GULFPORT — There are plenty of beach balls bobbing in the waterways throughout the Tampa Bay area.
But not many of them are tied to a 67-year-old Croatian.
Zlatko "Goldy" Horvatich has been swimming across Boca Ciega Bay off Gulfport for 33 years — since moving here from Manhattan, his port of entry to the United States after emigrating from Croatia.
Every afternoon, just before dinner, between April and November when the winds are less than 15 mph, Horvatich straps a dagger to his leg to fend off sharks, tethers a beach ball to his waist to fend off boaters, hangs a thermometer around his neck and pulls on a pair of flippers and swims the bay.
Until about 10 years ago that meant swimming across to Tierra Verde, a 3-mile odyssey. This year he's been across only once. Most days, he says, he swims out to the center of the bay where the water is crystal clear and then swims parallel to the beach — about a mile and a half — and he sees a lot of sea life.
Dolphins are easy to spot.
"When a dolphin goes down, it comes back up," Horvatich said in his thick accent.
Four years ago, he saw what he thought was a dolphin but when it went down, it didn't come back up.
"It turned around and there was a long black shadow in the water."
It was a shark.
Horvatich reached to pull the dagger out of the holster on his left calf, but was too nervous to pull off the maneuver.
He tried to stay still as the shark circled back.
Right then a boat approached. "I started waving and pointing. I told them, 'A shark. There's a shark here.' "
The boaters picked him up and took him back to shore.
His daily swims have never been quite the same.
"They are not quite as relaxing as they used to be," he said.
But just as enchanting.
"One time a dolphin jumped out of the water and made a spin — a show just for me," said the man who, when not swimming, spends his time in antique malls collecting art and artifacts.
"Once or twice I hit something that felt like a bag of flesh under the water. My wet hair went straight up, but I think it was probably a manatee."
He also sees giant stingrays.
He said he has explored nearly every nook and cranny of Boca Ciega Bay and has seen the bay change for the worse and his beloved Gulfport change for the better.
"The bay is not so clean as it used to be.
"When I moved here, Gulfport was like the last forgotten village in the world. They were afraid to do any changes but then Mayor (Mike) Yakes came and made big changes.
"In the 1980s and '90s, it was gallery walk. All art galleries. Now there are 17 restaurants. It's so nice. It's kind of what I used to miss about my home on the Adriatic Sea," he said.
Horvatich also is an active board member in the St. Petersburg International Folk Fair Society, which is planning a second 2009 festival — the first time it has had two in one year — for the first weekend in November.
But his first love is swimming.
"If I live to be 100, I will still be swimming."
Horvatich said he hasn't been to a doctor since a checkup to get his immigration papers in 1972. He attributes his good health entirely to the sea.
"The best doctor you can have is to be swimming in the open ocean," he said.
He stays active. In the winter when he can't swim, he lifts weights. And he walks every day.
There are benefits besides the physical ones to swimming.
"I like to swim at sunset. There is nothing like being in the calm water of the bay when the huge golden ball is going down. The gold makes a path across the water from the big golden ball right to me.
"And when the huge orange ball goes down into the water, when it is completely down, all the magic is gone.
"And then I turn toward Gulfport and swim home."