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‘We don’t care’: Algae won’t stop these hardcore San Francisco swimmers from dips in the bay

Miguel Melendez, 57, stands on the sand as other swimmers greet each other in the water at the South End Rowing Club in San Francisco, Calif. on August 30, 2022. Over the last week, an algal bloom known as the red tide has turned parts of the Bay red or murky brown and triggering die-offs of thousands of fish. But Melendez said he isn't too worried about negative health effects. "The conversation is there," he said. "But in my opinion, and this is just my opinion, we don't know what to do about it." | Kori Suzuki for The Standard

The San Francisco Bay’s biggest algal bloom ever is killing off thousands of fish, turning the bay a horrid color and releasing a vile stench—but these hardcore San Francisco swimmers say it won’t keep them out of the water. 

South End Rowing Club swimmers continued to take their usual jaunt out to Fort Mason on Tuesday morning, despite experts’ warnings that more warm weather expected for the Labor Day weekend could worsen conditions.

“So far we are not worried. Nobody really knows what to do about it, but we know that we don't care,” said Miguel Melendez, who’s been swimming at Aquatic Park for the last decade. “We are all a little messed up—if you swim in this bay,” he added, referring to the cold feel of the water at 7:30 a.m.

Nancy Sorrell carries a boat past a sign for San Francisco's water quality hotline at the South End Rowing Club in San Francisco, Calif. on August 30, 2022. Over the last week, an algal bloom has turned parts of the Bay murky and killed thousands of fish. | Kori Suzuki for The Standard

But swimmers did report a new slimy feeling in the water and said they generally avoid swallowing water—especially now due to the algae. 

A few said they’ve heard reports of swimmers with itchy eyes, mild rashes, sneezing or worsened asthma that could be a result of the water quality. But most brushed off the concerns, saying not much—including a flood of plant material after heavy rains or floating trash—can stop their morning routine. 

“There’s all kinds of crazy stuff,” said Fran Hegeler, president of the nearly 150-year-old rowing club, now located on Jefferson Street at Aquatic Park.

The late July bloom originated in the East Bay and has moved as far north as Richmond and as far south as Redwood City and the Dumbarton Bridge. 

Eileen White, executive officer for the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Board, said the group is still investigating the cause of this algal bloom, but it’s likely related to climate change that brought high temperatures in the spring with record-low precipitation. And with temperatures set to top 104 degrees this weekend, it’ll be prime conditions for more blooming. 

“We’ve never seen one this big in the San Francisco Bay,” White said. 

Her department recommends staying out of the water when algae is visible. Eating dead fish, shellfish or washed up algae nearby is not recommended. 

The Bay Area’s drinking water is unaffected because its source is in the Sierra Nevada mountains, not the bay. The state’s website offers a water quality map and ways to report algal blooms.

“If you see it, don’t get in,” White said.

Seaweed hangs from fencing along the underside of a dock outside the South End Rowing Club in San Francisco, Calif. on August 30, 2022. | Kori Suzuki for The Standard

But Hegeler said Aquatic Park, closer to the mouth of the bay, tends to be fairly clean due to the ebb and flow of the tides, turning over the water about every six hours. 

Some swimmers may avoid swimming during the ebb tide when the water quality is poor, said Anthony DuComb, who has been a member of the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club, located right next door to the South End club, for three decades. But he said the club was busy as ever with locals and visitors alike on Monday morning when he went for a swim. 

“It's not deterring too many swimmers,” DuComb said. “I think it’s fair to say that the water is not as nice as it usually is, but the regular swimmers are swimming.”