Saltwater estuaries are teeming with wildlife, from birds and animals to underwater
sea creatures. There is nothing quite like sitting in a boat an observing an Ibis or Blue
Heron stalking small fish and crustaceans, or watching redfish tailing to engulf crabs or
shrimp from their muddy underwater hideouts. The saltwater flats provide a welcome
home to all sorts of sea life.
People are naturally drawn to the ocean and to saltwater. It's nice to throw your feet
over the side of a boat and feel the cool water touch your skin on a hot day. What a relief.
Feeling the sand squish between your toes and the waves soothing action is relaxing. Florida
is a big saltwater playground for boaters, swimmers, anglers, and scuba divers, and people
who walk the beach barefoot to tickle their feet in the waves. We never really consider the
hidden organisms lurking in the water, and the potential for health risks.
Most vacationers visit the warm saltwater areas from their homes in the north where the
ocean is colder. This creates a false sense of security about the dangers that are present
in seawater such as parasites, bacteria, stinging and poisonous fish and mollusks. None of
the underwater (and some land) critters that you are likely to encounter in Florida are out
waiting for you. Problems arise when you get to close or when you step on something
buried in the sand.
This story is true and raises some serious questions about warm seawater.
I had a late afternoon charter to Mosquito Lagoon. The wind was blowing wildly out of
the northwest at about 15 mph with gusts to 20 mph. Naturally, the lagoon, which is a large
body of warm shallow water (3 feet or less), was very rough with a heavy chop and waves
in the 2 to 3 foot range. Trying to fly fish in these conditions is very difficult and makes demands
on the best of anglers. Large weight rods of 10 wt are used with floating sink tip lines and
The best alternative is to find refuge from the wind and the protection from an island. The
other consideration was a moon-tide bringing a very high or a very low tide. The tide was
going out, like someone pulled the plug. I found a nice flat behind an island and motored
over to a stake out point. The anchor and rode (anchor line) were set.
The two anglers with me prepared their rods and Alan lowered himself onto the flat. He
had rubber-soled sneakers on. Jim started to follow when I noticed that he was barefoot.
I stopped him and made him put my flats boots on to protect his feet. Then he lowered
himself over and started to wade the flat.
The flat was about 300 yards across by 100 yards wide with a couple of small channels carrying
baitfish and crabs. We were shielded well from the wind, but I was still concerned about the
falling tide. I stood on the poling platform to sight redfish and picked up two singles moving
along a channel. Quickly, I motioned to Alan and Jim, and pointed out the fish, which they could
not see from where they stood. The water was about twelve to eighteen inches deep. They had
to go slow so as not to spook the fish. Jim soon had a redfish ripping line off his spool. He
kept looking back at me and I motioned him to follow the fish but to keep the rod tip up. He
was obviously having difficulty so I got down off the platform.
Once again I checked the anchor and the boat's position on the flat. In the back of my mind I
kept switching from thinking about the tide and then about Jim who was hooked up. Having no
other boots to put on, I knew that I had to exercise caution moving over the flat. The best way
to move barefoot on a flat is to shuffle your feet. If you step on a Stingray, he will just move out
of your way. As I got out of the boat, I noticed that the bow had settled a little to heavy on the
flat and I'd better move it off a little. I paused, looked over at Jim and it appeared that he had
things under control and positioning the redfish to shallower water where Alan was standing.
"Good," I thought, "Now all I have to do is move the bow a little and we will be golden."
I planted my feet so that I could wiggle the bow and push up and back with one steady motion.
As I did this I felt my left foot sink into the sand. This was soft sand and it felt good between my
toes. The boat didn't move much. I tried again and this time my left foot sunk a little more
and then it happened. A sharp pain shot up my leg and I was in agony. I knew immediately
what had happened. With the weight of my boat and my body I had pushed my foot down on
an oyster shell buried beneath the sand. I quickly let go of the boat and braced myself and fell
on to the bow to take the weight off of my foot.
As I looked down and into the water, I could tell that I was bleeding profusely. "@*?#* !"
I said softly as reconfirming my stupidity. This was a major gash and had to be taken care of
right away. I positioned my self next to the hatch containing my cooler and pulled out two
bottles of drinking water. I reached inside my first-aid kit and took out a antihistime and
swallowed it. With a large towel (I always keep 4 in the boat) I covered the edge of the
boat and rinsed my foot by swishing it around in the saltwater. I hadn't even considered
the obvious – this much blood could attract some sharks. Then I opened the wound a little
and washed it with drinking water as best I could. I prepared a compression bandage made
out of another large white towel (always take white towels in your boat). I placed the towel
so that the bottom of my left foot, which had a gash from one side to the other in the middle
portion about ¼ to ½ inches deep, was against the gunnel, and with the compression push my
foot against the side of the boat. The bleeding stopped after about 5 minutes. During this
time my two anglers returned to the boat to see what was going on. I explained the situation
and that I would need their help to bring in the anchor and push us off the flat.
Alan looked at my foot, "is it still bleeding?"
"No, I don't think so," I replied. "But I should check it."
I opened the compression and the towel was very red. I did want to check to make sure that
the foot was as clean as I could make it. "Alan, grab me another bottle of Dannon." He
handed me the bottle. I removed the towel and got another one out. I pinched the wound
open just a little bit, tipped out a bit of debris and poured more drinking water on it. I looked
up just as Alan was vomiting in my boat, and here I was trying not to get blood on it and now
he had an awful mess. I cleaned my foot as best I could then rewrapped the foot using the
After returning the two anglers to a friends dock on the river, I proceeded seven miles north
to where I had launched my boat. They paid my fee plus a nice tip that was great and helped
to ease the searing pain. I reached back into my first aid kit pulled out two ibuprofen and
swallowed them. When I reached the ramp, it was too late to call my doctor and I didn't
want to go to the hospital - after all I had another charter the next morning and I had to
clean the boat and get home.
Once home I explained to my wife the events of the day, then went into the bathroom to
wash the wound site again. In a microwave container big enough to place my foot, I poured
about a half bottle of ALKALOL (This is a product used for burn patients, produced and distributed
by The Alkalol Company of Taunton, MA. It is the best invention since the automobile.) and put my foot in it, soaked
it for 30 minutes, dried it off, air dried it for 30 minutes, applied some adhesive surgical tape
strips, and then elevated my foot. You know I should have been a doctor. Saturday came
and went. I did my charter to a place I didn't have to pole. I repeated the same cleansing
routine but increased the frequency after returning home and did the same on Sunday. By
Monday, my foot was feeling better. There didn't appear to by any swelling or signs of
infection, but the wound was not closing.
Monday morning I called my wife's foot surgeon and went to see him. He commented
on my first-aid skills and my abilities to clean and field suture my wound site with skin closures.
BUT . . . Did I realize the dangers of microorganisms in warm saltwater. He was happy that
I wasn't barefoot with a sneaker on since a rubber-borne bacteria pseudomonas combined
with the bacteria from oysters vibro vulnificus has resulted in fatalities within 24-hours of a
wound. There is food for thought! Infection can take as long as ten days to culture.
The U.S. FDA put out a circular to the Southeastern Fisheries Association in Tallahassee
about the health risks of Vibro vulnificus (vib-'re-o vul-nif'-e-cus) in 1988.
Why didn't anyone tell me about this? It is a bacterium that can be found in warm coastal
waters. It occurs naturally, rather than as a result of pollution. It is often present in clean
waters, including those used for the harvest of clams and oysters. Little is known about
this organism, but certain people who eat raw molluscan shellfish or expose open wounds
to warm seawater can develop a severe and potentially fatal infection. Vibro vulnificus
lives naturally in warm seawater. Fatal infection is rare, but is a risk for people with liver
disease, chronic alcohol abuse, cancer, leukemia, AIDS, diabetes, and others.
Dr. Murphy looked me straight in the eye and said, "Your first-aid skills and training, required
by the Coast Guard for licensed Captains, might have saved you, but I still need to do a culture."
"A culture?" I replied, as he re-opened the wound and dug a poker into it to take a sample
to determine if there was any vibrio vulnificus living in there. The lab test and results wouldn't
be ready for 5 days. When I left his office I was in searing pain. Next stop was a Tetanus
Booster (Ouch) and then to the drug store for Cipro antibiotics.
Here's the scoop on pseudomonas. This is a serious bacterium that can be found in old
sneakers that people wear in warm saltwater. It is found in a lot of other areas. There have
been 14,000 articles written on the subject with some very discouraging results.
Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a common environmental bacterium that is an
opportunistic pathogen in many types of infections. In other words, it only takes advantage
of some other primary problem such as an open wound. A fisherman in New York
punctured his shoe and foot with a flounder bone. He endured many surgeries and a
variety of antibiotics, and in a two-week period almost died from the pseudomonas infection.
So if you come fishing with me, bring your own reef boots. Mine are reserved. Better
yet, learn to take the necessary precautions when fishing the flats, or stay out of the water.
Doug is a fly-fishing guide from New Smyrna Beach, FL. He is a member of CCA,
FFF, AFF, APCA, and FOWA. He can be reached at 386-679-5814.