Trashed treasure: Divers dig up 100 pounds of Gasparilla beads

Last month, scuba divers from around the Bay Area collaborated to carry out the first "Gasp -- Our Beads of Tampa Bay Survey and Clean-Up Project."

The National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) teamed up with the Center for Open Exploration to clean up Seddon Channel months after Gasparilla. Their mission? Dig up beads flung into the water during January's festivities.

What they found was more than they could have ever expected.

"You'd put your hand down to grab one bead, and you'd come up with 10," said diver Edward Nester.

"I think we were pretty shocked," offered Angie Cowan, the project's co-coordinator and communications coordinator for NAUI Worldwide. "The photo of us all and that big, rubber tub -- 100 pounds of beads."

Twenty-five divers were part of the recovery project. They spent about three hours in the water.

"I had seen oyster shells that were starting to grow around some of these beads," said diver Jim Gunderson. "Some of these beads have been down there for a significant period of time."

On top of the beads, divers found 70 pounds of other trash, including a walker and unopened bottle of champagne. Gunderson said divers likely missed out on a lot more because visibility in the water was so poor.

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"As soon as you get down into that sediment and you start pulling that trash up, all that sediment starts going into the water column and it takes your visibility from a foot or so down to zero," said Gunderson.

"You don't want to break the strands and then lose the beads," said Cowan. "You kind of got to move some of the oysters around and be a little more gentle with it."

Divers included those from NAUI, Brandon and the University of Tampa. The hope is expand their efforts in the coming years.

They want to involve the public, too; especially those that attend Gasparilla by asking them to take do one thing.

"Have a great time at the festival," added Gunderson. "It's a fun experience. Have a great time, get your beads. Keep them out of the water."

The project was made possible through a mini grant from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and was a part of the Hillsborough 100 Conservation Challenge.