TIERRA VERDE (FOX 13) - When Hurricane Irma roared through last fall, it caused billions in damages across the state and ripped a hole in one of our barrier islands. But rather than doing damage, it's improved much of the marine environment nearby.
Irma punched a 50-foot hole in the beach on Shell Island, or Shell Key, creating a new passage that has now widened to 200 feet. Millions of gallons of water now flush the preserve behind Shell Key resulting in clearer water and healthier sea grass beds.
Peter Clark from Tampa Bay Watch has been watching it closely ever since the breach occurred and has already seen a difference.
"It's great for water quality. It also allows fisheries to move in and out on the northern part. But also people now come in and recreate now, whereas before they were isolated because of all the shallow water," Clark told FOX 13 News.
The northern tip of Shell Key had closed off back in 2015 because of sand drifting down the beach. That choked off the delicate estuary behind Shell Key. Boaters, fishermen, and nearby homeowners noticed that water becoming stagnant. Birds left. Seagrass died and the fishery changed.
"My first thought of course was Mother Nature seems to know what she's doing," offered Jack Coletti, who runs the website Friends of Shell Key. "So, yeah, it seems like a great thing. Everybody is universally pleased, but there may still be people who would like to see the northern pass addressed."
As far as that northern pass, Pinellas County is currently conducting a sand movement study to determine if it's feasible to dredge the area that has closed. But the new opening on the beach seems to be only getting wider, and wildlife has taken notice.
We spotted a rare reddish egret feeding in the shallows when we stopped by, a rare sight here until recently. We also happened upon a manatee out for a morning stroll, also something rare here, until recently.
Clark says manatee sightings now here are almost a daily occurrence.
"This is something very, very special occurring here in our backyard," he added.
NOTE: Shell Key is only accessible by boat but there are a number of boat and kayak rentals in Tierra Verde nearby.