Researchers hope to see Gulf waters improving 6 months after Ian

Reporter: Elizabeth Biro Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:

Weeks after Hurricane Ian, a team from Florida Gulf Coast University and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation set sail into the Gulf to explore water quality, marine life and the seafloor. Nearly 6 months since Ian’s landfall, the team is heading back to study our water quality again.

20 days after Hurricane Ian made landfall, eight scientists from FGCU and SCCF ventured into the eastern Gulf of Mexico 20 days after Ian hit Southwest Florida.

Eric Milbrandt, SCCF’s marine laboratory director, was one of the scientists aboard for that adventure.

“Amongst all the devastation to my community and the time it will take to rebuild, I think this is a good chance for us to collect some new data and gain some insight on the eastern Gulf of Mexico after a major hurricane,” Milbrandt said.

Red tide map from October 2022.

In October, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s red tide map only showed gray dots indicating background concentrations in our area.

“We’re very interested, between now and the coming months, what the oceanographic conditions are that could lead to a bigger bloom,” Milbrandt said.

As they suspected and we’ve seen play out, a red tide bloom surfaced and grew, and it still lingers.

“We want to figure out how red tide works better, so we can help figure out solutions,” said Calli Johnson, a dive safety officer for FGCU.

The data taken before the red tide bloom—water temperature, nutrient levels, salinity, chlorophyll, and much more—is all crucial baseline information. Researchers will gather similar details on the new journey and compare them to now.

Another part of the mission is to evaluate a reef located around 25 miles off Fort Myers Beach.

“I was excited to be able to go down there, since we were worried about the conditions before, but I wasn’t too excited about what we saw,” said James Douglass, an associate professor of marine science at FGCU. “It was very beat-up down there… it almost looked like the moon.”

After Ian, it was almost unrecognizable. Sand filled in the ledge, and very few sea-bottom stragglers were left.

“It’s going to take mother nature a long time to rebuild,” said Cole Tillman, an FGCU marine science student. “Could be decades, could be years. I don’t know.”

How does it look 6 months later? The team is setting sail again to find out. Past data on the sea bottom, red tide, and overall water quality from immediately after Ian will be compared to current data, with the hope of seeing some recovery.

The Weatherbird is one of two research vessels operated by the state-funded Florida Institute of Oceanography, which supports marine science research in the state’s university system.

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