In Tampa, Relax by the Shore and Save It, Too
By Andrea Sachs
The Washington Post
The beaches at Florida’s Fort DeSoto Park have the same effect on the brain and body as Ambien. As soon as you set foot on the powder-soft sand, you feel calm. Lie on a towel near the Gulf of Mexico’s edge and the lapping waves lull you into a dream state. Put a towel over your face and you’ll be snoring through sunset.
Yet, despite the tranquility, my mind was fidgety with thoughts of injured seabirds, depleted coral reefs and beach rubbish. Why such serious meditations during a wanton weekend in the Tampa area? Because my self-indulgent sun-worshiper side (you know, the one from those Bain de Soleil burnt-toast days) was finally becoming responsible.
Well, partially responsible.
Across the bridge from Tampa, 35 miles of ivory beaches trim the Pinellas Peninsula, a sun-drenched haven sandwiched between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay. However, visitors to these shores can do more than just loll on the sand and deepen their George Hamilton glows. They can do some good.
“By volunteering, you gain a respect for the environment and learn about the different ecosystems and how to keep them healthy,” said Chris Sutton, an environmental scientist who works at Tampa Bay Watch, the nonprofit group I assisted my first morning in town.
As the largest open-water estuary in Florida, Tampa Bay could use a little love and attention. The 400-square-mile body of water is swimming with more than 200 species of fish. In addition, 125 or so bird species, including such Florida stalwarts as pelicans and roseate spoonbills, nest and raise their young among the mangroves and palms.
The heavy shipping traffic in the Port of Tampa, the state’s largest commercial harbor, is stirring up the environment. Adding to the strain is the bay’s shallowness (on average 12 feet); to compensate, heavy dredging is employed, which enlarges the channel but meddles with natural habitats.
With such a vital ecology at stake, environmental organizations in the area encourage guests to donate a few hours to their cause. Many of the facilities welcome one-time volunteers, no previous expertise or guaranteed time commitment required. Additionally, my conscience tells me that if you dedicate a few hours to charitable works, you can freely indulge in the beaches without a flicker of guilt.
They called me the Tapping Lady. The nickname came about not from some alluring trait, such as my slick Fred Astaire moves, but simply because I was in possession of the hammer.
Tampa Bay Watch organizes an array of volunteer projects throughout the year, including derelict crab-trap removals, salt marsh plantings and the Great Bay Scallop Search, a census report collected with snorkel. During my stay, the group was assembling oyster domes, concrete structures that foster coral reef growth and attract such salubrious sea life as oysters, real-life Britas that filter as much as 10 gallons of water per hour.
When I pulled up to the organization’s headquarters, one bridge away from Fort DeSoto, a team of seven was already pounding away in a corner of the parking lot, the passing clouds providing scant shade. Sutton handed me a pair of work gloves, pointed out the water cooler, then sent me off to prepare the rigs for duty.
As the sun beat hotter and the sweat levees threatened to break, I started dreaming of that first plunge. Arcing dive. Cool splash. Floating, floating … “Where’s the Tapping Lady?” hollered one of the helpers.
Back to reality, back to work.
For the remainder of the morning, I beat down inflatable balls determined to rise to the top of the domes, which were freshly filled with wet concrete. I didn’t quite understand the mechanics of my assignment, blindly hammering this, there, now. But I was satisfied knowing that my little taps would contribute to the overall health of the bay. “The estuary is the best it’s been in years,” Sutton said. “There’s no way we could do all of these projects without volunteers.”
The birds at Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores, where I volunteered my second day, showed their appreciation by dropping a little present on my shoulder. But splats are to be expected at the largest wild-bird hospital in the country.
I checked in at the small gift shop and was promptly asked if my service was court mandated. Uh, no â€” do I need to steal a car to help out? I soon learned that sanctuary volunteers fall into one of three categories: altruistic types, students who need community service credit and minor felons on parole who must clean dirty bird cages to amend their actions. That day, there was me and another helper who was working off 100 court-ordered hours for growing marijuana in his home.
The rehabilitation center helps as many as 10,000 birds a year, many injured by fishing lures and boats. The numbers spike between April and July, which is birthing season. During this period, the site is overwhelmed with impaired baby birds, an average of 20 to 30 per day. However, because I lacked bottle training, I was relegated to grounds work.
For some reason, carrying a garden tool gives you an air of authority, and I was soon helping visitors and their wounded birds find the necessary care. The first emergency case involved a tiny bird, the victim of a crow attack, lying limply in an orange soda box. Unfortunately, it was DOA. Soon after, a sprightly young girl in cowboy boots arrived with her father, who was toting a cat carrier. Inside was another crow-battered bird determined to see another day. The prognosis looked good.
Halfway through my stint, I joined some staff members on the beach to seek out injured birds and tempt them with buckets of raw fish. As we tossed the fish onto the sand, flocks of pelicans and terns encircled us. Many had the ankle bands of former patients, but we did not see any birds pierced with hooks or wrapped up in lines. It was a bust for us but a feast for them.
The next beach foray was more successful. A great blue heron had suffered an eight-inch laceration and, now healed, was ready to be released into the wild. After being deposited on a dune, the bird froze for a few moments before gingerly testing its wings and taking baby steps on its stick-thin legs. Then, with a dramatic sweep of feathers, it flew off, a graceful silhouette returning to its place in the skies.
On Pinellas Peninsula, you can basically throw a shell anywhere from your car window and hit a beach. My shell landed on the coveted sands of Fort DeSoto and Treasure Island, a barrier isle on the west side.
At the state park, I set the pace on inertia. For hours, my biggest exertion was flipping from front to back. However, when I finally took a look around, I realized that I could still be helpful.
According to signs, I could assist researchers by calling in fish kills and sawfish sightings, or I could take action by removing hooks from pelicans. (A placard diagrammed how.) I could accomplish so much without having to sit up any higher than a 30-degree angle.
Of course, this did not preclude me from closing my eyes and basking in the Florida sun. The only difference was that when I heard a bird call or a fish flop, I’d open my eyes a crack.Filed under: Travel & Culture