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Pinellas Sun Coast Pelicans
  Pinellas Sun Coast Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton

We approached the St. Petersburg/Clearwater peninsula from the south on Highway 275 just as the sun was setting in the Gulf of Mexico. The Sunshine Skyway suspension bridge loomed before us, its spider web illuminated cables lighting the twilight hour. In the distance, on dismantled bridges, shadowy figures stood with pole in hand; and on nearly every post and piling, the silhouette of a patient pelican watching and waiting.

St. Petersburg, a city of wide streets, clean and treed, seemed emptier that a city should be, however, its attractions were well attended by both visitors and residents. We were thoroughly impressed with the Salvador Dali Museum, especially after learning about the mind and heart of the artist and the reasons behind his strange paintings. Reasons a guide entertained and enlightened us with as we walked from canvas to canvas.

The "Great Explorations" science museum was a big hit with a group of school children, I noticed and the odd adult. We left reluctantly after measuring our strength and flexibility with physical tests, challenging our brain with problem solving games, and creating mysterious electric shadow art with our very own body movements. ( Most of it is still a mystery to me.)

As luck would have it, we visited "The Pier" -- a giant inverted pyramid structure at the end of a broad colorful pier --during a special event: a memory walkathon. In support, a local variety show was in progress. Peppy participants in colorful tee-shirts took off to the sounds of children singing and kicking up their heels on a makeshift stage. Inside the recently renovated building were shops, an aquarium, and a marvelous observation deck with views of St. Petersburg's skyline and sailboats and seiners skimming across Tampa Bay.

In the distance I could make out, on nearly every post and piling, still as an ornament, the shape of a pelican, its head and enormous beak pressed tightly against its chest. Now and then, the ornament would come alive and swoop and dive at the flash of fish in the sea.

With the Gulf of Mexico alongside us, we drove through the resort communities, crossing old bridges, new bridges and toll bridges; past townhouses, apartments, motels and hotels; and dozens of intriguing boutiques, cafes and fishing shops. And wherever possible, off a bridge, off a pier, on a rowboat or in a rubber raft -- if there was water, a fisherman stood with a hook, line and sinker.

Madeira Beach shopping district was particularly colorful. It overlooked "John's Pass," a commercial and charter fishing fleet. Tourists jammed the Boardwalk even in the low season month of November, jammed the ice cream stands, homemade fudge shops and tee-shirt stalls and crowded the seafood shanties that throbbed with live music and the sizzle and smell of deep-fried fish. A variety of charter boats and a one-day cruise ship were docked at the bay. And on nearly every pole and piling, sat a patient brown pelican; unable to read the posters beneath its feet that described in detail how to remove, hooks and fishing line from wildlife should such an incident occur..

Sadly fishermen are the brown pelican's biggest enemies. " said Woody Moulton, caretaker of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores. " The birds go after the bait and get hooked. "

We followed Woody down a narrow path that led to a strip of beach beset with brown pelicans. Sweetpea (they all had names) looked at us suspiciously. We weren't the familiar faces he expected to see this misty morning. He recognized Woody, and hurried over to him to make sure he got his share from the heaping bucket. Woody tossed slippery herring onto the sand and dozens of Sweetpea's siblings surged forward and hungrily devoured the fish. He called out to Sweetpea who, as far as I was concerned, looked exactly like his thirty-nine brothers and sisters. Sweetpea, however, knew who he was. He hobbled over on his one good foot and gobbled the offered fish from his friend.

The birds fluttering around our feet were not residents at the sanctuary. Like the homeless in rescue lines they came voluntarily for their daily supply of fish and to get their wounds tended.

"Sweetpea's been coming for years." Woody said as he searched for newly injured birds. "There's one with a hook in its wing."

He quickly and professionally grabbed the wounded bird by the beak and wing, pushed the hook forward to penetrate through the surface tissue, cut off the barb, carefully backed out the hook minus the barb, affectionately kissed the pelican on its head and let it go. It took less than a minute.

"He's going to be okay. There's not much bleeding and he's fat and healthy."

Other birds had hooks in their beaks and pouches or were tangled in nylon lines. "Be sure to remove all the line." he instructed the young assistant. " It can work like a tourniquet. Or the bird can get caught in its own roost."

Directly behind us was the crowded 1.5 acre sanctuary of sometimes as many as 500 injured and permanently crippled birds. Egrets, crows, herons .... an average of 15 to 20 birds is brought in every day -- seven days a week.

"Be aware of our environment, " Woody cautioned, as he tended to the birds. "because what happens to the birds and animals can happen to us. "

The nonprofit organization, founded in 1971 by zoologist Ralph T. Heath Jr. is known worldwide for its care and attention to birds. Rescue, repair, recuperation and release are its mottos.

We continued our journey a little wiser, and grateful, that there were people out there like Ralph T. Heath Jr. and Woody who really do care.

Our next stop was St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs. The church has been in the news from time to time. It is the church with the weeping icon of St. Nicholas. I stood for several minutes before the compelling icon, staring intently in his eyes. St. Nicholas gazed back solemnly but did not weep. The last time the icon was observed weeping was on December 8, 1973.

Our visit coincided with Greek Festival Days and the celebration was in full swing. People and cars packed the parking lots and streets. It was the first time we had trouble finding a parking space for our RV. In fact, we almost missed the last cruise of the day through the historic sponge docks. We rushed to the pier to the sounds of Greek melodies, past brightly costumed ladies dancing in the streets. The pungent aroma of black olives and feta cheese mingled with sweet baklava hung heavily in the cool air whetting our appetites. The pier, too, was alive with people and of course, the ever-present pelicans. The children playfully teased them with treats they ignored. By now, I knew fish was their main meal.

We boarded a sponge boat that creaked and squeaked with age and putt-putted along the narrow waterway past various fish boats and listened with interest to the history of Tarpon Springs.

At the turn of the century, real estate developer John Cheyney invested modestly in a sponge harvesting venture. John Corcoris, a buyer for a New York Sponge company came to Tarpon Springs to buy sponges from Cheyney and ended up becoming a partner in Cheyney's company. Corcoris believed the Gulf of Mexico held lucrative sponge beds and encouraged his two brothers to immigrate from Greece to Tarpon Springs.

He was right. The discovery of rich large sponges soon attracted experienced deep sea sponge divers from the Dodecanese Islands in Greece. They arrived, bringing with them, their equipment, plans for boats, and their customs and traditions.

By 1936, more than 2000 Greeks had relocated to Tarpon Springs. The industry prospered until the 1940's when a marine bacteria destroyed most of the sponge beds. Today, the sponges are back in record numbers. This fact coupled with pollution problems in the Mediterranean sponge beds has catapulted Tarpon Springs back to the forefront of the sponge industry.

The engine slipped into neutral and a diver dressed in something out of two thousand leagues beneath the sea put on his helmet and eased himself into the water. Everyone watched the bubbles with anticipation until he bobbed up with a dirty sponge in his hand. We examined it carefully. It didn't feel or look at all like the cleaned and sorted sponges sold at the sponge market we toured later.

We disembarked hungrier than ever and searched for a restaurant in the Greek village, settling on one the captain recommended. Costa's Restaurant. It was packed with local people. Patrons greeted one another with hugs, back slaps, handshakes and loud salutations, their traditions obviously intact. The food was reasonably priced, simple and delicious.

We left Pinellas Suncoast north on highway 275 just as the sun rose over Tampa Bay. It was Sunday morning and the traffic was minimal. At first glance the bridges were bare. But as the rays broadened and lit the horizon, two familiar figures emerged. While the rest of the Pinellas Suncoast lay sleeping, the fisherman and his constant companion, the patient pelican had begun their day.

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