TAMPA — A toadfish cheated destiny Saturday. There it was, snagged by discarded fishing line below the Ballast Point Park pier. Along came humans, who happened to work at an aquarium.
The fish went free and the line went into a recycling bin, a teeny triumph of wildlife over trash.
As many as 4,000 such helpful humans sifted through shores and shallows Saturday as part of a Hillsborough County river and bay cleanup organized by Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful. The 70 targeted sites included the Courtney Campbell Causeway, Cypress Point Park and Beer Can Island.
Hands reached into the gunk and came up with tons of junk.
Amid it all, there was at least one tense moment, before volunteers could adjourn to a Lowry Park rally to race boats made of recycled materials.
A large trash bag found off the Courtney Campbell elicited a call to police. The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office had to be consulted. But, no, the remains weren't human.
Other discoveries required no police investigation — though maybe there was a tale behind the laptop computer found off Ballast Point. Ditched evidence of tax refund fraud, perhaps?
"We think this is the laptop used in the SAT cheating scandal a few years back," quipped site leader Dan Fisher, 53.
He and his wife, both founders of the Tampa Bay Green Consortium, live in the Ballast Point neighborhood, near the southern end of Bayshore Boulevard. One of its most prominent features is a 970-foot pier that gets plenty of use, judging from debris.
Along with the laptop, a bicycle and four cellphones, volunteers found 232 fishing lines, 74 weights, 48 fishing hooks, 14 cast nets, 23 glass bottles, 14 aluminum cans, 10 knives and over 160 pounds of metal, rubber, plastic and glass fragments.
And, of course, the toadfish, first spotted by Nicky Wilson, 28, supervisor of dive operations at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. She saw it from the pier and alerted aquarium divers Erin Gallagher, 26, Michael Sistrunk, 39, and Betty Rzewnicki, 43.
There were eight divers and two kayaks in the water; above them, fellow volunteers watched air bubbles and warned of encroaching jellyfish.
Boaters collected the treasures so divers could travel light.
"They seemed to fill up the bags pretty quickly," said Army Maj. Adam Kordish, 43, who paddled a kayak with his wife, Jane, 46, an Army veteran. They estimate they carried in 10 bags of trash, including the laptop and part of a hookah pipe.
Maureen Wiltse, 46, of Dunedin, was among those monitoring from the pier.
"I dove three years ago and the visibility is unbelievable down there," she said. "You can only see about 6 inches in front of you. And my boyfriend actually got tangled up with monofilament and I had to pull my knife and cut him free."
Lesley Fleming kept an eye out for her diver son, Ted, 25.
She noted the interesting mix of people helping. Her son works as a financial analyst. She's a horticultural therapist. Wiltse has business ties to a chocolate company. Fisher, a retired Navy officer, works for a defense contractor. Cub Scouts assisted in a landside cleanup of the park.
Pat DePlasco of Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful said it was "heartwarming" to see so many volunteers turn out for the event.
She tells people about the dangers that trash poses in the wild: A dolphin mistakes a plastic bag for a jellyfish and starves when the bag balloons in the stomach. A loggerhead turtle dies inside a collapsed lawn chair. A blue heron spears a soda can and can no longer open its beak.
The group organizes two large cleanups a year. Other groups organize similar events, including Tampa Bay Watch, which plans to tackle Fort De Soto Park and its shores on Saturday. (The website says the event is already full.)
DePlasco said the trash keeps coming, some of it carried in from the bay by tides.
In July, volunteers plucked trash from below Causeway Boulevard near Tampa's shrimp docks, she said. "I was just out there last week and you'd never know someone was there."
Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.