Scientists mystified by lifeless band of cold water in gulf 'Nobody has ever seen anything like this before'

July 16, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MIAMI -- A mysterious cooling of waters in the northeast Gulf of Mexico is killing fish and chilling bathers along the beaches of the Florida Panhandle.

Coastal water temperatures from near the Alabama line to as far east as Panama City plunged suddenly from the upper 80s last week to the low 70s -- the kind of surf temperatures you might expect off Cape Cod this time of year.

What is most puzzling to scientists is that the clear, cold water is devoid of life. Fish are smothering in its extraordinarily low levels of dissolved oxygen.

"Nobody has ever seen anything like this before," said Gary Fitzhugh of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Pensacola. "And nobody has come up with an explanation about what's causing this phenomenon."

The best scientific guess right now -- and it's just a guess -- is that the cold water has welled up from the DeSoto Canyon. The canyon's terraced walls begin their gradual descent to 6,000 feet about 30 miles off the Panhandle beaches. The canyon is believed to play an important role in steering the tropical Loop Current through the gulf.

"There's just not a whole lot known about the specifics of what goes on in that canyon," said Sneed Collard, a biological oceanographer at the University of West Florida. "So it's very hard to say why there would be an upwelling at this time."

The chilly water -- with temperatures in the lower 60s a few miles off the Panhandle -- was first noticed by fishermen and divers in mid-May, Fitzhugh said.

The U.S. Geological Survey saw it too in satellite imagery. The cold water was stretched in a 15- to 20-mile-wide band just a few miles off the beaches, Fitzhugh said.

What was startling about that band was its utter lifelessness.

"In 80 to 100 feet of water you would see only dead or lethargic fish and shrimp," Fitzhugh said. "We were being told all kinds of crazy things. There were reports of big fish, like big electric rays, in very shallow water where you would never see them.

"It was like everything was being squeezed out ahead of this cold water."

The cold water also should not have been at the surface. "Having cold water from top to bottom probably killed all the food sources for marine life," Collard said.

In the last week, the blob of cold water expanded and moved to the sandy beaches, Collard said.

"The water along the shoreline usually has critters in it," he said. "But this week, it's barren."

Pub Date: 7/16/98

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