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Whew! That Toxic Algae Bloom Smells Bad. Really Bad

Mary Radabaugh in 2016. Photo by Amy Green
Mary Radabaugh in 2016. Photo by Amy Green

Mary Radabaugh peers over her mask at the toxic algae spread across Haney Creek off of the St. Lucie River.

"You can see the flies that are on the top of it. They're eating the rot so that's like the sewage that is out there. You can see the big brown spots that look like sewage."

Radabaugh is manager at Central Marine in Stuart.

Here boats bob sadly in the blue-green algae that if ingested can cause nausea, diarrhea and vomiting and even can affect the liver and nervous system. But for Radabaugh that hardly is the worst of it, which is why she wears the paper mask over her mouth and nose.

"The smell is comparable to a Port-O-Let that's been sitting in the hot sun for about three months. It's really probably the worst smell you've ever smelled."

Coworkers John Skinner and Austin Kemp have their own descriptions.

"If you took a Porta Potty that's been out at a music festival all weekend and filled it with dead animals and then shook it up in a blender and then left it in the sun, that's probably what it smells like," Skinner says.

Says Kemp: "Good days it smells kind of like, it smells like rotten meat and cat litter. The bad days it smells like a septic tank backed up into a pig farm."

For more than a month the employees of Central Marine have coped with the smell by wearing masks outside and in the office running air purifiers and air fresheners. At least one worker has thrown up. For Radabaugh the smell lingers even after she leaves the marina.

"You go home at night, it's in your clothes. It's in your hair. Even after you shower you have it in your nose. You smell it. You taste it in your mouth."

Carla Viands steps through lush grass behind her home toward a sandy shore of the St. Lucie River.

"It's not as organic as you would think it is. You have the hydrogen sulfide smell, but there also is something very chemical-smelling about it. It's not a normal smell."

Lapping waves deliver wasabi-like bits of toxic algae, leaving it to rot near the carcass of a fish.

Viands and her husband have lived here for three years. She worries about breathing the air and wonders whether it's making her husband sick.

"He actually is a little bit dizzy in the morning, and I see him walk down the countertop with his hand like this. And I'm like, wow. I don't know if that's from living on the water or not, or blood pressure medicine. But it kind of makes you wonder."

The Viands plan to move in August closer to the St. Lucie Inlet where they hope the smell won't be so bad.

The toxic algae bloom is the worst in modern history here where the Indian River Lagoon, St. Lucie River and Atlantic Ocean converge. Some 160 billion gallons of polluted water have been flushed from a rain-swollen Lake Okeechobee to the area since January, triggering the widespread bloom that has prompted emergency declarations in three counties.

It likely will last through the summer, making this a smelly one.


Amy Green covered the environment for WMFE until 2023. Her work included the 2020 podcast DRAINED.