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To buy Shell Key ferry, you'll need cash, a love of nature

ST. PETE BEACH — After 20,000 or so trips to Shell Key in 20 years, he's ready to set sail for new horizons.

Captain Alva Sholty won't be going far. He hopes that whoever buys his 49-passenger Corinthian will let him stick around for a while as first mate.

Eventually, he'll sail into the sunset down the coast of Florida on a new adventure.

But until then, here's the sale ad, as it has appeared in this newspaper for weeks:

"STIMULUS" SHUTTLE SALE. To Licensed Captain. Thriving Business w/ 40' Corinthian: $149k

What the ad doesn't say is that along with being Coast Guard-certified, you'll need to commit to the 2.5-mile-long sliver of land off Tierra Verde as much as Sholty has.

"We need to find somebody who loves it and will take care of it," said Sholty, 64. "If there isn't something like the shuttle running out there, then my fear is that the presence will be diminished and the experience will be over."

There are scores of charter and shuttle boats for day-tripping vacationers all over Tampa Bay. But Sholty, who bills his 10-minute shuttle out of the Merry Pier in Pass-a-Grille as ecotourism, can rightfully take credit for the claim.

When he bought this boat in 1993, after running a smaller one for four years, Shell Key was loosely managed, owned by the state and supervised by the Pinellas Sheriff's Office. The 180-acre island was in danger of becoming another Beer Can Island.

Sholty and his business partner, Barbara Ranck, along with the St. Petersburg Audubon Society, began pushing to protect migratory shorebirds that nest on some of the last remaining untouched shoreline.

They fought a lobby of recreational boaters who wanted to keep the island open to dogs, drinking and partying — all threats to the quietude that the shy birds require.

In 2002, a first victory came when Shell Key came under county management.

In 2007, the island was given protection by new regulations banning dogs and alcohol, and humans from nesting areas.

"We went from this Wild West type of thing where anything was possible to see out there ... to somewhere you would appreciate taking your family to," said Pam Leasure, environmental program manager for the Pinellas County environmental lands division.

Leasure said of Sholty: "He cares a lot for this area."

Sholty says his business, while not a get-rich operation, is financially viable at $22 per adult and $12 per child. He says he averages 6,000 to 7,000 passengers a year. He also gives narrated sunset cruises that mix in local history and sightings of million-dollar mansions with the flora and fauna.

He came to it after a 17-year career as a social worker that brought him to oversee a state-run Orlando school for wayward boys. He grew up in Fort Myers and attended the University of South Florida in Tampa, so he knew the local beauty.

He guarantees that the shuttle can provide a stress-free work environment for you, too.

You don't need to know much about birds to begin. When he started, Sholty only knew pelicans and egrets. Now he knows as much as the volunteers he shuttles free of charge to the island to count more than a hundred types of birds on the island and educate the public.

"First you learn about nesting birds, then you love them, then you protect them," he said.

The Corinthian is his second boat. He named it the Albion after the dolphin in the Jimmy Buffett song Jolly Mon.

Sholty hopes you might be the magic dolphin that continues to shepherd the black skimmers, least terns, American oystercatchers, snowy plovers and other wildlife on Shell Key.

"It just so happens," he adds, "that you can make a living out of it."

Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or

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To buy Shell Key ferry, you'll need cash, a love of nature 06/09/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 10, 2009 5:24pm]
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