TAMPA — In the murky depths off Davis Islands, Matt Gamache scanned the bottom of the Seddon Channel for sunken trash that had once been treasure.
And there it was, like a string of colorful pearls nestled among the silt-covered rocks and oyster shells: a strand of Gasparilla beads. The University of Tampa freshman gently pulled with a gloved hand, the single necklace having become entangled with several other strands. He placed the plastic baubles in a mesh bag and continued his hunt.
"You could stay in one place for 10 minutes and just keep finding beads," Gamache, 19, recalled.
By the end of the day Sunday, Gamache had helped two-dozen other volunteer divers fish nearly 100 pounds of beads from a thousand-foot stretch of the channel south of Marjorie Park Marina. He was one of five University of Tampa dive club members who took part in the inaugural effort, dubbed the Gasp – Our Beads of Tampa Bay survey and cleanup project.
The two goals of the event, held the day after Earth Day: Remove at least some of the plastic booty that finds its way into the water during Tampa's signature celebration, and get a sense of where to target future cleanups.
The event's moniker is a play on the name of the black-hulled replica pirate ship that makes its way up the channel between Harbour Island and Davis Islands each January during a mock invasion of the city. As the Jose Gaspar floats north toward the Tampa Convention Center, a flotilla of pleasure craft tag along. Many of their captains and crew toss beads to the spectators that line the channel.
To the tosser and would-be catcher, beads that go splash amount to a fleeting moment of disappointment amid the revelry. But experts say the beads, which became a popular Gasparilla tradition around the 1980s, are as bad for the bay as fishing line or six pack rings.
They create the potential for entanglement, which can make it difficult or even impossible for animals to feed or fly. And the beads can contain unsafe toxins in their coloring such as lead, arsenic and cadmium. Authorities warned boaters that they can face fines if officers spot too many landing in the water.
The National Association of Underwater Instructors and its Green Diver Initiative partnered with St. Petersburg's Center for Open Exploration to bring together the divers and about two-dozen more volunteers who stayed topside. The effort used grant funding from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and counted toward the Hillsborough 100 Conservation Challenge, an initiative by the Hillsborough Soil and Water Conservation District to tick off 100 conservation projects during the week after Earth Day.
Ally Marter, another UT freshman, helped draft Gamache and the three other dive club members willing to take a break from studying for finals. All five students are studying marine biology.
Marter is from Michigan, Gamache from Minnesota, and they attended their first Gasparilla parade in January. They had fun but couldn't help but notice how much plastic waste it produces. The day before the dive, Gamache and Marter attended an Earth Day celebration. A speaker urged the audience to think globally and act locally.
"It was really cool to go out the next day and do just that," said Marter, 19.
It wasn't easy. Murky conditions kept visibility to about two feet. Beads were often buried in muck and it took a gentle hand to coax them out of rocks and oyster shells.
"It was like pulling weeds from a garden," Marter said. "You had to pull them out slowly so the beads wouldn't break."
About half of the beads looked shiny and new, the students said. The rest had clearly been underwater for longer than four months.
Along with the beads, divers pulled up about 70 pounds of other man-made detritus from the channel.
NAUI has its headquarters in Riverview so launching a cleanup effort in its own backyard is gratifying, said Angie Cowan, an association spokeswoman and event co-coordinator. So is giving marine biology students a hands-on learning experience.
"These types of events could definitely help form what their future career will look like or what they want to focus on in marine biology," Cowan said.
The cleanup's bountiful results came as welcome news to Christine Arenas, environmental program manager for Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful.
Marjorie Park is one of the meet up points for the non-profit group's largest events, the Hillsborough River and Coastal Cleanup, which is set for Sept. 16 this year. Among the volunteers are divers who plumb the depths of the Seddon Channel and surface with all sorts of debris, ranging from plastic bottles to patio furniture. And, of course, plenty of Gasparilla beads.
That means they likely saved those volunteers some work, Arenas said.
"Gasparilla is such a Tampa tradition and beads are of course a part of the parade, but we also are located in the largest open-water estuary in Florida, so we want to protect it," she said. "We're grateful for the volunteers who share our concerns."
Cowan said organizers are still deciding what to do with the beads, but they won't end up in the landfill. One idea is to encase them in acrylic and create an exhibit to educate Gasparillagoers about what lurks beneath surface.
"If there are that many in just a small area," she said, "imagine how many more there are out there."
Contact Tony Marrero at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.