to that question.

On Aug. 29, Bowen conducted four dives in the Gulf of Mexico at various depths offshore of the Island.

He compiled his underwater footage into a short video titled, “Red Tide: The Death of our Shores” and posted it on his Facebook page.

“What I found was both shocking and hopeful,” he wrote in his post.

Bowen’s video begins with footage shot at site 1, one mile offshore of the Bradenton Beach/Holmes Beach border in murky water that was 15-feet deep and offered a foot of visibility. Other than plants and plankton, no living creatures are seen.

The embedded text says, “Estimated loss of life 98 percent.”

The site 2 footage was shot three miles offshore of Bradenton Beach in water 24-feet deep with eight to nine feet of visibility and an estimated loss of life 40 percent. The footage includes a decomposing fish that falls apart in Bowen’s hands, a dead crab resting on the bottom and some live fish swimming around.

The site 3 footage was shot seven miles offshore of Longboat Pass, in water 41-feet deep, with 10 to 15 feet of visibility and an estimated 10 percent loss of life. Many varieties of fish are seen swimming at this site, but Bowen also picks up a lifeless shell that somewhat resembles a sand dollar.

Site 4 was one mile offshore from the northern end of Longboat Key in murky water 18 feet deep with 12 to 18 inches of visibility and an estimated the loss of life of 99 percent. Bowen is seen picking up several lifeless clam and scallop shells. He also picks up a lifeless sea urchin and finds a dead stone crab tangled in an underwater plant.

Diver’s observations

When contacted Sunday, Bowen shared more observations.

“It was hit really hard at one mile out, and it slowly got better farther offshore. I calculated the percentages according to what I saw alive and dead. That doesn’t mean that some of the fish didn’t swim away, but I didn’t see anything alive at one mile. Then again, I could only see for 15 inches,” he said, noting the plankton and dead particles in the water greatly reduced visibility.

“That’s why you couldn’t see for more than a foot at one mile out,” Bowen said.

“At seven miles out, I saw a few things dead, but there were a lot of live fish. At 15 miles, I would imagine it’s not affected at all,” he added.

Regarding the dead scallops and clams he discovered, Bowen said, “They’re usually buried in the sand, but they must’ve tried to unbury themselves to get away from the red tide. They obviously didn’t make it because I’ve never seen clams scattered across the bottom like that – and I’ve been diving in the Gulf for 30 years.

Regarding the fish population, Bowen said, “The red tide floats on the surface. The deeper you go, the better it’ll be – which is good, because those fish will come back in and repopulate the shallow water once the red tide goes away. It’ll take a couple years. We had a big red tide kill in 2005, and it took two years to get to almost normal. It wasn’t as bad as this one, but it was pretty close. I’ve never seen it this bad.”

red tide diver fish
This dead and decomposing fish was found three miles offshore from Bradenton Beach. – Curt Bowen | Submitted

“We’re on the north end of the kill. The currents that come out of Tampa Bay typically run south, so it could have been keeping the red tide from killing stuff at 10 or 15 miles. Out of Fort Myers and Port Charlotte, the currents go outwards, so I’m thinking there’s going to be a worse kill in deeper water than there was in Anna Maria. We got lucky because of the Tampa currents. I’m trying to get a boat out of Fort Myers and go down there to see how many miles offshore that kill was,” Bowen said.

He also plans to repeat his Island dives in the coming months to continue monitoring the underwater conditions.

Bowen is the owner and publisher of Advanced Diver Magazine, and he’s worked with several television networks including National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. He’s also the founder of the ADM Exploration Foundation, and you can visit him online.

Related Coverage

Red tide lessens

Red tides, lost summers

Red tide FAQs