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Fisherman Lost at Sea Memorial


 

Sea of sadness: Remembering all the fishermen lost in the gulf
By Andrew Meacham, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Sunday, May 2, 2010

Bill Renney was 10 years old when the Gulf of Mexico erased his father.

On March 29, 1943, Sam Renney took four men fishing on the Miss Detroit, a 37-foot cabin cruiser. When he didn’t return, young Bill didn’t worry. Authorities were rationing gas in wartime and he had probably run dry, his mother told him.

The next day, a fishing boat found a gas tank and a charred life preserver — but no sign of the rest of the Miss Detroit or her crew.

Sixty-seven years later, Renney still wonders what happened to his father. Dozens of other people bear the same sad burden, pining for loved ones who died or vanished while fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.

A group of John’s Pass Village merchants has been raising money for a memorial to the Tampa Bay fishermen who have died in the gulf waters. They want to pay homage to the dead but don’t know how many there are. While the true number is unknowable, we wanted to get as close as possible.

The St. Petersburg Times reviewed newspaper archives and arrived at a disquieting number: at least 142 since 1933.

Fifty-five percent were recreational fishermen.

The other 45 percent were professionals, including longline fishermen who knew how to lean into waves standing at 45 degrees while their boats spooled out 2,500 hooks on 10 miles of cable. But their experience could not save them from explosions at sea or the rogue waves fishermen call “widow makers.”

Of 142 known local fishing-related deaths, the bodies of 87 — nearly two-thirds — were never found. The absence of a body can leave family members with a thin hope that their loved one is alive somewhere, which exacerbates the anguish.

Tourists who know the island communities for sand beaches and tourist-trap shops may not be aware that a sizeable commercial fishing fleet still exists. An estimated 100 commercial boats unload cargo in Madeira Beach, according to the Southern Offshore Fishing Association, bringing tons of fresh fish and hundreds of jobs to the area.

In the late 1980s, SOFA erected a sign honoring fishermen who died or were lost. For about a dozen years, the sign greeted shoppers entering the boardwalk on John’s Pass Village.

Then in 2000, John’s Pass underwent renovations.

Like so many fishermen swept to sea, the sign disappeared.

• • •

Up and down Gulf Boulevard, signs link Madeira Beach to its founding occupation. The Friendly Fisherman. Dockside Dave’s. Madeira Beach Seafood Company.

The Church by the Sea served as a beacon for fishermen, who used the light on its steeple to guide themselves home.

But accounting for the fishing community’s maritime tragedies — those who didn’t make it home — is not easy. The U.S. Coast Guard declined to release a list of names of fishermen who have died at sea. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also didn’t have a comprehensive list.

But an archive search of the Times and Bradenton Herald turned up 142 fishing-related deaths over the past 80 years. Most of the fishermen are from Pinellas County, mainly Madeira Beach, though some left ports in Citrus, Pasco, Hillsborough and Manatee counties.

The stories are harrowing:

Nov. 17, 1933: The Xios, a sponge boat, left Tarpon Springs with a crew of four. The boat and crew were never seen again, though another boat reported seeing smoke in the area where the Xios may have been located.

June 27, 1948: Hazel, a fishing charter, departed Cedar Key with 15 people aboard. Thirty miles out, there was an explosion from the engine room. Thirteen people died.

Oct. 30, 1983: Tony Lathan, a promising outfielder in the Boston Red Sox farm system, was shark fishing off Bradenton when the boat took on water and sank. Lathan, 21, couldn’t swim. Two teammates in the boat survived.

Aug. 24, 1984: Tomisene Washington and Larry Griffin left Cedar Key to go fishing. Griffin, 28, was never found. Partial remains of Washington, 31, were found 10 days later — in the belly of a tiger shark.

• • •

At 5:18 a.m. on Sept. 28, 2000, Whitney Taggart disappeared from the Blue Chip 50 miles west of Venice Inlet. Four crew members told the Coast Guard they were below when Taggart, the 41-year-old captain, went overboard.

“If you want to know suffering, tell me somebody is off the boat,” said his sister, Jane Taggart. “It’s the most horrible thing I have ever been through in my life.”

Her brother was a lean man with shoulder-length, twisting blond hair.

Taggart, 43, is still carrying the pain of the loss.

“The mind plays evil games with you,” she said. “When did he take his last breath? What was he thinking? What happened?

“You want some answers. You want a body. You want some evidence.”

The family held a wake on the beach two days after the Coast Guard called off the search.

Jane Taggart could not bring herself to attend, and has yet to memorialize her brother in any formal way.

• • •

All the deaths occurred in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

“You think it’s like the Atlantic Ocean, where you get big rollers and swells,” said Bob Spaeth, an owner of Madeira Beach Seafood Company. “Here we get closer-together waves, but higher.”

The difference, said University of South Florida oceanographer Bob Weisberg, is shallower water created by the Continental Shelf — which extends as far west of Florida as the state is wide.

“Twenty-five miles offshore it might only be 100 feet deep,” said Weisberg.

When high winds come over the shallow Continental Shelf — and water reacts to the hard ground bottom — seas have nowhere to go but up.

“Deeper is safer,” Weisberg said. “Waves are not feeling the bottom. In deep water, those waves tend to be not as steep and they tend to be longer.”

“If you ride down the front of a wave, the bow digs into the wave in front of you,” said Mark Hubbard, who runs the charter boat business out of Hubbard’s Marina in John’s Pass Village. “You have no time to recover from one wave to the next.”

But Weisberg said fishermen bear some of the blame.

“A lot of times you have boats that are not in the best of repair,” Weisberg said.

For years, Richard Wabberson fished in a 69-foot boat, the Missy Cindy, out of Tarpon Springs.

“I’ve seen a lot of boats I wouldn’t cross the river in go offshore,” said Wabberson, 62.

On March 20, Wabberson’s son, John, 23, fell over the side of the Missy Cindy. Wabberson searched for 18 hours but never found him.

Now Wabberson, who said he captained boats for 35 years on seven continents, lives in Georgia and fishes swamp flats.

“I have no desire to go offshore ever again,” he said.

• • •

March 13, 1993: Gene Ippoliti was sitting in his long johns on the captain’s chair of the Mary C sipping coffee. A mate they called Shorty was rousting up breakfast in the ice box, where the crew had stashed groceries and 450 pounds of grouper. It was a windy morning, the sun shining.

Then something slapped the boat upside down. “I woke up underwater in the dark,” said Ippoliti, 48. “I was starved for air.”

He saw a light spot in the water. His window. The wave had blown it out.

On the surface, he tasted diesel fuel. Groceries floated by. He grabbed some cheese and biscuits and stuffed them in his sleeve.

He tried to scale the upside-down hull. Too slippery. Neither Shorty nor another mate, Tim Floyd, were anywhere in sight.

“I knew they were done,” Ippoliti said.

As he scanned the floating rubble, he saw a long lid of the boat’s ice box float by. A competitive swimmer as a child, he jumped at the chance for a life raft.

“Mark Spitz couldn’t have caught me that day,” he said.

For the next several hours, he fought waves. They broke over his head and pushed him under. Between them, he took deep breaths and thought about his 6-month-old son, Derrick.

“I talked to God. This is what I said: ‘It’s Gene again. I know I only call you when I need you. I’m not going to bull—- you and say I’m going to go home and be a priest because I’m not. Just let me go home and kiss my kid again.’ ”

That afternoon, a Coast Guard plane passed directly overhead — and kept going. Twenty minutes later it reappeared to the north.

If he was not rescued by nightfall, he would no longer be able to see the waves before they broke.

“I just felt like, ‘Damn, I’m dead.’ It was total gloom and despair.”

The ordeal ended after six hours when a Coast Guard helicopter came to him and lowered a basket. Once on board, the crew put him in a neoprene suit and gave him an apple.

The winds that capsized Ippoliti’s boat — known forever after as the “no-name storm” — killed at least 171 people, most of them on land.

A month later, another boat found Shorty, whose real name was Loring Bryant, 42. Floyd’s body was never found. A joint seaside service was held for both fishermen.

After a year away, Ippoliti agreed to captain another boat, but had to return after three days. “It was just total paranoia.”

He has since returned to commercial fishing, but has no illusions about the gulf’s dangers.

“You think it’s never going to be that bad. But on any occasion it will kill you. As soon as you get offshore and it’s over your head, you are in peril.”

The common-law rule called for a seven-year waiting period before a person could be declared dead.

That standard has since been replaced by a law presuming death after five years if diligent efforts have been made to find the person. But legal authorities will make exceptions when there is reason to believe death occurred sooner.

“If someone sees a miner walk into a mine three minutes before it collapsed, he could probably be declared dead without much waiting around even if the body is never recovered,” said Bruce Howie, a Clearwater lawyer.

A fisherman whose boat vanishes could be seen as having died, Howie said, provided there is no competing set of circumstances that would also explain the same set of facts.

“If the fisherman’s boat is found drawn up on the shore of Costa Rica and the fisherman had withdrawn his wife’s life savings from their joint account just before leaving,” Howie said, “there is a countervailing, equally reasonable inference that he didn’t drown in the gulf.”

To declare a Florida resident dead, a person with legal standing (such as next of kin) must file a petition with the circuit court in the county of the person’s last known address. Any potential creditors or anyone else with an interest in keeping the person alive must be publicly notified.

If a judge determines that death has occurred, he or she issues a final order stating that a death certificate can be produced. The date of the order is considered the date of death. Then claims such as life insurance can be made.

• • •

Feb. 25, 2005: The Gulf Coaster, a boat captained by Mike Costello, pulled out of a marina at Bay Pines. Costello, 29, and his mate, John Molina, 42, planned to spend several days at sea fishing amberjack. They sought that fish because grouper season had been pushed back — part of recent government restrictions on commercial fishing.

For years, efforts to shorten seasons, set trip limits and cap maximum allowable catches for the year had divided the fishing community. Recreational anglers supported them; commercial fishermen said they threatened their livelihood. Occasional fistfights broke out on the docks over the issue.

Some of those efforts have succeeded and are now in place. In 2005, they were just getting started.

Costello had told his mother he needed to take one more trip to make ends meet. On Feb. 27, Costello reported that he was 73 miles west of John’s Pass, in an area fishermen call “the Elbow.”

He would head back home soon, Costello told his brother. When the Gulf Coaster did not return Feb. 28, the boat’s owner called the Coast Guard.

On March 1, they found remnants of the boat and Molina’s body 58 miles west of Anna Maria Island. Costello’s body was never found.

His mother, Shirley Costello, blames the closures and restrictions for tempting fishermen to press their limits, to go out when they otherwise wouldn’t, to pick the wrong side on judgment calls they used to get right.

Five years after the accident, Shirley Costello, 56, has not sought a death certificate. Her son was unmarried, had no children and no life insurance.

A part of her doesn’t want one anyway. Without a body, she said, she can never be certain.

“Ninety-nine percent of me knows. One percent of me says someone picked him up and he has amnesia and doesn’t know where he is. There will always be a slim possibility because nobody ever found him.”

• • •

Efforts to memorialize local fishermen aren’t new. In the late 1980s, Spaeth, the fleet owner who also directs the Southern Offshore Fishing Association, paid for a sign at John’s Pass Village. It consisted of two heavy planks mounted on posts near the boardwalk entrance, with gold-embossed lettering that read, “John’s Pass, Dedicated to Fishermen Lost at Sea.”

The shopping center underwent renovations in the late 1990s, and the fishermen’s plank sign disappeared.

But now, a group of business people want to enhance John’s Pass Village — with its touristy shops and restaurants — with a real memorial to fallen fishermen.

For the past few years, the John’s Pass Village Association and the Outdoor Arts Foundation have been raising money for a 6-foot-tall sculpture to go in front of the boardwalk. The Hand of Fate depicts a sea-green hand rising out of the waves cradling a fishing boat.

The engraved names of fishermen from the greater Tampa Bay area will fill a 3-foot base beneath the statue. The group says it has raised nearly half of the $50,000 needed to produce the sculpture by Seminole artist Robert Bruce Epstein.

Mark Hubbard, 46, is a driving force to create the Florida Fishermen Lost at Sea Memorial. His family owns John’s Pass Village, and he runs the fishing charter out of Hubbard’s Marina.

The Hand of Fate, Hubbard said, is as much a warning as a memorial.

“It’s a big wave and a boat getting ready to be crashed,” Hubbard said. “Its message is to be careful out there. You are at the mercy of the Gulf of Mexico when you go out there. You have to have your game on, because you won’t get second chances very often.”

A year ago, the planners put up a website inviting people to submit names of lost fishermen. About a dozen people have.

• • •

Questions swirled after the Miss Detroit vanished in 1943 with all aboard, including Sam Renney, a Gulfport police officer.

Dorothy Renney’s original theory — that her husband ran out of gas — had some staying power. The Coast Guard rationed gas carefully during World War II. Perhaps the stranded boat had been run over by a freighter.

Or else it had struck a mine. Maybe a German U-boat had sunk it.

Renney’s 10-year-old son, Bill, knew submarines were on the horizon. One time, he had climbed a tree and seen one.

Dorothy Renney simply set one less place at the dinner table. She never had a sit-down talk with her son about what may have happened.

He wondered if his father had been taken as a prisoner of war in another country. Over time that theory stopped making sense.

“If he was alive, then he would have gotten word back,” Renney said.

Seven years after pieces of the Miss Detroit were found in the gulf, a court awarded Dorothy Renney a death certificate. Though her husband had no life insurance, the ruling allowed his widow to sell their modest home.

From time to time, Sam Renney came up in family conversation. His wife remembered the way Sam cleaned fish in the back yard. He always threw the heads and tails to a ring of cats that formed around him.

Bill Renney is now 78 and retired from Ford Auto Co. He lives with his wife in Parrish.

About a year ago, he came across the Florida Fishermen Lost at Sea website.

He thought of his father, then clicked the submissions button on the site and began to type.

The boat Miss Detroit, captained by Sam Renney out of John’s Pass, disappeared on a routine fishing trip and never returned. Pieces of the boat were found in the following days but no bodies, there were 5 people on board.

It’s far from a eulogy. But in 67 years, it’s the first time he has acknowledged his father’s death in any public way.

“There is no grave,” he said. “No headstone. Nothing. This would at least be something to let people know that he did exist.”

Times researchers Mary Mellstrom and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

• • •

Learn more about the Florida Fishermen Lost at Sea Memorial by visiting the website www.floridafishermenlostatsea.com. You can submit information about fishing-related fatalities of Tampa Bay area residents through the website, or by calling Mark Hubbard at (727) 393-1947, ext. 418.

Last modified: May 02, 2010 12:32 PM]

Copyright 2010 St. Petersburg Times

Dolphins in John’s Pass

Dolphin researcher observes, protects a growing family near John’s Pass

By Emily Nipps, Times Staff Writer

The explosives were in place. TV cameras and crowds gathered to watch the first blast of the old John’s Pass Bridge. Wildlife officers, construction workers and bridge demolition experts stood by with walkie-talkies. “Ten … 9 … 8 … 7 … “ “A dolphin! There’s a dolphin!” screamed Ann Weaver, as several fins popped up near the bridge. The countdown stopped. At the time, August 2006, bridge workers didn’t know this woman. Maybe just another coastal resident who wanted to be a hero. They had no idea how intimately she knew these dolphins, or how devastating an underwater blast could be for her and 255 of her closest research subjects.

• • •

Few places in the world are as rich with marine life as the John’s Pass area. Some believe it’s because of the elaborate canals within the residential islands, ripe with little fish and crustaceans. It’s warm, shallow and friendly, with easy access to the Gulf of Mexico.

Paradise for bottlenose dolphins.

Ann Weaver, a 58-year-old animal behaviorist who moved here in 2003, saw opportunity in the John’s Pass bridge project.

Having studied dolphins at five sites around the world, she applied for a federal permit in 2004 to study the effect of bridge construction on local dolphins. Funded by a federal grant, the study will be filed with the U.S. government and go before scientific journals to be considered for publication.

Her research uniquely looks at a dolphin population before, during and after such construction.

“Humans are constantly doing things to the coastline,” Weaver said. “But it’s usually not until after the fact that we go, ‘Gee, we don’t have as many manatees as there used to be here.’ “

In 2005, she and her husband, John Heidemann, 58, set out on five years of detailed and painstaking documentation of the dolphins. A dozen times a month, they head out on a little powerboat and run the same six miles from their Isle of Capri home through Boca Ciega Bay up to the Tom Stuart Causeway.

They asked the St. Petersburg Times not to reveal specifics of the route, or the signal they use to alert dolphins of their boat.

After five years of riding the same route, writing a column about dolphins for a neighborhood paper and engaging her community, Weaver is well known for her work. Sometimes boats follow her and her husband. Sometimes they peel off and follow the dolphins.

Following or approaching dolphins is illegal without a permit, Weaver pointed out. It also interferes with her research.

“You have to live and let live,” she said.

Which is harder than it sounds when you begin recognizing the dolphins on first glance, knowing their triumphs and heartbreaks, and calling them your “kids.”

• • •

Weaver has identified about 255 dolphins who pass through the area, about half of whom are “resident” dolphins, while others come and go. She has about 62,000 photos of them — jumping from the water, cuddling with one another, close-ups of their fins and markings. Proof that they are who she says they are.

She named them, beginning with letters of the alphabet or combinations of letters. When she ran out of letters, she came up with names like Doodle, Candle, Schnoz, Midface, Oyster, Fugazi and Q-Ball. Sometimes it takes her years to figure out the sex.

They appear to recognize Weaver, flipping and jumping to show off, peering at her curiously when she wears a funny hat. She coos at them, laughs and yells “Higher!” when they leap through the air, playfully admonishes them when they disappear too long or act shy.

She never touches them or helps them.

“A good scientist would never do that,” she said.

Even when Juno got tangled up in fishing line, which dug into a fin, Weaver would only take notes. She was both fascinated and relieved when he showed up one day, free of the wire.

Weaver was devastated when Split had a baby and then watched the baby die the next day. Split pushed the dead baby around for a week, keeping other dolphins away. Then Split went into a depression and got dolphin pox before snapping out of it a year later.

In five years, Weaver has been exposed to an underwater soap opera that no one else in the Tampa Bay area has seen.

“It would be easy to make this stuff up,” she said.

But her copious notes, spreadsheets, photos and professional reputation back her up. She has logged analyses of dolphins and primates all over the world. Her 25-year career includes intense studies of whale behavior and the peacemaking skills of capuchin monkeys, but she does more conventional academic work, too. She teaches doctoral students statistics at Argosy University in Sarasota and recently published a book on the topic.

Still, it boggles the imagination to hear her speak of a pack of teenage dolphins all wearing sea grass “jewelry,” and a group of bulls breaking up from a huddle and playing “football.”

“You never want to anthropomorphize,” she said.

With animals as complex and sensitive and intelligent as dolphins, it’s difficult to create that distance. Even for a scientist.

• • •

The new $77 million John’s Pass Bridge was completed in December, more than four years after demolition began.

Few know how much care went into protecting wildlife, mainly manatees. State regulations require a wide safety zone around demolition sites, where a manatee cannot enter within 30 minutes of an explosion.

Sound or shock waves can easily deafen dolphins and manatees, which rely on hearing for safety, finding food and pretty much everything else. If the explosion is close enough, the shock waves can rupture an animal’s organs.

That’s why, on that day in August 2006, Weaver panicked.

“She thought she was helplessly watching an impending disaster,” said Bruce Hasbrouck, an environmental engineer assisting with the bridge project. Actually, workers already had stopped the countdown when Weaver screamed.

She called Hasbrouck a few days after the first blast and was relieved to learn that so many regulations and precautions were in place to protect manatees and her dolphins.

Over the years, Hasbrouck and Weaver talked at least once a month, and sometimes daily at the time of explosions or installation of pilings. Weaver never got in the way, Hasbrouck said. She only wanted information.

“She’s a good scientist,” he said. “Scientists have a hard time just collecting data, and she obviously has a lot of pride and satisfaction in what she does.”

Bridge builders in Florida are required to consider environmental factors on all projects, but Hasbrouck could not recall any that were so dolphin-centric.

“John’s Pass definitely has the highest density of them that I’ve ever seen, and I’ve done a lot of these projects,” he said. “The contractors said they saw them literally daily. They were starting to recognize them as well, by their markings and personality.”

With the bridge finished, Weaver is nearing the end of her studies. Her analysis, data and findings will be filed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The conclusion on whether the bridge affected the dolphins is complicated, but if it had to be simplified, it would be this:

It wasn’t so bad.

“I think we can conclude that they slowly got used to it,” she said.

At times, such as when the construction was the heaviest and loudest, the dolphin population dropped. But most of the dolphins returned, including some new ones.

Weaver wonders what the numbers will look like in the coming years, now that the bridge is finished, and she also has concerns about how the oil spill might affect the gulf’s food sources, which would also affect the dolphins.

She has applied for a federal permit to study the dolphins for five more years.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

[Last modified: Jan 23, 2011 11:30 PM]

 Copyright 2011 St. Petersburg Times

History of John’s Pass

The Legends and History of John’s Pass

When Panfilo de Narvaez, a red-bearded, one-eyed conquistador, sailed into Bahia de la Cruz (now Boca Ciega Bay) in 1528, large kitchen middens of thriving settlements dotted the shoreline. Beyond the shore, elevated middens kept thatched sleeping quarters above seasonal flood levels, and high ceremonial middens with timber framed temples topped with effigies rose at the opposite end of the village.

Narvaez, and the Europeans that would follow brought disease for which the natives had no medicine or immunity, and ushered in an age of unprecedented greed that would change the face of Florida forever.

Back in the early part of the 19th Century, Florida was kind of a sore spot for the rest of the South. Then only a territory of the United States, Florida was a lawless land – a rugged terrain of pine woods, swamps, and mangrove tangled islands where folks could just “disappear”. Southern planters were particularly upset, because some of the folks that were disappearing South of the Georgia border and into the wilds of Florida were the planters’ runaway slaves.

Escaped slaves found refuge among the displaced Native American people who had been chased from their homelands and escaped to Florida, forming a mixed tribe band known as the Seminoles, or “wild ones”. Southern planters put increasing pressure on General Andrew Jackson to eradicate the Seminoles, and enable the capture and return of escaped slaves.

President Jackson, by 1830, gave his full support to a plan to remove “Indians” from the state, and began transporting Seminoles to a holding prison on a local key to await ships that would export them to reservations out West. Seminoles banded together to resist relocation efforts, and Jackson launched Florida neck deep into the Second Seminole War.

A crazed determination to eradicate Seminoles and populate Florida with White settlers led to desperate policies like The Armed Occupation Act of 1842, which gave homesteaders 160 acres of land, so long as they agreed to farm some of it, and (most importantly) fight the Seminoles should the need arise.

Two of the Gulf Coast’s early “pioneers” that took advantage of this act were our “opportunistic” heroes Joseph Silva and John Levique. Levique settled along the mainland coast of Upper Boca Ciega Bay near the area now known as St. Petersburg’s “jungle district”, while Silva’s acreage was farther north, around present-day 38th Avenue. It is unlikely that either man had any intention of anything more than “subsistence” farming (if that), and both men were more likely to fish with the Seminoles than fight with them. Levach and Silva would probably remain only curious names on early plat maps, had it not been for one ill-timed fishing expedition.

Late in the summer of 1848, Levique and Silva sailed to New Orleans to sell a cargo of Green Turtle. Sailing home after bacchanal celebration in the Big Easy, they encountered a horrific storm, and decided to wait it out in a “hurricane hole” in some sheltered area along the coast. The hurricane had knocked down trees, rearranging the shoreline, and obliterated former landmarks.

John Levique searched for an entrance into Boca Ciega Bay. He was probably looking for Blind Pass, or even Pass-a-Grille, but instead he found a more northerly opening where there had not been one previously. Levach awakened a bleary-eyed Silva, and together they navigated through the new pass on the morning of September 27, 1848. Since that time, so the legend goes, the inlet between Treasure Island and Madeira Beach has been called “John’s Pass” in honor of it’s discovery, and maiden passage by John Levique.

John’s Pass has shifted south, some speculate as much as 5,000 feet, since its formation during the Great Gale of 1848. As Madeira Beach has enjoyed land building to its south, the north end of Treasure Island seems to be eroding. Barrier islands are naturally dynamic; the waves and wind constantly shifting the sand, eroding one shoreline and building on another.

Prior to the Armed Occupation Act, few people thought to make permanent homes on the “keys” as the barrier islands were then called. No bridges then spanned the mainland to the beaches, and the barrier islands were primarily utilized for hunting and fishing expeditions.

Prior to plume hunting, land grabbing, and the building boom, the barrier islands were home to a tremendous variety of wildlife. Deer, gopher, tortoise, sea turtle, alligator, small mammals, and great flocks of seabirds and shore birds made their homes among the varied habitats of the islands. Spanish explorers customarily used the barrier islands and mangrove rookeries to stock their shipboard larders with fish, roe, a variety of game, and tremendous quantities of both seabird and turtle eggs and carcasses.

Florida’s native people, as well as the early settlers only killed what they needed to eat, however a growing population of opportunistic white settlers and greedy plume hunters quickly depleted barrier island wildlife populations, and nearly drove island bird species to extinction. Nefarious plume hunters, like the despicable Chevelier, whose encampment is still known as “Frenchman’s Creek”, boasted of collecting tens of thousands of bird skins, plumes and eggs in one season.

Whole rookeries and generations of birds were wiped out overnight. Some species are still considered endangered, or threatened. The barrier islands, by the turn of the century, were nearly devoid of wildlife, and ready for development. Wilson Hubbard helped convince the city to permit building of a public waterfront boardwalk along John’s Pass in 1980, and was instrumental in the development of the larger community of John’s Pass Village.

Hubbard added quaint boardwalk shops over his Marina in 1982 and 1983. John’s Pass Village and Boardwalk has become a popular attraction, yet it retains the feeling of a rustic fishing village where people can still find humble lodging and enjoy Florida’s simple pleasures: discovering and collecting treasure, strolling along the waterfront, dolphin watching, nature cruising, and of course, catching and eating fish. New stores and entertainment attractions, and a new garage have opened recently, and a renovated boardwalk with more shops will be competed later in 2007. And Levique is remembered every year with a popular John Levique Days Festival at John’s Pass Village, this year May 14 & 15, 2011.