With four of its five arms pointing in one direction, the orangey echinoderm looked more like a sea cactus than a sea star.
"This is sad; it washed ashore and died," says Graham Ervin, 27, of Clearwater, who along with Nick Pecori, 18, of Dunedin took St. Petersburg Times photographer Douglas Clifford and me on a 5-mile tour through St. Joseph Sound and Caladesi Island's paddling trails.
As he picked up the sea star from the sand and displayed it in the palm of his hand, Ervin felt the tickle of its moving tube feet. Back in the water it went and within moments, it returned to its normal pentaradial symmetry — and hopefully, a life feasting on fresh clam meat.
"I see creatures wash up and die all the time. That's nature," says Ervin, a 6-foot-4 blond who grew up in Gainesville and learned to kayak on the Santa Fe River. "But what is happening out there in the gulf is not natural. It infuriates me and makes me sad at the same time."
As thousands of gallons of oil gush into the gorgeous waters each day, Ervin says he is sickened with worry about the short- and long-term toxic effects on the pristine and fragile environment he loves so much — and wants to make a living from.
Ervin majored in hospitality management at the University of West Florida in Pensacola in 2007. About a year later, he moved to Tampa Bay, with its rich tapestry of beaches, barrier islands, mangrove forests and underwater sea grass meadows, to start his own ecotourism company.
But the economy tanked, putting his dreams on hold.
So he works for Osprey Bay Kayaks, selling boats and equipment and giving kayaking tours that offer an eco-gracious way to view marine flora and fauna. He says he is aiming to build up that side of the business into one that offers overnight family vacations.
Now, the ominous manmade disaster looms miles off our shores.
"It's out there, it's coming and it's already having an impact on us whether we're seeing tar balls or not," he said. "It's going to affect what we can eat, where we can live and what we can do for a living."
On our way to Caladesi Island, a black long-necked cormorant spreads its wet wings in the salty sea breeze. An osprey flies above, the silhouette of a fish dangling from its claws. Mullet jump.
"We may destroy their natural habitat and what did they do to hurt us? They don't have a say in all this — but then again, neither did we," Ervin said. "I've always been against ocean drilling."
• • •
On Wednesday, the winds are calm and the visibility of the turtle grass below is perfect. The blades of lush grass provide food and habitat for juvenile fish, crustaceans and other marine life.
We enter the mangrove-lined kayak trails of Caladesi Island where rays of sunlight poke through the dense canopy, creating a lacy yellow pattern on the clear water. The light exposes minnows darting about and feeding on the decaying leaves.
It is a truly enchanting trail, where you feel embraced by the impenetrable, protective branches of the mangroves. Though the sun is beating above, the small trees keep the air and waters that flow through them cool and filtered.
Dark burgundy mangrove crabs, the size of silver dollars, scamper up and down their tangled roots, which help secure the shoreline of the barrier island and provide habitat for the birds and fish who live there.
"It's rejuvenating to be surrounded by these plants pumping out all this oxygen," Ervin says.
Along the way, we stop at the ruins of the Scharrer homestead, built in the late 1800s on the southern part of the island.
In 1934, the residence was pillaged and burned; all that remains are some foundation blocks and part of a fireplace.
• • •
Back in our kayaks, we fetch a few plastic bottles that have wedged themselves into the red and black mangroves. The bottles, likely made from petrol, give us pause about how deeply addicted our society has become to oil.
We head back to the mainland, stopping on a small island along the way.
In the muddy substrate, we spot stone and blue crab, stingrays, lightning whelk and hermit crabs marching around in stolen shells.
Dolphins frolic in our midst.
Ervin picks up a true tulip shell from the sea grass beds, a reddish brown specimen about 6 inches long.
An animal emerges, looking like a giant twisting tongue. It's a carnivore.
"They drill holes into other shells and suck out the meat," Ervin says. "It's brutal — but it's nature."
Reach Terri Bryce Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org