I haven’t been in my kayak in absolute ages for fear of dead zones and creepy algal blooms in the water. So this year I resolved to pay a lot more attention to marine biology so I could learn more about red tide. (Actually, I had always intended to give my son, Alex, to the sea. He was obsessively interested in fish when he was five; then he went literary on me and there went my hope for the oceans.)
So in January, when START (Solutions To Avoid Red Tide) held its hallmark fund-raising event at Mote, I jumped at the chance to attend. It was called "Oceanfest: A Celebration Of The Sea"—and a celebration it was, complete with 11 chefs from local restaurants and resorts and a preview of Guardians of the Gulf, Susan Sember’s high-definition documentary on red tide. I came to investigate red tide toxins but at once got distracted by the menu. It was all about feasting on the very creatures from the sea that we’re trying to preserve. Luckily, no one rose up to protest.
The evening got started in Mote’s fantastic Immersion Theater, where a sold-out crowd of more than 250 gathered to watch stunning footage of pristine beaches and unidentifiable underwater species that might never have been seen even on the Discovery Channel, as well as divers swimming way too close to schools of nasty-looking sharks. The high-def sample, created by Sember’s Essential Image Source Foundation, made those sharks look as if they were going to swim right off the screen to eat us. Yummy. I sat next to Don Dolan, a Mote volunteer who commutes from Holmes Beach. "START is very big up there," he told me. I found out it’s a better-kept secret in Sarasota than it should be.
Manasota chapter president and longtime START supporter Sandy Gilbert welcomed local officials like Carol Whitmore, Joan Webster, and State Sen. Lisa Carlton (who couldn’t actually attend because she was legislating), as well as former Longboat Key mayor and START founder Maj. General Jim Patterson, whom Sandy recognized as "the very nexus of the organization." Sandy defines START as a "grassroots organization that began after the red tide outbreak of 1995-96 that kept Longboat Key under siege for 11 months and 22 days."
Someone who will never forget those long months is board chair and Longboat Key restaurateur Ed Chiles, son of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, who recounted how he had just finished the Beach House and was afraid the terrible scourge to the beaches was going to put him out of business. Other local business people were alarmed, too. "Jim brought people together to see what was being done about red tide," Chiles said.
It turns out that nothing much was being done. No one was tying together research being conducted in different places, nor was anyone working to find answers to why algal blooms occur naturally all over the world and how weather and other factors, like pesticides and nutrients from runoffs, affect the size and duration of outbreaks.
Looking good enough to be a candidate on the conservation ticket and rejoicing at the size of the crowd, Ed joked that "START’s first meetings could have been held in a phone booth," adding that a lot has been accomplished since those days. START’s goals are to pressure local, state and federal governments to keep providing funding to develop strategies to control and even stop red tide, without doing other environmental damage in the process. Millions of dollars in grants have been made for open water testing and other research. He stressed that it’s going to be a long-term battle.
Dr. Barbara Kirkpatrick, physician and Mote senior scientist, explained that red tide is a Breva toxin that affects the nervous systems of fish and mammals. Manatees and dolphins can die after enduring too many encounters with it. And as we know all too well, it also makes humans sick and is a trigger for asthma. So START initiated an ingenious monitoring system that operates 365 days a year. It works through lifeguards and beach-goers who are equipped with BlackBerrys to report real-time beach conditions. Red tide is sneaky. It can be present on one beach while another beach only a mile away is absolutely clean.
Fired up with the desire to join the fight after viewing Sember’s film, the audience rushed into the courtyard to hook drinks from the martini and wine bars and to start the fabulous food odyssey. Schools of reporters with actual press badges rushed around taking pictures of people like Mote head Kumar Mahadevan, Andrew Reich from Florida’s Department of Health, Planned Parenthood’s Barbara Zdravecky, START executive director Jill Copeland, and hordes of Longboat Key, Anna Maria Island, and Bradenton people I didn’t recognize but longed to know. Someone called out, "You’re a reporter, aren’t you?" I nodded, hoping for a scoop. "The pad gives you away," she said, but had nothing further to report.
Feeling rather inferior for lack of press card, but somewhat bolstered by my first-ever lemon martini, I wandered over to the empty press table and started chowing down while the rest of the press worked the room. Luckily, I was joined right away by Andrew Reich, who was as excited by the food as I was. "Tell me everything about health in Florida," I said. He lives in Ocala and knows all about brown tide and green tide and thermaclimes and the attempt to regrow of the reefs. I could have listened for weeks. Did you know that Hurricane Katrina actually stirred the waters and helped break up the dead zone?
The conversation was interrupted by many food forays to refill our plates. Who knew that the Broken Egg does the most amazing seafood lasagna? "This is from our catering menu," the chef said. "That’s why you’ve never had it before." When I tried to remove an entire tray of grouper wonton tacos from the Pattigeorges table, Tommy Klauber gently steered me to the next station, where Euphemia Haye was serving Caesar salad with snails Leslie. Though not named for me, they were awesome. I sampled all the offerings from Sandbar, where I had interviewed Ed Chiles earlier in the week, as well as from the Beach House and Mar Vista. I had two helpings of the seafood bisque—and the seafood gumbo from Harry’s Continental Kitchen. Then on to the cold crab meat salad from Moore’s Stone Crab and the skillet-seared snapper Colony from The Colony Beach and Tennis Club. It was a seafood lover’s dream.
When it was time to go, Andrew offered me a pamphlet from the Florida Department of Health, called Red, Green, Blue and You. I’d had such a good time I didn’t even mind that it was entirely in Spanish. To learn about how you can support the effort, visit start1.com. My check is in the mail.
Leslie Glass is a playwright and the author of 14 novels, including the best-selling crime series featuring the NYPD's April Woo.