Signs posted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in June advise visitors to Passage Key — a designated wildlife refuge since 1905 — to remain outside the high tide line to protect nesting and feeding birds. Islander Photos: Jennifer Glenfield
Boaters, many of them naturists, anchor off Passage Key, a wildlife refuge in Tampa Bay, Aug. 9. Islander Photos: Jennifer Glenfield
Nudists walk the shoreline and lounge on boats at Passage Key Aug. 9.
Those passing by Passage Key on their watercrafts get more than a view of shore birds at this wildlife refuge.
Passage Key is a nationally designated wildlife refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And it’s a popular spot for nudists.
The FWS released a statement in late June that said officials were surprised to see a reemerging sandbar, more than 4 acres in size, where the Passage Key National Wildlife Refuge previously existed.
It had eroded and disappeared almost seven years ago.
“When Passage Key first started reemerging a few months ago, we were under the impression that it would vanish in weeks, like it had been in the previous seven years. To everyone’s surprise, the sand has been continually accumulating, rising at several feet above the high-water mark,” said Stan Garner, FWS supervisory law enforcement officer, in the June release.
Officials also reported a high number of nesting colonies of least terns and loafing colonies of royal and sandwich terns, black skimmers, pelicans, oystercatchers and other shorebirds, amid hundreds of visitors surrounding its shores.
These hundreds of visitors to the emerging sandbar are mostly nudists — or naturists, depending on your preference of term.
“The island has gotten overwhelming attention from the nudist community,” said Ivan Vicente, FWS visitors services specialist. “The thing is, the island came back up, so the nudist community tripled in the last four months and they claimed it as their nudist island.”
Markers have been placed on the perimeter of the reemerging island, alerting visitors to the federally protected wildlife refuge.
Vicente said people are allowed to visit the island by boat and stand in the water, but they cannot walk on the land. The new markers indicate people can stand in the shallow waters, while keeping far enough away to not disturb the birds.
“Ever since it was established as a refuge, it was never allowed for people to be on it. We are reinstituting normal regulations. Now, even in high tide, part of the island is exposed. We don’t care about excluding people, we care about preserving the wildlife,” Vicente said.
Passage Key also is the site of a domestic dispute that led to a suspicious death that is being investigated by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.
Vicente said a helicopter landed on Passage Key July 13 in an attempt to locate Pamela Carter Doster, who died July 16 at Blake Medical Center in Bradenton.
The helicopter flushed the birds from the refuge, but Vicente said some of the birds have returned to feed and loaf.
Passage Key, in 1905, became the second established national wildlife refuge by President Theodore Roosevelt. The preserve is particularly important for nesting colonies of native seabirds and wading birds.
Passage Key also was the first refuge to be a federally designated Wilderness Area, earning that designation in 1970 under the Wilderness Act of 1964.
In the early 1900s, Passage Key was a 60-acre mangrove island with a freshwater lake.
The key began to shrink following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. Storms eroded away significant portions of the island. The refuge went completely underwater following the presence of hurricane Alberto in the Gulf of Mexico in 2006.
“No one expected it. It’s almost like the hand of God dumped sand on the shoal,” said Vicente.
Officials have stepped up enforcement to keep people off the land. However, Vicente said there isn’t constant enforcement.
Passage Key is jointly patrolled by the FWS and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“We don’t a have a problem with nudity out there, as long as it’s not happening on land. We manage animals first and then people,” he said.