TREASURE ISLAND — Carrie Auerbach walked onto Treasure Island’s beach on Monday holding a plastic shovel, looking to fill more of the holes that she has found scattered across public beaches in Pinellas County.
“Basically, I’m gonna need a bigger shovel,” said Auerbach, a beach ambassador in Treasure Island. “There are holes that are so large that three or four bodies could fit in them.”
Over the past two weeks, large, “grave-type” holes have appeared up and down some Pinellas County beaches, spurring efforts from city officials and volunteers to educate beachgoers about why they could be hazardous. There have been more than a dozen holes in Treasure Island - dug by beachgoers and then left there to sit - popping up larger and more frequently than normal, Auerbach and Treasure Island’s fire chief said.
It’s prompting questions about why, now, are people digging massive holes and then leaving them.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know,” said Auerbach, who runs a Facebook page to document the clean-up effort. “We scratch our heads. We can’t figure it out.”
The holes can cause injuries for nighttime runners or patrol vehicles run by fire and police departments, several city officials in Pinellas County said. While a city ordinance doesn’t ban people from digging holes at the beach, it does require that they fill them back in upon request.
What environmental groups, including the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, worry about is the danger to sea turtles, all of them threatened or endangered. Mother sea turtles come to the shore, dig a nest in the sand and lay their eggs, which sit in the sand for about two months before hatching between May and October. After they hatch, the sea turtles try to navigate back to the water. If they fall into a hole, they may not be able to make it out.
“That can become a big issue for them, because they only have so much energy to get to the water, and then get to Sargassum weed line” that becomes their habitat for years, said Lindsey Flynn, supervisor of the aquarium’s Sea Turtle Conservation Program. “Wasting it trying to get out of this large hole on the beach, that’s less energy you have to make it to where they’re supposed to be.”
Madeira Beach Mayor John Hendricks called the holes “part of living in a tourist area.” He first heard of this year’s uptick from social media campaigns like Auerbach’s.
A Buffalo native who raised her son in Philadelphia, Auerbach, 62, moved to Treasure Island nearly six years ago, to a house about two miles from the beach. “I consider it a privilege to be here. I like to give back,” she said. She became a beach ambassador, organized cleanups after the Fourth of July and walks the beach every evening to pick up trash.
This month, she’s has spent hours each day walking along Treasure Island’s beaches with her shovel, filling holes when she can and calling the fire department when they’re too big to handle. She brings a group of volunteers, educates beachgoers about the holes’ effects and walks up and down Gulf Boulevard with the fire department. They hand out flyers and factsheets for hotel owners to give to guests and post daily updates on social media
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Treasure Island Fire Chief William Barrs likened it to “essentially, a public education campaign.”
“I don’t think they’re being dug maliciously, I don’t think there’s any conspiracy or anything like that,” said Barrs. “But certainly people don’t want to do anything that impacts the fire service’s ability to respond. Most people don’t want to harm sea turtles, they’re generally a well-loved creature. So I think once we get the information out there, the problem will resolve itself.”