Throngs of tourists have packed Clearwater's sandy shores, and cars are locked in the unforgiving traffic of the nearby Memorial Causeway. But less than a mile away, Suellen Suzuki, 24, and her friends are alone in the Clearwater Harbor on a man-made island created more than 50 years ago. The honking cars are barely audible. The water is clean and there are sea shells everywhere for kids to collect.
Suzuki and her family are among those who have discovered the city's spoil islands, a handful of flats in the Clearwater Harbor accessible only by Jet Ski, boat or — for those foolish enough — by swimming.
Dozens of these little plots, ranging from a quarter of an acre to more than 5 acres, dot Pinellas County's coastline. They were created when the state dredged the waterways at a time when officials believed dumping sediment beyond the shoreline wasn't a big deal.
The islands have colorful names, such as Little Tahiti, Compass Key and Beer Can Island.
The spoil islands help preserve wildlife and protect local waterways. Birds flock to them, fleeing both bulldozers and tourists.
But they are slowly disappearing. Some listed on recent maps are no longer there. Others now are so small they look more like mini sandbars.
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Almost every Sunday, Suzuki, her 27-year-old sister, Michelle, and their families take a speedboat to the half-acre Beer Can Island, about a mile north of the Memorial Causeway.
It's there where they set up camp, erecting a blue canopy over a weathered picnic table. They bring a grill for steaks and sausage, a cooler for drinks and a rice cooker.
The women sunbathe, keeping a close eye on their children who like to dance in the water, build sand castles and float on an orange inflatable tiger.
The men, Felipe Colossi, 21, and Carlos Scavassin, 27, spend the day fishing.
During the week, the two are bricklayers, Suellen is a housekeeper and her sister is in sales. On the weekends, they're self-described beach bums, or as Michelle's 11-year-old daughter, Beatrice, says: "The envy of all our friends."
Her pal Olivia Nash, 10, has dubbed the place "Silly Island, because we do silly things, like wrestle in the water and splash each other."
Colossi, Michelle's boyfriend of five years, says the privacy is perfect for families because "the kids can't hide and they can't run too far."
Suellen Suzuki, who is married to Scavassin and has a 3-year-old son named Kevin, agrees.
"On the beach, there are too many people, but out here it's calm, there are no worries," says Suzuki. "The water is pretty, it's clear, it's calming."
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For the most part, the islands are tranquil and people respect them, says Sgt. Jim Bordner, a spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which polices the islands. He says "we don't get a lot of calls, but there is potential for problems."
The most tragic was in March 2005 when more than 100 people were partying on Beer Can Island — the same one Suzuki and her friends frequent.
The crowd was listening to a concert at nearby Coachman Park when the tide rolled out and an underage boater asked visitors, including Jimmy Spicer of Palm Harbor, to help free his boat.
Spicer, 21, was in waist-deep water by the stern when he was fatally struck by the 25-foot boat's propeller. His death was ruled an accident.
His family says they want a memorial for him there, but can't bear to visit the island.
"I always wanted to put a cross out there, but we could never bring ourselves to do it," says his mother, Loretta Spicer, 44.
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When Al Humphers moved to Clearwater in 1983, the west side of Compass Key — often called Little Tahiti — was full of mangroves. But now, only a lone Australian pine is left on the tiny quarter-acre island that rests just off the shoreline from the Clearwater Community Sailing Center.
But markings on a few fallen trees show evidence of recent visitors.
Someone took purple paint and wrote "Jules 07" and "Sue and Doug 15 years 2008" on one.
Another, with mangled roots that look like the skeleton of a prehistoric beast, clutches a Budweiser can in its rotted limbs.
The sand here is grainy, but Humphers, an instructor at the sailing center, says the island has "some of the county's best shells because there's not a lot of people to pick them up."
But both the shells and the islands are disappearing.
Global warming and hurricanes have eroded the land, and every time a tree falls, the roots loosen the soil, says Randy Runnels, who manages Tampa Bay's aquatic preserves for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the islands.
"We'll probably lose more island area, considering the rate sea levels rise worldwide — about an inch every 10 years," says Runnels, who is also an investigator with Eckerd College studying vegetation and soil.
He says state and local environmental groups are planting vegetation to build up island sediment, but "we're not sure if it's enough to keep up with the sea level rise."
To stabilize the islands, the state is slowly planting native species such as oaks and pines, which have deeper roots.
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Not only do the islands need protection, but so does the wildlife.
Ann Paul, the Tampa Bay regional coordinator for Audubon of Florida, which co-organizes cleanups of fishing line in the fall when the birds are not nesting, says visitors to the islands need to be careful.
"We live with the animals, so we have to allow for them to nest," Paul says.
Just off Sand Key and a few hundred yards north of Little Tahiti is another tiny island that was closed to the public last year. Several yellow signs warn: "No trespassing — this is a sanctuary protected by law and the National Audubon Society."
A stone's throw south of the Memorial Causeway Bridge and east of the beach marina is the area's largest wading bird colony, a spoil simply called "I-25."
This 4.5-acre rookery is flush with mangroves that protect and provide ample nesting for up to 1,000 birds, including snowy egrets, blue herons, tri-colored herons, white ibis, American oystercatchers, roseate spoonbills and the reddish egret — one of Florida's rarest.
The island is surrounded by extensive flats that are exposed during low tides. It's perfect for wading and shore birds, and for horseshoe crabs to lay eggs.
A recent visit to the shallow waters revealed an ibis on the tree tops, a family of ducks near the shoreline and brown pelicans in the sky.
Boaters who listen closely can hear the birds inside the rookery breeding, crying, chirping and flapping in harmony.
To ensure the birds' safety, no one is allowed on the island, except when volunteers pick up fishing line and remove the exotic plant life.
If people step on the island during the crucial mating season, the birds fly off, leaving their eggs vulnerable to other birds and the hot sun, Paul says.
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Back on Beer Can Island, the families say they respect the area, but they acknowledge not everyone does.
Picking up empty, discarded water bottles, Scavassin says the mess comes from lazy tourists and college parties. Homeless people are also rumored to make their way to the islands at night, only to disappear by sunrise.
"(But) typically people just come out here to sunbathe," Scavassin says, "and an enjoy an easy family life."