Novelist and author Randy Wayne White is quick to say he’s no expert on red tide, but he does know Southwest Florida.
In three dozen novels and numerous essays over the years, White has faithfully depicted the joys and sorrows of the region’s rugged terrain and its equally rugged characters, crafting stories that show the inseparability of people and place, especially where sea meets sand. Fishing guides and aging jocks navigate a maze of flats and channels, plunging from speeding boats into waters lit with phosphorescence like stars in the sky.
“Maybe the intimacies of water and women,” White wrote in the opening of “Sanibel Flats,” his 1991 debut novel, “are the only two things a man never really forgets.”
Those waters are now being tainted with red tide, algae that hatch deep in the Gulf of Mexico intermittently roll ashore in toxic blooms and get inflamed by coastal pollution. As of Monday, the city of Sanibel had scooped up nearly 310 tons of dead marine life. More than 20 dolphins, at least 605 sea turtles and about 100 manatees have turned up dead as scientists continue to sort through carcasses to determine which were killed by red tide. Businesses have been crippled.
White, a careful writer known for thoroughly researching his books, and a globe-trotting adventurer who’s been stabbed and shot, has lived in and fished the area long enough to know the toll taken on his community. And that something needs to be fixed.
“I’m happy to speculate,” he said. “I spend my life speculating.”
For years, he’s kept journals “in a goofball sort of way” tracking weather patterns, among other things, and noticed that every year there’s a hurricane or a winter with heavy rain, red tides follow.
“This year in particular, the combination of red tide offshore and the so-called blue green algae coming ... down from our estuary and river and the meeting, that’s a perfect storm,” he said. “I can’t say it’s the worst this year because I’m no longer a fishing guide. But men and women who I trust say it’s been the worst year ever.”
White doesn’t place the blame on sugar farmers south of the lake like some critics do, although he’s quick to point out he’s no fan of the corporate farms and that whatever pollution they’ve dumped in the lake in the past needs to be addressed. But he does believe nutrients in pollution, from urban run-off draining from Orlando to leaky septic tanks and cattle ranches, are making things worse.
“It’s hard to convince myself that nitrates, fertilizers of all types, don’t play some part,” he said.
He’s also worried that in the current frenzy to assign blame and find solutions, real answers like addressing pollution and fixing the state’s plumbing will be overlooked.
“We have these events and my God people are up in arms. And then the next winter is dry and the blooms go away. The fish kills go away. And that usually lasts three to five years,” he said. “And then it happens again and oh my Lord it’s the apocalypse. We must do something now. Well, we should have done something 25 years ago.”