Rust Never Sleeps: The Red Tide That Made The World

Steve Shearer picture
Steve Shearer (freeride76)
Swellnet Dispatch

If you've spent any time on the old blue briny, particularly the Pacific side of the island continent, but almost anywhere in the world's oceans, you'll be familiar with the red slicks that form across stretches of sea surface, sometimes so vast they're visible from space.

Yet even if you've never seen them, you've heard the term: red tide.

The micro-organism responsible for red tide gets a bad rap, mostly as a portent of a toxic future, but it's very far from being a bad guy and worth a moment of our time to investigate.

This satellite image shows a slick of red tide travelling on the East Australian Current offshore from the NSW Central Coast

First of all, what is this red tide? I've heard it called many things: whale sperm, coral spawn, red algae, and more, yet it's none of those things. The vast majority of so-called red tides are a type of single-celled Cyanobacteria called Trichodesmium.

This is a deeply unsexy organism. There are no Surfers for Cyanobacteria, nor likely to be. We don't give it attention as we do whales, dolphins, or coral reefs, but this colony-forming, filamentous organism is a Very Big Deal in the marine ecosystem, particularly in the nutrient poor tropics and sub-tropics. They also have a cool little backstory, which involves creating the conditions for all life on Earth.

Cyanobacteria are some of the most ancient organisms on Earth. They're considered 'simple' uni-celled Prokaryotes, as distinct from more complex multi-celled Eukaryotes, which is almost everything else: plants, animals, algae, fungi etc.

Prokaryotes are found in every habitat on Earth, from the deepest ocean, to the driest soil, buried inside our guts, or atop the highest mountains, airborne in the atmosphere, even adrift on Arctic ice sheets. A stream of airborne micro-organisms, including Prokaryotes, circles the planet above our weather systems but below commercial air lanes. Some micro-organisms are swept up from terrestrial dust storms, but most originate from marine micro-organisms in sea spray.

In 2018, scientists reported that tens of millions of bacteria are deposited daily on every square metre around the planet. Life at the microbial level is mind-bogglingly profligate.

A thick, uniform slick forms near Bermagui on the NSW South Coast (Albert McKnight)

The first Prokaryotes show up in the fossil record 3.5 billion years ago, only a billion years after the Earth was formed. These prokaryotes ruled the Earth, particularly the marine environment for a couple billion years, before the Eukaryotes showed up. Importantly, Cyanobacteria were the first, or pretty fucken close to the first, organisms to figure out oxygenic photosynthesis. In short, Cyanobacteria were the pioneers of incorporating energy from the sun via photosynthesis. This puts them at the head of a long line of evolution. No Cyanobacteria, no plants. No plants, no you, no me. No life on Earth as we know it.

Aside from starting a new evolutionary path, the newfound ability of Cyanobacteria to photosynthesise had another impact on life on Earth. Some 2.5 to 2 billion years ago, before Cyanobacteria developed oxygenic photosynthesis, the world was a fucked up place. The Earth had a “weakly reducing atmosphere”, with practically no free oxygen. It was a toxic soup of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and methane suitable only for the hardiest bacteria.

A side-effect of photosynthesis by our ancestral Cyanobacteria was free oxygen. O2. Evidence suggests that biologically-produced oxygen started to accumulate in the atmosphere and change it from a weakly reducing atmosphere into an oxidizing atmosphere containing abundant oxygen. Those ancient red rocks in WA? Cyanobacteria produced enough free oxygen to make everything containing iron, rust.

Then, once the world went rusty, the free oxygen produced more convulsions. A mass extinction of the old Prokaryotes and a new explosion in multi-cellular life - the Cambrian Explosion. It wouldn't have been possible without the liberating effect of chemical energy released by the abundance of oxygen.

No life on Earth, as we know it now, would be possible without the Great Oxygenation Event, and it was kickstarted by marine Cyanobacteria.

A small round of applause is appropriate then, I think you'll agree, for the stinky, slimy mess that washes up on the beach every summer and to which we owe our existence.

The stinky, slimy mess washes up at Cabbage Tree Bay, Manly (Jazz Slessar)

But there's more. Cutting back to the initial subject of our investigation, the Trichodesmium, it also lives up to the Cyanobacterium level of high achievement.

If you've ever scuba dived you'll be familiar with the process of controlling depth by releasing and adding air (gas) to a buoyancy control device. It's pretty cool. Via the same mechanism, small gas filled vesicles, Trichodesmium can rise and sink in the water column on a diurnal (daily) basis. They do this to hoover up molecules needed for their other main ecological achievement: fixing nitrogen.

Nitrogen, if you've forgotten high school biology, is essential to life. While nitrogen gas is abundant in air, it is not available to most plants and animals in that particular form. Trichodesmium deserve our respect because they are 'nitrogen fixers' - this means that they can take nitrogen gas from air and 'fix' it in a form that can then be transferred into the food chain. Diazotroph is another deeply unsexy term, referring to the ability of certain micro-organisms to fix nitrogen out of the atmosphere, in this case in the marine environment.

OK, so Trichodesmium is the main nitrogen fixer in the ocean, which means all the other plankton and diatoms rely on it. And thus the copepods, the crustaceans, and upwards to the fish, dolphins, and whales.

Sentient creatures get all the attention, and that is fair enough I suppose. They are more like us. It's harder to relate to some of the most ancient organisms on Earth, especially when we only experience them as stinking slime on the sand, or vaguely irritating slicks in the line-up. Still, it seems worthwhile, once in a while, to spare a thought for our oceanic microbial ancestors and the role they played in making the Earth habitable, as well as creating the continuing foundation of the marine ecosystems we all love to play in.

Viva la Trichodesmium!

// STEVE SHEARER

Comments

greyhound's picture
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greyhound Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 10:41am

Don’t talk it up to much. Or We’ll be putting it in coffee soon.

derra83's picture
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derra83 Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 10:47am

Good article Steve, but something tells me you wont be getting 300 comments in this one.

gsco's picture
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gsco Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 11:34am

Interesting, I assume this is the stuff we usually get on our Sunny Coast beaches this time of the year with the northerlies?

I haven't noticed any this year but we haven't really had much of our seasonal northerlies either, which must be the reason?

BigZ's picture
BigZ's picture
BigZ Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 11:51am

I was told that Tricho ejects from coral polyps as water temp increases ,particularly when severely heated i.e. coral bleaching, is this the case Steve?

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 11:55am

Fantastic article, interesting and informative.

Quick question and maybe something that could have been touched on in the article a bit more in regards to its place in the food chain but I've always thought the 'red tide' was toxic and affects small animals, in particular shellfish. Is it dangerous to eat seafood that has come into contact with the red tide?

stunet's picture
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stunet Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 12:23pm

Steve will have an answer, however this was the last piece of work he submitted before packing up the chariot and disappearing south in a great cloud of dust. He should log in, though when depends on the waves and the fishing.

tubeshooter's picture
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tubeshooter Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 4:45pm

Yeah , cool article FR ,,
Toxins from algal blooms can build up in shellfish tissue, particularly bi valve molluscs. Tests are conducted on commercial harvests before sale to ensure the product is safe.
As far as fish go , the blooms ,while potentially harmful to the fish itself , don't seem to accumulate the toxins as fast in the flesh. They also gradually dispose of the toxins through the liver , gall bladder etc..
Fish caught around algal blooms can be consumed and skinless fillets are the optimal way to prepare them for safe consumption ,, If the fish is whole the skin should be washed thoroughly , and the fish properly gilled and gutted. The guts should also be binned and not fed to any other animals.

freeride76's picture
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freeride76 Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 7:49pm

It's complicated Zen.

Marine toxicology is amazingly diverse, and Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) are very much a thing.

The prime culprits are dinoflagellates.
Dinoflagellates are a monophyletic group of single-celled eukaryotes constituting the phylum Dinoflagellata and usually considered algae. Dinoflagellates are mostly marine plankton, but they also are common in freshwater habitats.
Dinoflagellates like Gambierdiscus toxicus, cause Ciguatera Poisoning.

Dinoflagellates are also responsible for Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning.

It's nasty shit.

Cyanobacteria do have some toxins associated with them.

To the best of my research, hundreds of hours and talking to marine scientists our pal the Trichodesmium is not associated with toxicity to other marine organisms.

In fact, it was amazing to me, how little was known about it.

My personal experience/observations: it causes eye irritation and is probably not good to breathe in.
I've seen blackfish (luderick) gorging on it.

But I'd follow Tubeshooters advice above, he has practical experience with it.

bbbird's picture
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bbbird Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 10:26pm

NSW marine and estuarine blooms.... "Algal blooms can cause waters to be unsafe for recreation in both freshwater and marine water environments."

Algal alerts are issued by Regional Algal Coordinating Committees (RACCs) who are responsible for local management of algal blooms. Algal alerts reported on this web page are for recreational water use. https://www.waternsw.com.au/water-quality/algae

"The NHMRC algae guidelines for coastal waters for recreational uses are only based on a few species due to limited knowledge on toxic algae. Red level alerts are triggered when Karenia brevis levels exceed 10 cells/mL or when Lyngbya or Pfiesteria species are in high numbers.

A caution alert may also be issued where highly visible blooms elicit public and media inquiries and samples have not been identified or have been identified as non-toxic species."

It is an amazing world, humans have a lot to learn about the planet earth & 2/3 ocean.
What ever happened to the scientists from CSIRO fisheries, Aust Museum & Dept Ag? most are gone.... perhaps was easier for 'managers' to employ PR firms with focus on customer engagement . .. than scientific endeavour (meaning: verb; try achieve something).

Craig's picture
Craig's picture
Craig Thursday, 9 Dec 2021 at 8:26am

It's sad eh.

My old flat mate had completed a PhD in Marina Biology and is an expert in her field but couldn't get an interview for further work in Australia through the University system or CSIRO.

Princeton University flew her in for a job interview there and subsequently she got the position, up and moving her life from Australia. Crazy eh!

dastasha's picture
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dastasha Tuesday, 21 Dec 2021 at 4:33pm

As a kid I always thought it was the Commonwealth Scientific Investigation and Research Organisation.
Does anyone remember if this is true?

At some point it became the Industrial Research Organisation... probably for the funding...

endru's picture
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endru Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 12:04pm

Don't suppose you can tell us about the white foamy scum you see on the ocean when the swell is up. You can see it at city beaches or remote ones, so maybe it isn't pollution. My first guess would be waves hitting the cliffs and eroding enough to create that scum/foam, but maybe one of your microorganisms is involved. Or is it actually a consequence of pollution in the water?

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 12:17pm

That's caused by agitation of a salt and fresh water mix. It only occurs near rivermouths or where there is very high stormwater runoff.

It's not pollution per se, however it generally occurs at a time of high runoff when there would be other less desirable ingredients also in the water.

endru's picture
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endru Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 1:27pm

Thanks! I've wondered about that for years. The red tide info was great too.

Blowin's picture
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Blowin Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 2:39pm

I enjoyed reading this informative article very much. Thanks.

Here’s a suggestion: If it’s the role and destiny of Cyanobacteria to alter the makeup of the Earth’s atmosphere and enable the next leg in evolution and complexity of life, perhaps the role and destiny of humanity is also to alter the Earth’s atmosphere through industry and deforestation?

Catchy little marketing campaign waiting for any early adopting corporates right there. I can just here the Joe Turpel voice over ”This Sequel to the Cambrian Explosion has been brought to you by the WSL and it’s surfer partners who’ve contributed more jet fuel induced global warming at each international surf event than entire undeveloped nations would over a generation”

Pscott's picture
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Pscott Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 4:04pm

Great article - nice to see some deep ancestral acknowledgement! In WA we can go and pay homage to cyanobacteria in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, where they are always hanging around in the stromatolites at Hamelin Pool. And then motor on up to pay homage to Huey in the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area. And when the fun is over, fly up to the Pilbara to dig up all that good iron ore that cyanobacteria helped to precipitate out on to the sea floor as the pH changed. So lucky!

batfink's picture
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batfink Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 4:42pm

I’ve tended to avoid it when I see it in the water. I remember a few blue/green algae infestations at different places and they usually came with public health warnings to avoid swimming in them for health reasons. Anyone have any idea whether the red algae is also something to avoid for fear of rashes, ear infections etc?

Distracted's picture
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Distracted Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 5:36pm

Nice one FreeRide, although you forgot to ‘go the BIF’ and how that Cyanobacteria has ultimately helped our trade deficit ;-)
https://museum.wa.gov.au/research/collections/earth-and-planetary-scienc...

Spuddups's picture
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Spuddups Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 5:46pm

Good article. Does anyone know if red tides are generally bioluminescent?

blackers's picture
blackers's picture
blackers Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 6:15pm

Edit. Just checked, different “red tide”. Bioluminescence in my neck of the woods is produced by dinoflagellates, a type of plankton. Looks like red algae (not the bacteria) during the day.

Spuddups's picture
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Spuddups Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 7:38pm

Cheers. Yeah, nothing quite like watching glowing waves breaking at night. I was camping out a couple of weeks ago with bright stars and luminescent waves. Magic.

blackers's picture
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blackers Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 10:08pm

It is amazing for sure. The flash of light in the shorey, and, if you are walking on wet sand you can get "blue lightning" shooting out from your feet.

Constance B Gibson's picture
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Constance B Gibson Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 7:39pm

If you can't sink the pink, pot the brown! SA secret spot.

Sprout's picture
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Sprout Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 7:51pm

Great article FR. Trich showed up early up North this year, killed afternoon snorkelling when the wind blew it in.

freeride76's picture
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freeride76 Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 7:54pm

"Interesting, I assume this is the stuff we usually get on our Sunny Coast beaches this time of the year with the northerlies?"

It's more associated with western boundary currents and we have a real doozy here called the East Australian Current.
Normally shows up in blooms when the current flow first shows up early summer, with light winds.

Light winds allow it to form the huge colonies without being dispersed.

Chris Buykx's picture
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Chris Buykx Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 9:20pm

Good job FR.
Your not a geek, Im not a geek, Craig, Ben and Stu not geeks either, right!
Just see things happening in the ocean and there is probably a very interesting story there.
nailed this one, still more in it

lostdoggy's picture
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lostdoggy Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 9:43pm

Nice article Steve.

Just to be pedantic on this - "They're considered 'simple' uni-celled Prokaryotes, as distinct from more complex multi-celled Eukaryotes, which is almost everything else: plants, animals, algae, fungi etc."

There are also unicellular eukaryotes.

Distracted's picture
Distracted's picture
Distracted Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021 at 11:57pm

The red tide cyanaobacteria is also a different beast to the the red weed /algae that washes up on the North Coast of NSW, after the nor’easter derived cold water upwellings which is a polysiphonia.

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Thursday, 9 Dec 2021 at 12:49pm

Thanks for the answers above gents. Pretty complex stuff to try and wrap my head around .

And yes Craig, gutting the CSIRO should be another source of national shame on a growing list of many others.

batfink's picture
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batfink Monday, 13 Dec 2021 at 3:20pm

All part of a general anti-enlightenment mindset within the neoliberal philosophy, the LNP being our local masters of ignorance.

Clive Rodell's picture
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Clive Rodell Saturday, 11 Dec 2021 at 8:52am

Enlightening, thank you.

yogii's picture
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yogii Sunday, 12 Dec 2021 at 3:19pm

I live on the north island of Japan, Hokkaido, and we just had a red tide event here on the Pacific Ocean side - had a devastating impact on the seafood industry here - all the sea urchin and konbu were affected/died and all the farmers/fisherman day it’s going to have an impact on the industry for years

The first day it hit I didn’t go in the water but just being next to the ocean for a few hours caused my eyes to go red and watery, gave me a runny nose and sore throat.

Then the next day after actually going in for a surf for an hour or so, afterwards the effects were five times worse - felt like I had a really bad head cold for 24 hours

News article here in case anyone is interested (need to google translate): https://www3.nhk.or.jp/sapporo-news/20211207/7000040945.html

tubeshooter's picture
tubeshooter's picture
tubeshooter Sunday, 12 Dec 2021 at 7:21pm

G'day yogii,,
After having a quick glance at recent articles on red tides in that area it appears the culprit is probably a 'dinoflagellate' called Heterocapsa Circularisquarma,, and is notable for it's production of biotoxins in marine life, particularly shellfish.. nasty stuff.

yogii's picture
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yogii Tuesday, 14 Dec 2021 at 8:37am

Thanks tubeshooter, it was nasty!

zenagain's picture
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zenagain Monday, 13 Dec 2021 at 3:54pm

Off topic but what do wear in the water at different times of the year Yogii?

Just quietly, heard there's pretty good surf in Hokkaido, Aomori too.

yogii's picture
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yogii Tuesday, 14 Dec 2021 at 8:36am

Hey Zenagain, waves are very few and far between up here! Quality swells don't seem to get in here easily. I hear Aomori might be more consistent but haven't been down that way... literally the world's best lift-accessed powder snow is what we got up here :)

We get away with boardies August/September, then 2/3 a couple of months either side of that. Then you get into hoods and boots and it gets too cold for me, the lads get out there in dry suits and 8mm in winter

zenagain's picture
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zenagain Tuesday, 14 Dec 2021 at 9:05am

Thanks mate, almost the same down here (northern Ibaraki)

You don't have to tell me twice about the snow. Yew!!

yogii's picture
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yogii Thursday, 16 Dec 2021 at 1:46pm

Disappointed to hear you don't get many waves down there... that's north of Chiba right? I thought you'd get a bit of swell in there. Kyushuu looks like the spot, going to do a recon mission down there.

Let me know if you want to grab some lines around Niseko some time!

zenagain's picture
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zenagain Thursday, 16 Dec 2021 at 2:10pm

Oops Yogii, I meant just in regards to what we surf in- boardies for a few weeks either side of August and full kit (5mm+) in winter.

Plenty of surf in Ibaraki, got a wide variety of waves and some good setups.

Cheers for the invite and likewise, Fukushima is my snow haunt but try and go somewhere new every season. Wanna get to Asahidake up around your way one day.

yogii's picture
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yogii Saturday, 18 Dec 2021 at 5:23pm

Ibaraki sounds all right then! Been doing more exploring of Japan since COVID so will put that on the list.

Asahidake is an epic place, but pretty mellow and limited terrain wise. Definitely worth a visit for the experience and if you're looking for more hardcore terrain Kurodake is a good option in the same area - guide recommended. Furano also good when there's lots of snow around!

Crab Nebula's picture
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Crab Nebula Tuesday, 14 Dec 2021 at 12:04pm

Thanks Steve.
I sometimes call it the primordial soup. Not sure if it is exactly that but sounds like it is similar. It may not elicit the discussion other topics might, but I find it fascinating reading about biology and evolution. Particularly, if you couple it with Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

freeride76's picture
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freeride76 Wednesday, 15 Dec 2021 at 11:51am

Cheers Crab.

Waves are obviously first order of business for surfers, but it's always seemed weird to me that despite the orthodoxy that surfers are somehow almost uniquely intertwined with nature how little we seem to be curious about the biology of the ocean we play in.

One of the things I found so uninspiring about surfing in the wave pool is that we only share the water with chlorine molecules.

Every single surf in the ocean is shared with innumerable other organisms, all with fascinating life histories and, occasionally, positive and negative effects.

Crab Nebula's picture
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Crab Nebula Wednesday, 15 Dec 2021 at 12:43pm

Absolutely. What I find most absurd is there is sometimes a level of dualism between surfers' interests/behaviour and the environment.

Water_man's picture
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Water_man Tuesday, 21 Dec 2021 at 4:02pm

Thanks Steve. This Christmas I’m going to be the centre of an excited huddle. ‘Please dad, tell us more about that Cyanobacteria stuff you like to surf with?’