Researchers from FGCU and the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation spent seven days at sea studying Ian’s effects on the ecosystem.
They set sail on Oct. 18 aboard the Hogarth, a 78-foot research vessel owned and operated by the Florida Institute of Oceanography.
The voyage began in St. Petersburg. From there, the ship traveled south to Marco Island.
The floating laboratory has different workstations. At one workstation, a machine can test the total cell count in the water. During the journey, they stopped at least 40 different sites at all different depths. It’s a collaborative effort among many environmental groups and universities in Florida.
MORE: Researchers studying red tides off the coast of Southwest Florida
The team of researchers looked at various things but were most concerned with the possibility of harmful algal blooms.
During the first two days, the team used a machine to pull up water from different sites to test for things like chlorophyll and DNA.
Eric Milbrandt, with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, is the marine lab director. He focused on hypoxia or oxygen levels in the water.
Milbrandt studied the levels of oxygen because when hurricanes occur, they deposit freshwater on coastal waters, which creates a layered cake effect in the sea, meaning it traps saltier water on the bottom. That results in a lack of oxygen in the bottom layer, which can be detrimental to invertebrates and other sea life. Fish can swim away and survive, but this is devastating to corals.
During the trip, scientists noticed a lack of oxygen in areas around Gasparilla.
On Oct. 24, near the end of the voyage, researchers spotted what looked like reddish water.
The water mostly looked green, murky and dirty from both above the surface and below but this one was different.
Milbrandt determined the red-colored water could be associated with red tide blooms.
Scientists also found that sea life was hurting.
A reef called 240 Ledge, about 25 miles off Fort Myers Beach, was changed.
Once teaming with life, many of the specimens were caked over in muck.
“It was very beat up down there,” said Dr. James Douglas, an associate professor of marine science at The Water School at FGCU.
“It almost looked like the moon,” he added.
Hard corals at 240 Ledge were completely wiped away.
They spotted fish, but many native species were gone, allowing invasive species like the lionfish to move in.
The ecosystem could improve if the water quality does, but advocates are worried about what renewed Lake Okeechobee water releases to the Caloosahatchee could do to the water quality in Southwest Florida.
“What we hope is in the meantime we don’t get any further after effects to the storm like algae blooms because if we have this physical disturbance of the waves and the burial in mud and then we have algae blooms afterward that can really be a knockout punch for the life down there,” Douglass said.
Red tide is now appearing as far north as Sarasota down toward Lee County.
While red tide is a natural phenomenon, humans contribute and storms are known to churn up the waters.
“The thing that is we really just no one honestly knows is where it’s gonna go. So where’s it gonna move? Is it gonna grow more? Is it gonna get bigger? Or is it just gonna kind of wobble and just move around in the same area? We don’t know,” said Adam Catasus, an education and research coordinator at the Vester Field Station.
Hogarth researchers will continue to analyze their results to try to determine how to manage and understand the conditions making the red tide bloom.