Tourists Tell Sad Story About Lake Atitlan Algae Outbreak

Tourists Tell Sad Story About Lake Atitlan Algae Outbreak

Support coming from all over the world for new Save Lake Atitlan web site and relief organization

By Greg Szymanski, JD
March 30, 2010

After the debut of Save Lake Atitlan Mission web site Monday, “more support and encouragement came in than expected,” according to a spokesman for the U.S. and Guatemalen based relief organization.

“We received a ton of emails, Skype messages and phone calls from people all over the world,” added a representative for Save Lake Atitlan Mission. “We are extremely encouraged by the pledges of support and spirit of cooperation shown, especially from locals at Lake Atitlan and Guatemala.”

The pledge by the relief organization to help bring unity to the growing problem of cyanobacteria pollution at the lake, as well as help fight poverty there, brought immediate support from local groups already working on the problems and from others experiencing the same cyanobacteria outbreaks in lakes in Canada and America in the form of a thick cover of green algae scum.

Save Lake Atitlan Mission is opening a meeting hall and relief center at the lake to help organize efforts to end the cyanobacteria problem.

“We are also going to deal with poverty on a daily basis and encourage those who need help to contact us or visit us at our new location at the lake starting in June,” said a message sent out by Save Lake Atitlan Mission, adding the specific location of the relief center will soon be announced.

Once known as the most beautiful lake in the world, now Lake Atitlan, a 1000 foot deep volcanic lake 130 square km in size, has been taken over by a massive bloom of cyanobacteria. It entered a toxic phase in 2009, which has caused people to scramble for solutions.

If solutions aren’t put into place quickly, it could mean the end of the basic source of water for the thousands of lake shore inhabitants as well as halting the livelihood of indigenous fisherman.

The 2009 outbreak was so bad it basically turned the area into a tourist ghost town with 85 per cent of the 30,000 acre volcanic lake being covered with a thick green algae scum – a scum that smelled like a bathroom at a truck stop.

As seen in other lakes and regions of the world, cyanobacteria can be deadly to both human and animal life.

A recent health study linked even low levels of cyanobacteria in drinking water to many serious diseases and even the deaths of 50 people in 1996 in Brazil

Other health studies linked cyanobacteria toxins to Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s, and Parkinson’s disease. Cyanobacteria is also on the U.S. EPA’s Contaminant Candidate List (CCL) for possible regulation. The Center for Disease Control, 35 U.S. States and Canada have issued serious warnings regarding water contaminated with cyanobacteria.

In response to the huge toxic algae outbreak, the media picked up the story around the world, including warning article to American tourists by Time Magazine.

Several tourists who visited the lake during the recent algae outbreak had this to say, which clearly shows the magnitude of the problem:

— This lake with crystal clear waters is now covered with algae called cyanobacteria. I just returned to Lake Atitlan a few days ago to show my family the place that I considered one of the most beautiful and relaxing in the world, and we were greeted by the stench of cancerous algae. We stayed in San Pedro’s most expensive hotel. It is lakeside with a terrace restaurant which looks out over the lake and surrounding volcanoes. But now, there is a view of a bog of algae, and the putrid smell that accompanies it. I took my family to my favorite restaurant, La Puerta, where you can sit out on a lawn

— This is Atitlan a month ago: under thatched roofed huts and drink chai tea or strawberry smoothies while eating what they call a tropical burrito. A month ago Caitlin and Ingvild were drinking their morning tea here while I was out kayaking. I saw them and rowed up to shore. I stepped out into the shallows of the crystal clear water, walked to shore, bid them good morning, sampled their tea, and then rowed back out into the serene waters.

But now, sitting here with my family, all we can see is greenish-brown muck. If this were in my toilet, I would flush twice to make sure the bowl was clean. But this is not a toilet bowl with lever that can be pushed so that this waste goes somewhere else and becomes a problem elsewhere. But the metaphor of a toilet is not completely wrong. This lake has been used for many purposes for many years. The locals fish from the lake, and fish that are not indigenous to the lake have been introduced and have, from what I have heard, taken over. The locals bathe in this lake. The locals wash their clothes in this lake with inorganic soaps. They fertilize their fields—fields

— Guatemala is a small country on an isthmus between the Atlantic and Pacific; there must be a stream draining this water out into the ocean—passing this toxic water on to the fish in the sea and sparing Lake Atitlan of its death. But alas, Atitlan, in reality is no toilet. There is not release valve. There is not flush lever. All streams flow into the Lake. Lake Atitlan is a closed body of water and this problem is trapped here.

So does this story have a happy ending? There are glimmers of hope, but probably, no. The community has been stirred to action. Specialists from the United States have been studying the water. The Vice President of Guatemala has been commenting on the state of the lake daily. The Government is trying to appropriate funds to create 15 waste processing plants and build public wash sinks in every community to keep people from washing clothes in

— But the most amazing, the most spectacular, and the saddest, is the community out cleaning the lake. This lake is over ten miles across; it has a surface area of over 80 square miles. And the algae, as far as I could see during my trip across the lake, completely covers the lake. It is heartening to see a group of people band together to clean their environment, a community mobilized to action for a common good, but it seems impossible that 20 people here and 20 people there with strainers and sheets being used as strainers can have an effect on this lake. My family and I watched from our rooftop terrace as a group of people cleaned the tiny cove that sits in front of our hotel. Twenty people spent half the day cleaning, and by the evening there was a pile of muck on the shore, and an area the size of a large swimming pool was quite clean of surface algae. However, this small area was nowhere close to 80 square miles, and the next morning, the cove was covered again in algae. Even sadder is the potential toxicity of this water.

— While preliminary results indicate that the algae is not poisonous to people, alarm is still raised and more tests are in process. But the mayor of one town told the people to go out and clean the lake and out they went.

While the death of this lake is not certain, and I am not clairvoyant, very little hope seems to exist for this lake. It is a closed body of water meaning the food that this algae is feeding on will not be flushed out. The farmers surrounding the lake will continue to fertilize their fields and from what I understand, even organic fertilizers will feed the algae. The towns may build treatment plants, but the pollution already exists in the water and it may take a long while before the waste-water treatment plants can be completed.

As a child I watched a planet turn black on the show Star Trek as the crew on the star ship lamented the loss of an entire civilization. Now as an adult, I have seen the waters of life for many village communities change from sparkling clear to a brownish-green. A blanket of filth so pervasive that I fear it could block

The villagers cleaned this area of the lake. It took them half a day. The next day all the algae was back. I wonder how many of them became sick due to their contact with this substance
out all the light that penetrates down to the plants and fish that live below and could use up the oxygen necessary for the life as well. This is not science fiction, no there is nothing fictional about this. I feel as if I have watched this lake die.

The solution being tossed around right now is solving this problem with chemicals. The Vice President is talking about using a chemical to kill the algae. But I wonder, wasn’t it chemicals which caused this problem in the first place?

— It is heartbreaking to see Lake Atitlan these days. Once one of the most beautiful lakes in the world is now contaminated with cyanobacteria. This is the result of years of directly channeling black waters into the lake.

People count on this lake for subsistence. They fish it, drink it, swim in her and make a living on her once pristine water. But now the lake is so contaminated that people living around the lake are starting to get sick. The oxygen levels of the lake are dropping lower and lower with every passing day so fish living in the lake are going to start dying unless something is done and done quickly.

Editor’s Note: Thirty-four stories have been written in a row about Lake Atitlan, one for each year nothing substantial has been done to control cyanobacteria since it first was detected in 1976 by biologist Margaret Dix.

Hopefully, another year will not pass by without something substantial being done to correct the problem.

See more of Greg’s stories below on Atitlan. If you want to help raise support, awareness and meet the immediate needs of the Mayans, contact or go to Also, a new weekly radio show, beginning April 3, will be broadcast highlighting Atitlan and the plight of all indigenous groups in North, South and Central America.

Atitlan Facts: Lake Atitlán with its surface of 130 sq. km is the third largest freshwater lake in Guatemala. It is situated in the district of Sololá in the western highlands of Guatemala. The lake is approx. 12 km wide and 10 km long and lies at an altitude of 1,560 m. It is surrounded by three volcanoes: Atitlán (3,537 m), Tolimán (3,158 m) and San Pedro (2,995 m) which compose an imposing panorama around the highland lake.

Lake Atitlán lies in a crater created by an eruption of a great volcano approx. 85,000 years ago. Because of no outlet, the water level mounted with the years. The deepest point lies in the south near San Lucas Tolimán and has a maximum depth of 325 m.

The natural vegetation of the region consists of mixed pine-oak forests, humid and dry oak forests and conifers. 798 different plant species are found there, of which 61 species are endemic. The rich biodiversity includes also animals species: 116 species of reptiles and amphibians, of them are 12 species endemic, such as Mushroomtongue Salamander (Bolitoglossa franklini) and Arboreal Alligator Lizard (Abronia matudai).

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