For tourists on south Pinellas beaches, despite red tide, it’s better than home

ST. PETE BEACH — Beachgoers were surprised how easy it was to park Saturday. On the first day of thousands of people’s spring break, from morning through mid-afternoon, there were open spots at Pass-a-Grille, Upham and Sunset beaches.

Reports of red tide must have kept people away, some surmised.

Those who ventured near the water were surprised that conditions weren’t as bad as they’d thought.

“We heard about the red tide. But we also heard about the sharks. And we figured we’d brave both,” said Judy Condon, who was celebrating her 70th birthday with her sister and friend at Pass-a-Grille. “What’s the big deal?”

The women were vacationing from Tennessee and Connecticut, glad to be warm, not worried about respiratory problems.

What’s a few coughs and sneezes, a tickle in your throat, when you can sit on the sun-baked sand beneath a cloudless sky in 78-degree weather?

“Still beats Connecticut.”

“And Tennessee.”

Across Pinellas’ southern beaches, throughout the day, visitors echoed that sentiment, subbing in their own states: Even with red tide looming offshore, and dead fish washing up down south, being on these beaches was still so much better than being back in New Jersey, Delaware, Michigan.

“We left 2 feet of snow in New Hampshire and another 10 inches are coming,” said Gail Raczka, 70, who was sitting beneath an umbrella at Sunset Beach. Red tide had made breathing difficult and had driven her from the beach the day before. But on Saturday, she was by the surf with her husband and grandsons, who were on break from college.

“We saw dead puffer fish up by Caddy’s. There’s one in the water right there,” Cullen Steward, 20, told his grandmother. “But hey, I’m in Florida. So I can’t really complain.”

Bruno Falkenstein, 75, has lived on Pass-a-Grille since 1977. The recent red tide, he said, “is normal. Actually, not bad at all here. When the wind comes from the east, like today, the smell blows back out to the gulf.”

Red tide happens when algae grow out of control. It produces toxins that kill fish and manatees and can create respiratory problems for people. Recent data showed blooms stretching off every coastal county in southwest Florida, from Pinellas to Monroe.

A recent University of South Florida model showed that the Tampa Bay area’s worst red tide runs from Caladesi Island State Park to Belleair Beach.

On Saturday, the southern beaches were mostly clear. The air didn’t smell. But some visitors were still feeling the effects of the offshore blooms.

At the snack bar on Pass-a-Grille, Jenny Horne, 59, grabbed napkins to blow her nose, which had been running all morning. Maybe red tide? Maybe pollen? But it wasn’t enough to keep her from the beach. “We’re thankful it’s not as bad as we thought,” she said. She stopped to clear her throat. “Look, it’s just gorgeous out here.”

Her brother, Cam Snyder, was visiting from Indiana. He didn’t want to risk going into the water. “Do I mind?” he said, sipping a vodka seltzer. “Not at all. Just means if you’re not swimming, you can start drinking before noon.”

Nearby, Ellen Savage, 66, built sandcastles with her twin grandsons, who just turned 2. She had heard about red tide on TV, but decided to drive from Plant City to see for herself. “No smell. No coughs. No rashes on the kids,” she said, sitting in the surf. “If it was here, they’re doing a really good job of cleaning it up.”

She didn’t know it, but St. Pete Beach cleanup crews have cleared about 1,000 pounds of fish from the shore this month.

“Health Alert” signs at Upham Beach warned visitors about dead fish and respiratory problems. But hundreds of people poured by them, carrying coolers. The volleyball courts and yellow cabanas were mostly full. Paddleboarders and windsurfers straddled the waves.

“Red tide? I think it’s another conspiracy. They’re trying to deter people from coming to the beach,” said Kenduell Pepe, 33, who was sunbathing by the gulf with her boyfriend and brother. “It’s fine here. It’s beautiful. What are they even talking about?”

Cathay Burns, 61, had rented a house on Sunset Beach with her husband for 10 days. They like the slower pace of that beach, the tilt of the shore. “I was really worried when I heard about the red tide. It was all over the news,” said Burns, who lives in Delaware. “But oh my gosh, I was really happy to see it’s so nice here. This is just a perfect day.”

Friends from home, she said, were staying south of the Skyway Bridge, on Bradenton Beach. “They said the red tide smell was so bad there they couldn’t even sit outside for five minutes,” Burns said.

“I told them to come here.”