Red Tide. Blood Moon. Dead Fish.

By Megan Willome

Not the end of the world

We started to cough as soon as we arrived at South Padre Island for our vacation. Was there something in the air? Had something died?

After unloading the car, I went downstairs to say hello to the beach, to jump in the waves. It was 5 p.m., but no one else was in the water. One couple stared at me, frolicking.

I got out a few minutes later and noticed that instead of the sand being covered with shells, like last year, it was covered with dead fish. As I climbed the steps to the condo, I spotted the housekeeping staff wearing surgical masks. Back upstairs, John pointed out that the neighbors, one balcony over, were wearing them too. A quick internet search revealed the problem: red tide.

Red tide is an infestation of Karenia brevis algae, which produces a toxin that paralyzes fish so they can’t breathe. In fact, the fish looked like they died instantly in the act of trying to catch a breath. A status report on the Texas Parks and Wildlife website said South Padre Island had “high cell concentrations” of this menace in September when we were there. The site warned the infestation could be problematic for people with breathing difficulties, like asthma. In other words, people like me.

We wondered if we should we spend our vacation indoors, hugging the air conditioner. Should we pack up and head home? We stayed. We swam in the pool instead of the ocean. We bought surgical masks and tried not to inhale.

John posted a photo of us wearing our masks on the beach, under our Baylor tent canopy. One of my friends commented, “I love you you’re all ‘DEAD FISH WILL NOT PHASE US. WE WILL SIT HERE IN OUR MASKS.’ That’s the spirit. Fight on through that vacay with guts.”

We fought on, and we weren’t the only ones. Most of the other folks on the beach also wore masks, as did those lounging by the pool. We waved at each other and shook our heads at how strange we looked.

In the morning when the wind blew from the opposite direction — from the bay rather than from the gulf — we could breathe easily. I’d go out on the balcony before sunrise with my coffee and Kind bar and then walk along the beach, taking care not to get more than ankle deep in the water so I could watch for incoming expired marine life. My asthma bothered me more than usual, but not severely. After a run, John would put up our tent. Then we’d do our thing: read (me), listen to college football podcasts (him).

John noticed there were fewer birds than last year. That’s one of the reasons we like to go to the coast in the fall, when the birds migrate from the northern U.S. and Canada to become winter Texans. Last year we spent a lot of our tent time bird-watching. This year even seagulls were rare.

The red tide coincided with the lunar eclipse/blood moon/supermoon. If we lived in ancient times, without the internet to tell us this phenomenon was “naturally occurring” and “not caused by human beings,” I would have been ready to believe the world was ending. Red moon. Red tide. Dead fish. Come on back, Jesus.

But soon after the moon turned black, it reappeared. The world did not end. A notice on the City of South Padre Island website said, “It’s important to remember that red tide has happened before and the Texas marine environment has always recovered.”

What if we’d let the dead fish phase us? What if we hadn’t posed for a bizarre selfie wearing surgical gear and swimsuits? What if we’d cursed the algae for blooming during our vacay and not fought through with guts? We would’ve missed our most restful vacation in years.

In November we pause to give thanks. If this experience had happened only a few years into our marriage, John and I would have been ungrateful at the turn of events. But this Thanksgiving will be our 26th together. We’ve faced worse than a red tide. We’ve learned there is a different kind of thanksgiving, one that appreciates blue sky, soft breeze, warm sand, last year’s shells.

The previous year at South Padre I’d collected dozens of shells, and for 12 months I’d wondered what to do with them. The day after we returned home from our red tide trip, I glue-gunned them to a wreath, each one a token of thanks. Despite the fact that it didn’t match my house’s pumpkin decor — it looked as out of place as a surgical mask on a beach — I hung up the wreath with gratitude. And I hung up our extra surgical masks where our Christmas stockings will soon go.