October 25th, 2003
If, like me, you started out in life wanting to be Jacques Cousteau, you had some nasty surprises waiting for you. For a start, you couldn’t just turn up and get on with it. Becoming a marine biologist involved a bit more that just turning up, swimming around with some fish and hoping a camera crew would notice you; you actually had to do some work first. Worse, the bit where you get to swim around with lissom beauties in really tight neoprene wetsuits didn’t seem to be on any of my course lists. But I signed up manfully anyway, and before long I was introduced to the world of algae.
I really hate algae.
Now, you may think that this is an irrational response to something that is, on the face of it, a pretty harmless thing. But until you have been forced to wade into surf battering a rocky shoreline at 7 o’clock on a freezing November morning to drag a couple of hundred pounds of sticky, fetid seaweed back to the lab, you don’t really understand what evil stuff it is. And actually, nobody really understands what algae is anyway, because the word has no real taxonomic significance of its own: it simply describes a motley collection of unrelated plants and organisms that have only one thing in common: sliminess.
Anyone who has fished a freestone river knows this, of course. It is algae that threaten us with broken limbs when we try to cross even the most harmless-looking stream; it is algae that force us to spend fortunes on felt-soled wading boots, and agonise over whether they will be big enough to fit your stocking-foot waders. The list of crimes doesn’t stop there. Algae clog our rod-rings in summer, causing the line to jam and takes to be missed; algae provides a refuge for that fish of a lifetime you just spent twenty minutes playing, only for it to bury its head in a pile of the stuff and throw the hook. In short, algae is the piscatorial equivalent of the Devil.
Biologists will tell you that algae is terribly important stuff, of course. Thanks to that other scourge of biology students everywhere, photosynthesis, it generates vast amounts of oxygen that allows life to exist in fresh and salt water. It provides shelter for the huge variety of creatures that fish like to eat. It even looks quite pretty, sometimes; if you’ve been lucky enough to swim through a Californian kelp forest, you already know that once the certain knowledge that you are about to be eaten by a great white shark evaporates, it’s amazingly good on the eye.
But when you look more closely, you see what contemptible stuff it really is. For one thing, it doesn’t even have the decency to be consistent; some of it is green and fluffy, while the Laminaria you haul from that rocky shore is brown and leathery. It all has different structures and lifecycles and reproductive anatomy, making it hellishly complicated stuff to study. It just sits there doing nothing in particular. And it has some shocking cultural crimes to account for; the apparently blameless green alga Spirogyra being the best known example, as the inspiration behind a particularly gruesome folk band. I can forgive algae all sorts of things, but not that.
Oddly enough, the stuff that fishermen complain about most isn’t actually algae at all – and for that reasons I quite like it, despite the fact that it has some rather worrisome characteristics. So-called blue-green algae, which bloom explosively in still waters all over the world in summer, are in fact bacteria – or, more specifically cyanobacteria, an ancient group of organisms that, among other things, created our atmosphere, helped form oil deposits, aid the rice cultivation that feeds half the planet and in the process just happened to evolve into plants. Not bad tricks for things that have only one cell, even if they’ve had 3.5 billion years to get practice them.
They have some nastier tricks up their sleeve, too, as anyone who’s fallen into Grafham Water in summertime knows. They form a thick, paint-like blue-green scum on the water surface (the algae, not the fishermen, although…), and they can cause massive oxygen depletion and fish-kills. They cause illness in people and animals who drink the water, thanks to an impressive range of weapons hidden within their tiny cells: neurotoxins, hepatotoxins, cytotoxins, saxitoxins, endotoxins. Some of these cause unsightly rashes and allergic reactions; others, such as those produced by the dinoflagellates that cause red tides (and may have been the inspiration for the Red Sea's name), will happily kill you if you swallow them; and of course, fish and shellfish concentrate these toxins. As if all that wasn’t enough, they’re bastards to get rid of, too. The dissolved organic carbon they concentrate can produce carcinogenic and mutagenic trihalomethanes when you treat the water with chlorine.
But they are quite pretty, and that’s gotta count for something.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, partly because Paul asked me to. But also because I am about to spend a few weeks wading across some rivers whose stony beds will undoubtedly be infested with this stuff; and it’s important that I build up a picture of my enemy in my head first. Bad things happen to people who lose their footing in rivers; and if it’s going to be anyone, it’s not going to be me. The War Against Algae starts today: and remember, you read it here first.