ST. PETERSBURG — He once lived with witch doctors in the wilds of Amazonia. He sailed to Cuba and swam around Key West.
Terry Tomalin, the Tampa Bay Times' larger-than-life outdoors editor, traveled Florida and the world to take readers on extraordinary adventures. He died Thursday after suffering a heart attack. He was 55.
Mr. Tomalin had been at the North Shore Aquatic Center in St. Petersburg with his 14-year-old son Kai; the two were taking a life guarding test together. He collapsed and never regained consciousness, his family said.
"We are devastated," said his wife, St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin. "He loved us. He loved his family so much, and we loved him."
Mr. Tomalin was a well known outdoorsman across the state. Boat captains respected him, both for his fearlessness and generous spirit. He had an Encyclopedic knowledge of all things Florida.
"He joked that he could get through life without ever putting on a pair of long pants," former deputy managing editor for Sports Jack Sheppard recalled. "He smelled like he got up at 4 a.m. and went fishing before work, which he did."
One of nine siblings — an Irish-Italian brood that includes actress Susan Sarandon — Mr. Tomalin grew up in New Jersey. He developed a love for camping and the outdoors during family vacations to an island off the coast of Maine.
He moved to Florida in 1980 for the surf and sun. After graduating from the University of South Florida, he launched his newspaper career at the Daily Commercial in Leesburg.
Later, at the Lakeland Ledger, Mr. Tomalin distinguished himself as a hard-charging investigative reporter. He broke one of the biggest stories of his career on Halloween 1985. Mr. Tomalin had overheard Polk County sheriff's deputies saying then-Sheriff Dan Daniels was requiring new hires to take polygraph tests. On instinct, Mr. Tomalin requested the tests and sifted through more than 200 polygraphs, only to discover that two deputies, hired from the Lakeland Police Department, had disclosed affiliations with the Ku Klux Klan — and were still hired.
That initial bombshell story led to more scoops. The 50 stories that followed shocked the Central Florida community, detailing everything from warrantless entries, bid-rigging and cronyism.
Daniels later resigned and the Ledger won the prestigious Roy W. Howard Award for Public Service Reporting, one of journalism's top honors.
Mr. Tomalin joined the Times as a police reporter in 1986. But the outdoors beckoned. He left the job within 18 months to backpack through New Zealand.
He was named the Times' outdoors writer when he returned.
During more than 25 years on the beat, Mr. Tomalin explored sunken Mayan archaeological sites in Mexico and canoed to the Bahamas and chased after the elusive Skunk Ape. He went places many outdoorsmen never went. He ventured into the Everglades alone. He made veteran outdoorsmen test their fears.
"Terry was the real deal," said William Darrell "Darry" Jackson, the owner of Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure. "He was a true outdoorsman. He would go out and live in the outdoors. He didn't do car camping."
But his mission was broader than that. Colleagues say he sought to change the culture around outdoors writing. Rather than taking freebies from manufacturers and travel companies, Mr. Tomalin exposed restaurants that served fake grouper and fought for catch and release fishing of tarpon.
"I feel like Terry would want people to know that he worked hard to put outdoors writing on the same ethical footing with all the other journalism that the St. Pete Times did," said Chuck Murphy, a former colleague at the Ledger and the then-St. Petersburg Times.
For all of his travels, however, Mr. Tomalin's greatest passion in life was his family. Friends say he was swept away by Kanika at first sight. The two married in St. Petersburg in 1999.
He couldn't wait to become a father, recalled former senior editor Joe Childs.
"When he got to be one, he was just so thrilled," Childs said.
Mr. Tomalin would later serve as scout leader of Kai's Boy Scout troop. He considered Kai and 12-year-old daughter Nia his greatest travel companions.
"Terry became one of those dads that every kid really wants," said Dave Mistretta, a charter boat captain and close friend. "He was devoted. That's what I saw shine in him. It was all about morals and being a good person. He wanted his kids to turn out right."
Mr. Tomalin also was dedicated to the community. He helped found the annual Tampa Bay Frogman Swim, which has raised more than $1 million for the Navy SEAL Foundation since its inception in 2010, when just 30 people showed up for the swim across the chilly bay.
In announcing the death to the newsroom staff Thursday afternoon, Editor Neil Brown said he considered working with Mr. Tomalin one of the great honors and privileges of his career.
"Terry personified what it meant to be part of a community," he later said in a statement. "You think of Terry and you think of his stories about the beauty of being alive and taking advantage of living around Tampa Bay. You think of his volunteer work in the community or you think of him routinely taking 40 kids camping. I can't imagine that I've ever been around a more giving, energetic, can-do man."
In an anniversary column last year, Mr. Tomalin had offered readers tips both practical, "Never turn your back on the ocean or a fishing buddy who doesn't know how to cast," and philosophical, "Carry a compass. It will tell you what direction you are going and, sometimes more importantly, where you have been."
In the end, he wrote, it came down to wearing a smile, even if the boat's going down.
"I used to say that attitude is everything," he wrote. "But now I know that attitude is the only thing."
Times staff writers Neil Brown, Katherine Snow Smith, Dan Sullivan, Michael Van Sickler and Colleen Wright, and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.