In Tampa, Relax by the Shore and Save It, Too

Volunteers and workers at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, a rehabilitation center in Tampa, help as many as 10,000 birds per year.
Volunteers and workers at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, a rehabilitation center in Tampa, help as many as 10,000 birds per year. (By Kelly Finnegan)
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By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008

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 tranquillity, 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 day) 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.

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