Tourists have been warned to avoid blooms of toxic micro-algae that have been proliferating in hot weather in the sea off Spain’s Canary Islands.
Tenerife in particular is awash with visitors at this time of year but some of those having a dip in the Atlantic ocean have come out scratching themselves after brushing up against the tiny algae.
The spreading algae have produced a greenish-brown hue in the waters off some beaches in the tourist haven.
“Since the end of June we have seen episodes of massive efflorescence, or bloom, of microalgae, sometimes reaching as far as bathing beaches,” said Jose Juan Aleman, director of public health for the Canaries.
The algae are a type of bacteria, trichodesmium erythraeum, also known as sea sawdust, said Aleman.
“Its proliferation is a natural, temporary phenomenon which is going to disappear” in due course, he added, suggesting global warming was helping the algae spread.
The bacterium “contains a toxin which can lead to skin irritation, dermatitis, hence one must avoid coming into contact with it in the water and on the sand”.
With the islands last year welcoming more than 13 million foreign tourists, local authorities were keen to reassure sun-seekers.
“Generally it has not been necessary to close the beaches,” said Aleman.
However, AFP found that several have been closed to swimmers over recent weeks, including the popular Teresitas beach at Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
Marta Sanson, professor of plant biology at Tenerife’s La Laguna university, said that “ideal conditions are allowing proliferation of these micro-algae”.
Those include “an increase in water temperature” as well as a “dust cloud sweeping in off the Sahara which is rich in iron, a nutrient which micro-organisms like”.
Countries with responsibility over world heritage-listed coral reefs should adopt ambitious climate change targets, aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions to levels that would keep global temperature increases to just 1.5C, the UN agency responsible for overseeing world heritage sites has said.
At a meeting of Unesco’s world heritage committee in Kraków, Poland, a decision was adopted that clarified and strengthened the responsibility of countries that have custodianship over world-heritage listed coral reefs.
Until now, most countries have interpreted their responsibility over such reefs as implying they need to protect them from local threats such as water pollution and overfishing.
But between 2014 and 2017, reefs in every major reef region bleached, with much of the coral dying, in the worst global bleaching event in recorded history. Over those three years, 21 of the 29 listed sites suffered severe or repeated heat stress.
Last month Unesco published the first global assessment of climate change’s impacts on world heritage-listed reefs and it concluded that local efforts were “no longer sufficient” – concluding the only hope was to keep global temperature increases below 1.5C.
The new decision builds on that assessment, clarifying the responsibility of countries with custodianship over world-heritage listed coral reefs.
The decision adopted by the world heritage committee said it “reiterates the importance of state parties undertaking the most ambitious implementation of the Paris agreement”, which it noted meant pursuing efforts to limit global average temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
It went on that it “strongly invites all state parties … to undertake actions to address climate change under the Paris agreement that are fully consistent with their obligations within the world heritage convention to protect the [outstanding universal values] of all world heritage properties”.
The decision appeared to implement the earlier finding that local efforts were insufficient to protect reefs, and indicated the committee considered that countries were obliged under the world heritage convention to undertake strong action on climate change.
But some countries with coral reefs are not contributing their fair share to even that level of ambition.
Australia, which has responsibility over the world’s largest coral reef system – the Great Barrier Reef – has climate change targets consistent with between 3C and 4C of warming by 2100, according to Climate Action Tracker.
Moreover, Australia doesn’t have any policies in place that will help it achieve those targets, with official government projections showing emissions are not expected to be cut at all, and instead will rise for at least decades to come.
Despite acknowledging Australia’s progress in addressing water quality on the reef, and deciding not to put the reef on its “in-danger” list, Unesco noted that climate change was the most serious threat to it, and said there was the need to consider how bleaching was affecting the effectiveness of the country’s plan to protect it.
“Last week the Australian government bragged that the Great Barrier Reef was not put on the in-danger list at this meeting,” said Imogen Zethoven from the Australian Marine Conservation Society, who was at the world heritage committee meeting in Poland.
“However, this week the Australian government should be worried. It knows very well that it is still on probation with the world heritage committee. This decision means Australia needs to rapidly reduce carbon pollution and reject new coalmines – otherwise our reef is at great risk of being placed on the world heritage in-danger list in 2020.
“The Australian government must now, more than ever, rule out any new coalmines and urgently develop a climate policy that will protect our global icon. It must do its fair share of the global effort to reduce pollution.
“If it doesn’t, the world heritage committee should hold Australia to account for failing to tackle the single greatest threat to our Great Barrier Reef – and for putting all other world heritage coral reefs at risk.”
An Earthjustice attorney, Noni Austin, who also attended the world heritage committee meeting, said: “The world heritage committee’s decision has confirmed what scientists have been saying for years: urgent and rapid action to reduce global warming and implement the Paris agreement is essential for the survival of coral reefs into the future.”
A shark on a Spanish beach is a vividly terrifying image. The holiday idyll threatened by a sharp-finned deputation from the deep. This is no “snakes on a plane” fantasy. Potential disaster looms. There are children out there, for God’s sake. In a resort where the sand may be raked daily, and where a margarita is never more than a few euros away, such disruptive visions seem all the sharper.
Can’t somebody do something about it? The animal was eventually captured – and was found to be already wounded. It is a parable in a meme (to mix narrative metaphors): our infantile fear for our infants becomes the innocent animal’s death. In this case, via a harpoon – administered either before or after its visitation.
For beach-goers used only to virtual, CGI terror, glimpsed on their blue screens, the reality out of that ultimate blue-screen sea is actually somewhat pathetic. A thrashing fish, tomorrow’s steak, taking a long time to die, paying for its mistake in coming into contact with a predator it wasn’t expecting. I predict that we are only days away from reports of great whites off Cornwall – which usually turn out to be basking sharks, whose appetites extend to nothing bigger than plankton. How strange we are, faced with our fleeting pleasures, that they must be tinged with mortality.
The summer sees us reconnect to the sea, an element on which we usually turn our backs – either out of ignorance or trepidation. But we are not stupid. Our fear is not unfathomed. Beyond the possibility of drowning, and below that evanescent medium, any manner of terrors might lie – from stinging jellyfish to ferocious apex predators.
I swim every single day in the sea – throughout the year – in the murky Solent under the shadow, not of a beach umbrella, but an oil refinery. I like the juxtaposition. It conjures up images of the days before package tours when Greenwich and Tower Bridge boasted Thames-side beaches, and Hampton Court claimed to be London’s Riviera.
Wading out in the dark before dawn, as I did this morning, I often get bitten by fish. A nip on the ankles from a bass is no Spielberg scenario. No one’s going to need a bigger boat. But you’d be a fool not to take a shark seriously.
Unlike cetaceans, their rivals for apex position in the sea, sharks seek no connection with us. I’ve never felt so safe in the water as I have done when swimming near whales. Even when a pod of marauding, transient orca drove me out of the water in Sri Lanka earlier this year (after ramming and attempting to overturn our fishing boat), I could rationalise their behaviour as mammalian, sentient. Admirable, even. With sharks, it is a different matter.
Recently, a TV company from Barcelona thought it would make a good sequence if I swam in the city’s aquarium in the company of its sand tiger sharks. With whales and dolphins, one senses a mutual curiosity. But these creatures, sliding by, looked at me through glaucous, reptilian eyes. There was no focus there, no reaction. I felt that the only interest they had in me was in the paltry mouthfuls with which my puny, bony body might supplement their diet. Last summer in the truly, rather than mimetically deep waters of the Azores, from the prow of a Zodiac, I saw a hammerhead shark twisting and turning in the sea below me. Even though I was safely above, I felt an atavistic frisson, as if it might yet leap up at me.
It is our imagination – never less than a glorious thing – that is at work here. But also, perhaps, a subconscious sense of guilt. This same sublime ocean, always so out of our reach, is now poisoning those monsters. There will be more plastic than fish in it by 2050. Our only resident pod of orcas have been unable to rear a healthy calf for 23 years because of PCBs and heavy metals in the seas. And last week came the news that a rare Cuvier’s beaked whale stranded on the Isle of Skye – an image replete with so many levels of “purity” – was the first cetacean death to be definitively due to plastic: 4kg of ziplock and carrier bags.
Meanwhile, anthropogenic noise – in an environment that for almost all of its existence knew only the cracking of pistol shrimps or the echo-locating clicks of cetaceans – now drowns out all else: diesel-powered freight, seismic surveys for oil, military sonar. When the shipping lanes from the US east coast to Europe were closed in the days after the 9/11 attacks, scientists studying right whale vocalisations realised their subjects had stopped shouting.
There are deep irreconcilables at work here: what we want the sea to be (a resort for our dreams, the edge of otherness) and what we have turned it into (a cistern for our sins). Any water is a mortal place – as the families who lost their young men on Camber Sands last year know all too well. But the water is an immortal place, too, a place of magical transitions, for all species.
The dark shark slides into the clear warm water, laden with all of our presuppositions, all the vital disconnections between us and the rest of creation. It is dumb, stupid, dull-eyed, to our minds. But perhaps, in its dim, antediluvian memory, which predates ours by 400 million years, it thinks the same about us. And as fearful as we may be of it, our fear of its illimitable domain reminds us that we are still alive and kicking.
A blue shark caused panic on Saturday after being seen by bathers close to the beaches of Cala Major and Can Pastilla. The animal was captured on Sunday, with local media reporting that it was suffering from a head wound, possibly caused by a harpoon
Experts have captured a blue shark whose presence in shallow waters off the coast of Mallorca caused panic over the weekend and led to the evacuation of beaches on the Balearic island.
The animal was first spotted on Saturday as it swam close to the beaches at Cala Major and Can Pastilla, near the Mallorcan capital of Palma. Pictures showed the shark gliding through the water a few metres from bathers, who dashed to the safety of the shore.
Lifeguards raised the red flag, ordered swimmers out of the water and closed the beach after the sighting. Experts in motorboats then conducted a search of the area to try to find the shark.
By Sunday afternoon, it had been located and captured. A local paper, the Diario de Mallorca, reported that the shark had been found with a serious head wound, apparently caused by a harpoon. It was not clear if the shark was injured before or after it was spotted near the beach. Specialists from the Palma aquarium said the shark appeared to be dying and they were looking into whether it needed to be killed.
One witness posted an account of the beach incident on Facebook. “Everyone out of the water!” she wrote. “The lifeguards were shouting that the red flag had been raised here on the Cala Major beach and that there were three sharks – the smallest of which was a metre-and-a-half long.”
She added: “What a pity that they have to come so close because we’re destroying their ecosystem and they have to survive.”
Blue sharks, which can measure up to 3.8 metres and normally feed on fish and squid, have been known in rare incidents to circle divers and attack people. In July last year, one of the animals was blamed for biting the hand of a man who was swimming off the Costa Blanca in south-eastern Spain.