“Two million fish washed ashore. One thousand blackbirds dropped from the sky… an unimaginable killer: a mysterious parasitic outbreak.”
Thus reads the synopsis for “The Bay,” an unusually effective horror movie, released in 2012 by veteran director Barry Levinson, who is probably best known for his hits “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Rain Man,” and “Bugsy.”
Of his eco-horror picture, Levinson said only 20% was fiction.Turns out, he may have underestimated.
In 2012, scientist Donald Boesch warned, “(Y)ou have to be prepared to view this (film) as a metaphor,” but as president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, he agreed, “The film accurately portrays the Chesapeake as in diminished ecological health, and the creatures that deliver the horror are real enough.”
While the killer in the Chesapeake might have been unimaginable seven years ago, in August, 2019, waterways were taking lives in surprising places across the eastern United States.
While “The Bay’s” creatures were thumbnail-sized isopods that infest the living tissue of fish and other organisms — eventually including humans, the agent currently plaguing the Chesapeake is a microorganism. Or more accurately, billions of microorganisms. Chesapeake Bay Magazine’s “Bay Bulletin” reports: “ALGAE, FATAL TO DOGS, PRESENT IN BAY WATERWAYS.”
“Right now in the mid-Atlantic,” reports Meg Walburn Viviano, “conditions are ripe for cyanobacteria, better known as the blue-green algae.”
Along shorelines, algae blooms form a slimy scum resembling green paint, especially — the article reports — in “nutrient-rich, fresh or brackish water when the temperature is warmer than 75 degrees.”
In humans, physical contact with cyanobacteria can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. A skin rash may be the first sign of trouble. But the ASPCA warns that dogs can be especially vulnerable because the algae bloom “often concentrates along the shoreline, where they may drink or swim.” Especially if ingested, cyanotoxins can cause seizures, vomiting, panting, respiratory and liver failure, and ultimately death.
Closer to home, Alabama has been home to outbreaks of necrotizing fasciitis, more commonly known by the horror-worthy moniker, “flesh-eating bacteria.”
The website Healthline counsels, “You Shouldn’t Freak Out Over ‘Flesh-Eating’ Bacteria.” Seeking to quell irrational fears, they offer the fact-checked verdict: “Very few people actually contract an infection from the dangerous Vibrio vulnificus bacteria.”
But it’s no use throwing statistics, reason and facts at something called flesh-eating bacteria. Not when you’ve gone through what Ricky and Cassey Rutherford went through.
Four days after the Florence couple went kayaking in the Tennessee river, Ricky was in the emergency room. The 41-year-old came home from work after the kayaking trip with leg cramps and a fever. As Business Insider relates, “Ricky couldn’t walk; his right leg was swollen and red. The couple rushed to the hospital.” His fever “spiked to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and his leg was sporting what looked like large pus-filled blisters.”
The article included photos, warning that they were graphic.
After flesh-eating bacteria was confirmed and successful treatment began, Cassey wrote to friends on her Facebook page, “Please for the love of GOD stay out of the river!!!”
While cases are rare, and deaths are even more so, an unusually warm summer continues to mean a banner year for cyanobacteria, and the streptococcal strains that cause necrotizing fasciitis. The good news is that autumnal weather will eventually cool our waterways enough to lessen the threat of these killers, however rare their casualties may be.
But in true horror movie “The End?” fashion, Business Insider warns, “This flesh-eating bacteria species is spreading beyond its traditional region, in part because of warming ocean temperatures caused by climate change.”
And Director Barry Levinson might well add, “Toldja so.”