Algae Overload Threatens Olympic Sailing Course

Diggers load up algae on trucks i

Diggers load up trucks to carry away the algae in the city of Qingdao, China. According to local government officials, 170,000 tons of algae have already been cleared away. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
Diggers load up algae on trucks

Diggers load up trucks to carry away the algae in the city of Qingdao, China. According to local government officials, 170,000 tons of algae have already been cleared away.

Louisa Lim/NPR
Volunteer force removing algae. i

Thousands of volunteers are helping to manually scoop the green algae out of the sea. Experts say the Enteromorpha prolifera algae was flushed into Qingdao city waters by southerly winds and ocean currents. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
Volunteer force removing algae.

Thousands of volunteers are helping to manually scoop the green algae out of the sea. Experts say the Enteromorpha prolifera algae was flushed into Qingdao city waters by southerly winds and ocean currents.

Louisa Lim/NPR
U.S. Olympic windsurfer Benjamin Barger i

"It's like a bad episode of Poltergeist," says U.S. Olympic windsurfer Benjamin Barger. "The green stuff will get on the board and you'll slip off. It's pretty nasty." Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
U.S. Olympic windsurfer Benjamin Barger

"It's like a bad episode of Poltergeist," says U.S. Olympic windsurfer Benjamin Barger. "The green stuff will get on the board and you'll slip off. It's pretty nasty."

Louisa Lim/NPR

When China's leaders boasted they would host a green Olympics, they surely did not envision an entire coastline blanketed in great swaths of bright green algae. It is almost luminous green and smells absolutely foul.

Armies of volunteers are using rakes and even their bare hands to scoop algae off the surface of the Yellow Sea in an attempt to clean it up in time for the Summer Olympics in August.

"We're making our contribution to the Olympics," says Zhou Yukuai as he rakes away. "But this smells so bad, I won't be able to eat seafood tonight."

"This is really tiring," says tobacco boss Liu Qingwen, as he heaves dripping sacks of gunky green seaweed from one spot to another. He's leading 150 employees here who have been ordered by the government to do their bit.

They are among 14,000 workers who have been drafted into the cleanup effort. Qu Chun, the competition manager for the sailing events, admits to sleepless nights, but he believes it is under control.

"We will move very quick to solve this problem," Chun says, confident that he can remove the algae.

"It's my very big challenge," he says, "but I feel we have very strong government at the back of me, so I feel confident."

'Getting Slimed'

Scientists say the algae bloom was flushed into Qingdao waters from the Yellow Sea by an unlucky confluence of southerly winds and sea currents. The sea temperature and salinity here helped the weed proliferate. Some believe chemical pollutants and sewage in the seawater may have also contributed to the algae bloom.

But for sportsmen like U.S. Olympic windsurfer Benjamin Barger, the green tide is the stuff of horror movies.

"It's like a bad episode of Poltergeist," Barger says. "With the board in the water, you're so close to the water, the green stuff will get on the board and you'll slip off. We have great pictures and a lot of humor out there with the boardsailors tacking, then slipping off, then falling on themselves, then getting slimed."

At the training area, sails are hoisted and ready to go. But with 30 percent of the competition course choked in algae, boats are getting becalmed in green gunk.

"The biggest patches of algae we've seen have been half a mile across," says Stuart McNay, the U.S. gold medal hopeful in the 470 class. McNay's partner, Graham Biehl, says that even getting to the competition course is proving hazardous.

'An Interesting Place To Sail'

"Most of the days, there's either too much algae on our course to actually be there, or it gets too foggy or hazy that it can be a little dangerous," Biehl says. "Our coaches have GPSes to get us back to shore. We needed them yesterday, or none of us would have made it back."

But Qingdao's shortcomings as an Olympic sailing site are no surprise to the sailing community.

"The first time we came here, everybody was in absolute horror and aghast at the conditions," says Australian sailing program director Michael Jones. "And there was a lot of complaining about how could they have picked this place as a venue for the Olympics."

"It's an interesting and challenging place to sail, would be the nice way to put it," Jones says, "It's very light wind, has relatively high current because of tidal flow, and we've had periods here in other test events when we've had issues with jellyfish in the water."

As diggers and backhoes scoop the sludgy gunk into trucks, they are racing to meet the government's promise to finish the cleanup in two weeks.

A 20-mile-long sea barrier will also fence off the competition venue. China is determined to control all the variables it can, but the wind and ocean currents are beyond Beijing's mastery, and these Olympians may still find the sailing hard going — even without the algae.

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