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How a massive volunteer effort restored the health of Clam Bayou on Florida’s Gulf Coast
When Kurt Zuelsdorf first decided to open a paddling outfit in Florida, Clam Bayou may not have seemed like the most obvious choice for a setting. The mangrove forests in the nearly 70-hectare estuary bordered by the cities of Gulfport and St. Petersburg that feeds into Boca Ciega Bay were filled with what Zuelsdorf calls a “tsunami” of garbage.
“There was so much refuse, it was like a heart attack, killing the mangroves and cutting off the circle of life,” he recalls.
But the gnarly swamp turned out to be a magical ecosystem that Zuelsdorf, an award-winning conservationist, and hundreds of others helped to save. His company, Kayak Nature Adventures, offered tourists and locals free kayak trips in exchange for cleaning up the bayou. The idea took off and Zuelsdorf and armies of volunteers began pulling out plastic bags, beer bottles, oil containers, tennis shoes, soccer balls, baseball bats — even patio furniture sets, and, on one occasion, a motorcycle.
“We stopped counting after we removed 375,000 pounds [170,000 kilograms] of garbage, 150 shopping carts and 300 tires,” Zuelsdorf chuckles. One group even found an inflatable sex doll they nicknamed Bayou Betty.
But how did all the garbage end up there? The answer is a familiar story in Florida, one that reflects the age-old tension between developers and conservationists.
Until the 1920s, Clam Bayou was relatively undeveloped, but as the area built up, improper drainage and storm water management subjected the estuary to an onslaught of untreated water and trash from homes, schools, and shopping malls in Gulfport after every rainstorm.
Following years of public advocacy, the cities of Gulfport and St. Petersburg, together with the Southwest Florida Management district and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, built a filtration lagoon and a trash collection system in 2012 that helps to remove pollutants in the ponds and divert storm water before it reaches Clam Bayou, which flows into Boca Ciega Bay and then, ultimately, Tampa Bay.
Today, the mangrove forest is relatively healthy. The morning I head out with Zuelsdorf in a two-person kayak is foggy and still. The water is clear and so shallow in some spots that we get stuck in the mudflats.
Zuelsdorf explains that the area is home to brackish water – a mix of fresh water from two creeks and salt water from the Gulf of Mexico.
“That habitat creates an estuary. I call these mangroves the walking trees because they grow and grow and also work as our water filtration system,” he explains.
Clam Bayou plays an important role in the ecology of Boca Ciega Bay, providing habitat and food for fiddler crabs, dolphins and manatees.
The bayou is also home to as many as 575 different bird species, a number that swells to 800 in the winter. We see blue herons, two yellow-crowned night-herons, osprey, pelicans and green herons, the acrobats of the bayou.
“I love the blue herons because they are incredible hunters. I’ve seen them eat snakes and frogs and even turtles,” says Zuelsdorf, who grew up in Wisconsin, the son of a conservationist.
We paddle through some tight spots, squeezing through tunnels created by mangrove branches. Schools of mullet jump at us and Zuelsdorf points out several oyster bars, a sign the water is healthy. In the pristine silence, you’d never know we were right next to a city.
Clam Bayou’s story illustrates the power of activism to motivate politicians to save nature, as well as the universal benefits of a healthy planet. Mangroves help protect the shore from hurricanes. The root systems form a barrier against storms and help trap sediment, which slows erosion.
Zuelsdorf remains as excited as a schoolboy as he shares this cautionary tale. “For years, Clam Bayou was known as the place where the trash flows. Then it was, ‘Bring back the Bayou,” he says. But while there is still a risk of raw sewage being dumped here and he continues to organize bayou clean-ups, the bayou is, in his eyes, a jewel in the state of Florida. “It’s important to take care of the environment because it takes care of us.”
Bordering St. Petersburg, this tiny beachside town is a relaxing breath of fresh air, proud to be “weird,” as several storefront signs say, and an LGBTQ+ haven. The beachfront Tiki Bar and Grill has regular open mic nights, attracting musicians and artists – and the odd retiree. There is full-moon yoga on the beach and a monthly art walk. The historic lemon-yellow Peninsula Inn is a cozy retreat and its restaurant, Isabelle’s (named after their “friendly resident ghost”), is excellent with a large verandah for al fresco dining. “This is my paradise,” a transplanted Californian tells me, walking a chihuahua.
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