Birds, nudists edge for space on Passage Key

Anna Maria Island, Fla. – Those passing by Passage Key on their watercrafts get more than a view of the birds at the wildlife refuge.

Passage Key is a nationally designated wildlife refuge by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And it’s a popular spot for nudists.

Mostly nude boaters anchor off the wildlife refuge Passage Key Aug. 9.
Boaters anchor off the wildlife refuge Passage Key Aug. 9.

The FWS released a statement in late June that said officials were surprised to see a reemerging sandbar, more than four acres in size where the National Wildlife Refuge, Passage Key was designated 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 7 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, amidst hundreds of visitors surrounding its shores.

However, the hundreds of visitors to the once submerged wildlife refuge are mostly nudists.

“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.”

Extra markers were placed on the perimeter of the reemerging island, notifying visitors the area is a federally protected wildlife refuge.

Signs posted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service direct the visitors to Passage Key – a wildlife refuge – to remain outside the high tide line to protect nesting and feeding birds.
Signs posted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service direct the visitors to Passage Key – a wildlife refuge – to remain outside the high tide line to protect nesting and feeding birds.

Vicente said people are allowed to visit the island by boat, and stand in the water, but they cannot walk on land. The new markers allow people to stand in the shallow water around the island, while keeping them far enough away so as 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 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 later died July 16 in at Blake Medical Center in Bradenton.

The helicopter flushed the birds from the refuge, however Vicente said some of the birds have returned to feed and loaf.

Passage Key was the second established national wildlife refuge in 1905 by 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, in 1970 under the Wilderness Act of 1964.

In the early 1900s, Passage Key was a 60-acre mangrove island with a freshwater lake.

Passage Key began to shrink following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. The 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.

This article was originally published in The Islander August 13, 2014.

Wildlife Inc. faces funding woes

Bradenton Beach, Fla. – The home on Avenue B in Bradenton Beach looks like any other on the street. The exception is the large tortoises milling around the fenced front yard, the colorful parrots calling “Hello” along the side yard, and the cages stacked upon cages filled with various wildlife in the backyard.

Wildlife Inc., an education and rehabilitation center for wildlife, calls Bradenton Beach home in the otherwise non-descript neighborhood.

Screech owls line a perch in one of the cages at Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach.
Screech owls line a perch in one of the cages at Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach.

Amid the screeching of birds, Gail Straight co-owner of the rehab with husband Ed Straight, a Bradenton Beach commissioner, said the organization is now facing a new financial obstacle.

“We’re trying to find a sponsor. They’re discontinuing the blood drive on the island,” said Straight. “For us it’s a matter of life and death if we can’t find out where the money is going to come from.”

The annual island blood drive was a saving grace for Wildlife Inc., and benefitted three other island charities: Anna Maria Island Privateers, Anna Maria Island Community Center and the volunteer West Manatee Fire and Rescue Auxiliary.

Gail Straight, owner of Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach, holds a 15-week-old bobcat Aug. 6. The juvenile bobcat was rescued in Myakka City and brought to the Bradenton Beach center to be rehabilitated
Gail Straight, owner of Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach, holds a 15-week-old bobcat Aug. 6. The juvenile bobcat was rescued in Myakka City and brought to the Bradenton Beach center to be rehabilitated

During the island blood drive, donors chose one or shared $100, given by an anonymous donor among the four charities.

Straight said the blood drive was Wildlife Inc.’s single biggest fundraiser, providing on average $10,000 in the weekend-long event.

Other sources of income for Wildlife Inc., include donations collected at festivals, payments for shows and two small local grants. Straight said the nonprofit also receives a small amount of personal donations.

Wildlife Inc. brings shows into Manatee and Sarasota county schools, organized by education director David Sadkin, but Straight said the fee for educational programs in schools is low to make it more affordable for the school.

“If you apply for 100 grants, you might get one. That’s why the blood donations were so important,” Straight said.

She said they learned in July the blood donation program was moving off the island.

A freezer at Wildlife Inc. is filled with $1,500 worth of mice and chicks – food for the birds of prey that are in the rehab.
A freezer at Wildlife Inc. is filled with $1,500 worth of mice and chicks – food for the birds of prey that are in the rehab.

Straight said Wildlife Inc. has been getting in more hawks and owls, birds of prey that are expensive to feed and has spent $10,000 this year on rats and chicks to feed those birds.

Wildlife Inc. rescues wildlife from all over Tampa Bay. The rehabilitation center has been in operation in Bradenton Beach for 28 years, and a second educational location, has operated for four years at Mixon Fruit Farm in Bradenton.

Wildlife Inc. employee Damen Hurd cares for the animals at the Mixon location and leads tours.

“This is really going to hit us hard. Hopefully the public will step up and help us out. It’s really sad. There’s not a lot people who will give donations to wildlife, but all kinds of people call for us to rescue them. We want to do it, but it’s hard to continue when you’re pouring your own money into it,” Hurd said.

A fawn with a broken vertebra rests at Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach. The fawn was rescued from a residence in Tampa.
A fawn with a broken vertebra rests at Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach. The fawn was rescued from a residence in Tampa.

The expansion to Mixon’s served several purposes. The space on the farm houses many animals that could not be released back into the wild due to permanent injuries another, and gives Wildlife Inc. a platform to educate the public about local wildlife.

The wildlife tours are integrated into Mixon’s tours of the citrus groves. Hurd said Mixon charges $10 for adults, and $5 for children to take the tour. For every adult 50 cents and a quarter from each child’s ticket goes to Wildlife Inc. And Mixon built some of the wildlife enclosures.

“The whole goal coming out here was to support the rehab. Now expenses have gone up and it’s just not sustainable. We’re really taking a hit,” said Hurd.

This article was originally published in The Islander, August 13, 2014.

Local youth, friends suffer rare fish poisoning in Bahamas

Austin Goncalves
Austin Goncalves holding the poisonous porgie and mutton snapper. Photo courtesy Marianne Norman-Ellis

Anna Maria Island, Fla. – A dream visit to a Caribbean island over the July 4 weekend turned into a nightmare for a local family and family friend.

A successful day of reef fishing meant dinner to 15-year-old Austin Goncalves and 14-year-old Marlin Ellis.

However, unknown to them, the fish they caught while pole-spearing near the shore, a porgie and mutton snapper, carried ciguatera poisoning and dining on the fish sent both boys, as well as Goncalves’ mother, Karen, and her companion, Allen Smith, to the hospital.

The group’s weeklong trip to a timeshare in the Bahamas quickly turned from paddleboard tours and dive adventures to a horrific ordeal in a Nassau hospital.

According to Marianne Norman-Ellis, Marlin’s mother, the boys caught the fish on a reef near the resort. Norman-Ellis works at Mike Norman Realty — owned by her father — in Holmes Beach and co-owns Blue Marlin restaurant in Bradenton Beach with husband Adam Ellis.

Marlin Ellis
Marlin Ellis. Photo courtesy Marianne Norman-Ellis

Norman-Ellis received the news stateside of the group’s sudden illness in a short phone call from Karen Goncalves, her speech slurred from the neurological effects of the marine microalgae that causes ciguatera poisoning.

“We’re in the hospital. You need to come,” she said to Norman-Ellis before the phone cut off.

A look back at the events:

June 28: departure

Karen Goncalves, her boyfriend, Allen Smith, Marlin and Austin headed to the airport with bags packed. Destination: the Bahamas.

Austin, who works bussing tables at the Blue Marlin, is an avid fisher, diver and boater. He invited his friend Marlin along on the trip to his mother’s timeshare resort.

June 29: boys pull in a big catch

Marlin and Austin went free-diving on a reef off the beach fronting their resort. They caught huge fish — a porgie twice the size of any found in Florida and a 30-pound mutton snapper.

The boys’ trophy fish became dinner, but would soon prove to be less of a bragging rite.

“I think part of the reason they got so sick is because how old and big the fish were,” said Norman-Ellis.

She said in addition to the age and size of the fish, the location of the catch also contributed to their levels of ciguatera. The microalgae that causes ciguatera lives in the reef, and fish that live exclusively in the reef area and eat their prey from among the reef-dwellers, unlike fish that travel, contain have higher levels of the toxin.

The group cooked the fish for dinner, unaware of the tasteless, odorless toxin they were about to consume. They ate their catch at two meals before they felt the poison’s effects.

As the toxin worked its way into their systems, they continued their vacation plans, going on dive trips and paddleboard tours around the Caribbean paradise.

Marlin was the first to get sick. Norman-Ellis said she spoke to her son and both assumed he was seasick. As time passed, it became clear Marlin’s illness was not seasickness.

July 3: everyone is rushed to the nearest hospital

Norman-Ellis received a text message from her son that read: “We can’t stop throwing up.”

Marlin’s illness escalated and the rest of the party soon also became violently ill.

Ciguatera can cause nausea, vomiting and neurologic symptoms, including tingling fingers and toes, confusion and hallucinations, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ciguatera also can cause cold things to feel hot and the reverse. The toxin affects individuals differently and can be difficult to diagnose.

Norman-Ellis said Karen Goncalves remembered calling the front desk at the resort, but she didn’t recall what happened after the phone call.

Staff at the resort called an ambulance for the four guests. Marlin and Smith experienced violent hallucinations, and Austin and his mom were unconscious by the time the ambulance arrived to the timeshare. Austin was in bad shape, unable to maintain consciousness and suffering from seizures.

They were taken to a public hospital where the staff was unable to ascertain any information from them due to their conditions. Hospital staff assumed they either suffered from food poisoning or they were on drugs.

July 4: a confused phone call

About noon, Karen Goncalves made her short, confused phone call to Norman-Ellis.

“Her speech was slurred. All she said was they were at the hospital and I needed to come. She didn’t even say what hospital,” said Norman-Ellis.

Norman-Ellis and her husband bought plane tickets departing for the Bahamas from Miami that day.

Norman-Ellis was able to find out what hospital they were taken to, but was having difficulty getting directly in touch with anyone in the group.

“All they kept telling me was ‘they are stable’ and wouldn’t let me speak to them,” she said.

She contacted the U.S. Embassy and was able to speak to a doctor at the hospital. As she waited for her flight to board at the Miami airport, the doctor told her to arrive quickly: “It’s not likely they’ll make it.”

Norman-Ellis and her husband went straight from the Nassau airport to the hospital. When she arrived, Austin and Karen Goncalves were still unconscious and her son was restrained in a hospital bed. He had been experiencing “horrific hallucinations” and was reacting violently to hospital staff, requiring them to restrain him.

July 5: an air ambulance takes them stateside

“We were at the hospital for eight hours waiting for the ambulance,” Norman-Ellis said.

Mike Norman, Marlin’s grandfather, arranged for REVA, a private international air-ambulance service, to take the group to a Miami hospital. Each flight carried only one patient, and cost $10,000.

Norman-Ellis was able to gain her son’s release from the Nassau hospital, but not the rest of the group because they are not family members. Meanwhile, a friend of Norman-Ellis was able to contact Austin’s sister through Facebook, and she flew to the Bahamas to release her mother and brother. A release for Smith proved to be more difficult, but he too was eventually able to leave the hospital.

Marlin arrived at Jackson Memorial in Miami at 6 a.m. Austin was brought to the Miami hospital shortly after Marlin and the ambulance returned immediately to get his mother and her companion.


Marlin spent three days in the intensive care unit at Jackson Memorial before being relocated to the teen unit. Austin spent several days longer on life-support before he was relocated to the teen unit, where he now is undergoing speech, physical and occupational therapy.

Austin, as of July 18, was still in the hospital.

Marlin was the first to recover and return home, but was told to take precautions for three weeks following his release. He must avoid eating seafood, and also chicken and pork that may have consumed seafood.

He had no further symptoms of ciguatera after his release from the hospital.

According to the CDC, ciguatera poisoning is caused by eating fish that contain toxins produced by the marine microalgae called Gambierdiscus toxicus. It has no cure. However, the symptoms are treatable and usually go away in days or weeks, although some symptoms can remain for years.

Norman-Ellis said she has now learned that when traveling to a foreign country, it’s important to know the locations of hospitals. She later learned there was a hospital in Nassau two blocks away that may have provided more intensive care than the public hospital where the group was taken.

The ciguatera poisoning was not diagnosed until they reached the hospital in Miami.

Another important thing she said she learned from the experience: Don’t eat fish larger than a forearm that is caught in the Caribbean.

This article was published in The Islander July 22, 2014.

Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co. dredge barge tour off Anna Maria Island

Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co. was contracted by Manatee County to replenish county beaches in the cities of Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach. The $18.7 million project took nearly three months, running Dec. 20 to March 3, 2014.

The project required eight miles of pipe, five barges and pumped 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from a borrow site one-mile off the shores of Anna Maria Island.

The beach replenishment project replaced sand naturally diminished by erosion. These photos and a feature article were published in The Islander March 26, 2014.

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Island holiday events 2013-14

The photos in this gallery were taken at various holiday themed events on Anna Maria Island December 2013 and January 2014.

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Island resident remembers Mandela fondly

Anna Maria, Fla. – There’s an apparent infectious quality about the goodwill expounded by Nelson Mandela — the mention of his name, a quote, a photo, a story. It’s a message of hope, triumph, struggle, and a universal understanding of humanity, past the barriers of language, religion, politics, skin color and national origin.

“It was really, for me, the greatest personality I’ve ever met. To meet him, gave me goose bumps,” said Markus Siegler owner of Beach Fashion Boutique and Anna Maria Island Real Estate and Guest Services in Anna Maria.

Siegler, in November 2012, came to Anna Maria Island from Switzerland, where he was the director of communications for the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the international governing body of soccer. His position in FIFA sent him around the globe, and he met and shook the hands of world leaders.

“That’s how I met him, as a FIFA executive. I think it was three times we met,” Siegler said.

One of the meetings between Mandela and Siegler was a lunch in Zurich in 2003.

Markus Siegler's autographed copy of Nelson Mandela's autobiography is one of the  few possessions he took to the United States when he moved from Switzerland.
Markus Siegler’s autographed copy of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography is one of the few possessions he took to the United States when he moved from Switzerland.

“I knew Mandela would be there. I had read his (auto)biography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom,’ while on holiday in South Africa. So I knew him, not personally, but what he had accomplished,” Siegler said. “I have met multimillion dollar football players, heads of state, kings and queens, and I have never asked anyone for an autograph.”

Mandela wrote in the book, “To Markus, Best wishes, Nelson Mandela” in blue ink. The signed biography is one item Siegler brought with him to the United States from Switzerland.

Mandela was born in 1918 in a small village in South Africa. He became the face and the catalyst for the movement against the apartheid regime in his country. For his role as an activist, Mandela was jailed for 27 years. His confinement, meant to discourage Mandela and his cohorts, only strengthened their resolve for equality and democracy in South Africa.

Siegler is convinced Mandela’s “biggest achievement and the one we have to admire most came after his time in prison when he applied the policy of reconciliation in South Africa.”

“I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination,” said Mandela at his 1964 trial as stated in “Nelson Mandela By Himself: The Authorised Book of Quotations.” “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela carried the words he expressed in 1964 through his life in actions, until death on Dec. 5.

“What was so striking was his aura. There was no bitterness. He spent 27 years in prison. (At the lunch) he was open, he was joking. He was funny, he liked to laugh and be spontaneous,” Siegler said.

Mandela was released from prison in 1990. Four years later, at age 76, he became the first black, democratically elected president of South Africa.

After Mandela’s death this month, his coffin was placed in almost the same place he took his oath of office.

CNN said the mourning of his death looked similar to Mandela’s election — people of every color and background gathered at the capitol, singing and carrying signs and banners and wearing shirts displaying Mandela’s portrait.

“I was deeply, deeply impressed. I was lucky to have met him. For me, he is one of the greatest in history and I’m not alone in that,” said Siegler, who followed the news from AMI.

Mandela served one five-year term as president and voluntarily stepped down. He forged a democracy and he took to the grave many firsts for South Africa, as well as a Nobel Peace Prize earned with F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid-era president, for negotiating the end of the apartheid in South Africa.

President Barack Obama spoke at Mandela’s memorial in Johannesburg Dec. 10: “It is hard to eulogize any man — to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person … How much harder to do so for a giant of history.

He also said, “It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but he also changed hearts.”

This article was originally published in The Islander Dec. 18, 2013.

Tricks and treats at Anna Maria Elementary’s Fall Fest

Fall Fest is Anna Maria Elementary School’s largest fundraiser and community event of the year. The fest brings a costume contest and parade, games, a bake sale and raises money to supplement the school’s budget. Fall Fest is put on by the Parent Teacher Organization. These photos were originally published in the The Islander Oct. 30, 2013.

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