Miami Questions: Can I pee in the ocean?

While we at The New Tropic care a whole lot about Miami and about the serious things affecting all of us, we’re also willing to dive into less heady topics of local curiosity. We asked for your weird questions, and it seems many of us have a particular recurring debate:

Is it OK to pee in the ocean?

TL:DR; Yes, you can pee in the ocean without harming anyone else or the ecosystem, but when concentrations of urine or feces are high, we get a whole other set of much bigger problems.

There’s a common saying among scuba divers: “There are two types of scuba divers: those who pee in their wetsuit and those who lie about it.”

“I think that if you find yourself in the ocean, and you have to go, that you should not feel guilty about that,” said Dr. Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper. “The problem comes with concentration, and if there are too many people in one spot peeing in the ocean or sewage spills there can be big problems. In protected areas, you should be very-low impact when you visit. If you can avoid it, try to not pee around the sensitive ecosystems … like Biscayne Bay’s Bill Sadowski Critical Wildlife Area, where you can’t even kayak without a permit. If you get permission, you should try to avoid peeing there.”

When concentrations of urine or feces get too high from a wastewater spill, there are increases in enterococci (gut bacteria), which can cause illnesses to swimmers. That’s why agencies issue swim advisories, like the big one five years ago near Oleta State Park.

Even though urine is mostly sterile, the high concentrations of nutrients in it can increase the presence of algae, causing algal blooms that keep sunlight from hitting the ocean floor, said Professor Larry Brand of the University of Miami’s Department of Marine Biology and Ecology. The absence of light kills off seagrass, an essential element to supporting the rest of the ecosystem. The blooms can also release harmful neurotoxins that kill fish and other marine life. “There’s a toxin produced by some of the algaes that have been associated with neurological disorders like Parkinson’s and ALS,” he said. “You actually find high levels of this toxin in the marine life in the Biscayne Bay.”

All that’s pretty scary stuff, but fear not! The Florida Healthy Beaches Program tests our waters weekly. You can use this nifty app from the Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper to check your local swimming conditions.

For a deeper dive into urine in the ocean, check out this awesome video:

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