The holiday weekend and decreased levels of red tide came together to bring a resurgence of visitors to Southwest Florida beaches.
Manatee Public Beach was more frequented than it had been in the last few weeks thanks to the combined factors. Despite the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission releasing a report that found a significant decrease in Manatee’s concentration of the Karenia brevis algae strain, the water at the beach was still a murky brown Saturday afternoon.
Talia Waitkis traveled from Winter Park with her husband and two young children to spend the Labor Day weekend in Manatee County. She said she didn’t plan to let her kids play in such dark water but that red tide hadn’t totally ruined their vacation plans.
“The water is a lot darker than it should be,” she said, noting that the beach conditions have put a damper on the trip.
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She said she’s only been visiting the beach for an hour at a time and she refuses to order seafood when she goes out. Even still, Waitkis said her family was looking forward to the beach and toxic algae wasn’t going to stop them from coming.
“We prefer a vacation, so we took our vacation,” Waitkis said.
Local businesses have told a different story, however. Labor Day signals the true beginning of the slow season, said Mr. Bones BBQ co-owner Charlotte Mansur, and many businesses are counting on the crowds.
“This Labor Day weekend is the last big hurrah before the slow season starts and now we don’t get that kickoff,” Mansur said.
She explained that her restaurant usually sees a spike starting Friday night of the holiday weekend, but so far there’s nothing.
“We were very slow Friday night. I’ve had to cut hours back and come in to work the restaurant’s tables myself,” she said.
The Silver Surf Gulf Beach Resort has seen similar effects from red tide.
“We’ve been affected a lot more than I originally expected,” said Krista Wiechmann, a front desk associate at the resort, who explained that customers have called to cancel reservations that are still six months away.
Customers often ask the front desk what the beach conditions are at the moment, she said, but she makes sure to point out that what she sees could be completely different in the next few minutes. Red tide conditions have been hit or miss and vary by the hour and location.
“All I can do is refer them to VisitBeaches.org,” she said, referring to Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium’s beach conditions tracking system. “But if they live locally, I just tell them they should come out and see for themselves because it really is clearing up. The beaches are clean, people never stopped swimming and we even have runners again.”
But residents are well aware that Anna Maria Island business are suffering and many of them want to help out. Lynn Decina said she may travel farther north to visit a beach where she feels comfortable getting into the water, but she’s only shopping along Manatee’s coast.
“We’re trying to spend our money, specifically, on this island,” she said.
While Manatee Public Beach did have one of its better outings in since red tide became a threat to Manatee waters, even out-of-town visitors have noticed that attendance isn’t what it should be.
“We were worried because we left the rental kind of late, around 10:30, and we thought we’d have to park somewhere else and walk down to the beach but the parking lot was empty when we got here,” said Marlissa Irizarry, who is visiting from Orlando.
Mansur said that island traffic — or the lack thereof — shows just how hard Anna Maria has been hit.
“This weekend should have cars backed up to 75th Street trying to get to the beach on Manatee Avenue,” she said. “But you can just breeze right out today.”
The sheer amount of marine life killed by red tide — around 200 tons in Manatee alone — is heartbreaking, Irizarry said, but she said her family wanted to enjoy the beach anyway.
“This beach is worth the drive” she said. “You just try not to think about it because you come to relax.”
Local businesses say they’re hoping visitor relaxation translate into income. Mansur said about 20 businesses have linked up to host an island-wide scavenger hunt, poker run and bike show on Saturday, Sept. 8. The proceeds will go toward island businesses. For more information, search for Rolling With the Tide AMI on Facebook.
“With it being the holiday, we hope it brings more people,” Weichmann said. “I hope everyone can come and see how nice our beaches are.”