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The beach with a bad rap

Pity Picnic Island Park.

It's been called a "poor man's beach" and a poor excuse for a beach. Most Tampa residents would rather take the long haul to the sugary beaches of Pinellas County than be seen near its seaweed-clumped shore.

Too bad for them.

Last week, while Pinellas beaches were fending off fish-killing red tide, visitors to Picnic Island watched a dolphin chase mullet among bathers.

"He actually jumped up and did a flip," said beach manager Edith Dickerson.

Would that happen at Clearwater Beach?

Or would a dolphin there gag on coconut oil?

Even an 8-foot alligator made a rare visit to Picnic Island last week. It stayed only a few hours.

Meanwhile, in Pinellas, stinky fish washed up for days.

Picnic Island, opened by the city in 1974, has been burdened by a bad rap.

Granted, trains, cranes and huge fuel tanks dominate the landscape. A trip to Picnic Island feels like a trip to Pittsburgh.

But in ways, it's a naturalist's dream.

At dawn, great blue herons stalk the beach.

On the lagoon side, armies of fiddler crabs feed at water's edge and pelicans dive bomb from the big sky.

Hard-core birdwatchers say rare mangrove cuckoos and prairie warblers flit among the trees.

Picnic Island Park is "a jewel hidden in the rough," said Johnny Smith, a Palma Ceia kite surfer who visits the park three or four times a week. "It's beautiful."

And yet, some pan its family atmosphere as boring.

They cite its semi-wild state as proof the city has neglected it.

"Spend some money," urges Ralph Marshall. "Bring it up to standard."

Marshall, 67, was at Picnic Island last week with friend Ed Allen, 73, who didn't believe Tampa had beaches. Both live in St. Petersburg.

Marshall showed Allen the beach _ and then dissed it.

"They ought to clean it up," he said, referring to the mats of sea grass that shag up the shore.

But all that sea grass is a sign of good health.

Marine biologists call sea grass beds the forests of the sea. For many creatures, the beds function as home, sanctuary and grocery.

If the sea grass wasn't thriving, Pat Cannizzaro wouldn't still be leading his "Beachwalk by Moonlight" classes here after 10 years.

Cannizzaro, an environmental studies instructor at Hillsborough Community College, said Picnic Island doesn't get its due because of its location.

White vapor streams from the power plant across the bay. Machines whir inside the warehouse by the pier.

Before entering the park, cars pass beneath a catwalk-like contraption hugged by steel pipelines.

"I tell my class, "Don't be freaking out,' " Cannizzaro said.

Once inside, the students forget.

They use nets to pull cowfish and sea robins from the sea grass and sieves to flush snails and clams from the mud.

"It's like panning for gold," Cannizzaro said.

Tampa Bay is beginning to again brim with life, he said. And Picnic Island is a good place to find it.

And, no, industry isn't mucking up the water quality.

Richard Boler oversees water testing for the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission. Scientists check the water regularly for chemicals that might be harmful to humans or aquatic life.

The water is "actually quite good in that area," Boler said. "I can't remember the last time we ever had even a minor fuel spill."

Most visitors aren't thinking about natural wonders. They have plenty of other reasons to enjoy the park.

At low tide, Rick Sosher and Jimmy Lentz are at the lagoon, sitting in lawn chairs and fishing for snook and cobia.

Last week, they planted their poles like flags in the sand.

"We were here before there ever was a park," said Sosher, 44, a Port Tampa native.

They're not territorial. Sosher reached into his cooler for a can that looked suspiciously like beer, never mind that the park doesn't allow alcohol.

"You want one?" he asked.

Solangel Mujica comes here because "everything is clean."

Last week, she and her family were cooking up chicken, pork chops and hot dogs by one of the pavilions.

Clearwater Beach is okay, said Mujica, who lives off Busch Boulevard. But it doesn't have "the palms and the trees and the grills."

Why do people in Tampa go there?

"To get a tan?" she guessed.

Carol Schaefer had an explanation.

"I love it over there, too," she said. "You're humming and it's happening."

But she has a soft spot for Picnic Island.

Schaefer, 50, was watching her grandchildren, Taya and Kelly Offman. She used to bring her own kids, back when Picnic Island was the place to go for people with no money.

Now she goes because "there's nobody breathing my air."

But, odds are, something is eating her leftovers.

Every afternoon, raccoons emerge from the woods to dive head first through the swinging tops of trash bin.

Splash. Right into a buffet of chicken bones, baked beans and warm gulps of Rolling Rock.

They'll dive back out if anybody gets close, as if they feel the vibrations from advancing feet.

"We don't know how they do it," said lifeguard Mike Rametta, 18.

The lifeguards have a saying when something eventful happens, like the wayward alligator. They say, "It's another day in paradise."

"You have to take the good with the bad," Rametta said.

The lifeguards have another expression: "No-no beach."

That's what they call the backside of the park, where, truth be told, people occasionally swim nude. (It's not legal.)

There's wild life, and then there's wildlife.

Nathan Brennan, 9, waved a briny net in front of a stranger. He was one of 30 Tampa children participating last week in the city's Mangrove Marcus summer camp program.

Instructors gave the kids nets and snorkel masks, and turned them loose to find _ and then release _ whatever they could.

"I found a shrimp," Nathan said, trying unsuccessfully to grab the proof. "You have to look in this green muck stuff."

That would be the sea grass.

For the kids, shoes are required. Toe-stumping rocks have spawned many complaints.

Some adults seem to think this is a first-magnitude fashion disaster. The kids don't mind.

Courtney Loida, 11, held a moon snail shell between her fingers. A hermit crab peeked out, then scrunched back in.

"Cool," Courtney said, before putting her mask back on and preparing to return the crab to the bay bottom.

"You can find the coolest things," she said, "right next to your foot."

_ Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or

Much maligned Picnic Island draws its share of adults and kids for a variety of activities. It gets the same glowing sunsets as the Gulf Beaches too. Rodney Wooten of Interbay fishes there several times a week for snook, trout and Spanish mackerel.

Javonte Hayes, 6, emerges from the water while snorkeling for a glimpse of fish, crabs, snails and shrimp. Javonte was at Picnic Island with the Mangrove Marcus day camp.

Maya Fisher, 7, and Kaitlin Jenkins, 10, of a Davis Islands summer program, snack on hot dogs under a pavilion at Picnic Island.

Wildflowers line the beach at Picnic Island, which was opened by the city in 1974. With its clumps of sea grass and view of fuel tanks, the beach often gets a bad rap. But birdwatchers and environmentalists call it a jewel in the rough.

Tyler Ondera, 9, waits for a bite during a fishing trip to Picnic Island with his grandfather, uncle and cousins.

Raccoons often make their way from the mangroves to the covered trash bins in search of picnic leftovers.

Michael Rotolo, 9, shows off a living sand dollar he scooped up while snorkeling off Picnic Island.