Torpedoes' target: Red Tide

No, it's not a Hollywood movie about submarine warfare. It's about fighting the toxic bloom that kills so many fish and drives so many people, including tourists, away from the gulf.

Published April 13, 2006

SARASOTA - Don't panic if you spot a winged torpedo in the Gulf of Mexico, it's not like a scene from The Hunt for Red October.

It's the hunt for Red Tide.

Scientists are preparing to launch remote-controlled devices that look like torpedoes this summer in hopes of finding blooms of Red Tide, the toxic algae that last year killed thousands of fish in the gulf and created a stink that drove tourists away from Pinellas County beaches.

Not that anyone wants Red Tide, but researchers say it's sort of like finding hurricanes: The earlier you spot them and the more you learn about how they are formed, the better for everyone.

"We hope to find one before it makes landfall," said Richard Stumpf, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which helped finance the program. That will help scientists predict whether the blooms are going to come near the shore later.

The search will be conducted by three bright yellow gliders, which were purchased for about $75,000 each and have been fitted with a Red Tide sensing device invented by Gary Kirkpatrick, a scientist at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

The robot gliders can be remote controlled and sent to specific areas where Red Tide has been reported. They also can roam the sea searching for Red Tide that might otherwise go unnoticed until it bloomed large and began killing fish.

"You can basically just be out there exploring," said John Dunnigan, assistant administrator of the NOAA.

Researchers already take regular water samples in the gulf and receive information about Red Tide from fishermen and other volunteers. That information is valuable, said Cindy Heil, a senior scientist with the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and an expert on Red Tide.

But beginning in August or so, the gliders will provide additional information by staying in the gulf for as much as a month at a time, and diving as deep as 100 feet. Scientists at Mote will be able to track a glider's position constantly, and can put the data in a computer program to create a three-dimensional model of Red Tide outbreaks. Eventually, all this will be put on a Web site the public can view.

Finding Red Tide early is important, not just for forecasting but also for learning more about why and how outbreaks occur. Red Tide blooms often begin below the surface, another reason scientists believe the gliders will help them find the blooms early.

The glider may look like a torpedo, but it's not fast: It travels about half a mile per hour. It communicates data through radio and satellite links.

Onboard, the Red Tide sensor uses an optical device to check water samples for Red Tide. This device does have some drawbacks. For one thing, it doesn't work so well in darker water, and sometime darker water is found close to shore. It is not 100 percent accurate, so another test must be done to confirm the sensor has really found Red Tide.

But a more accurate sensing device already is under development.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or 727 893-8232.