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.