ST. PETERSBURG — When Krista Clark moved to Florida several years ago, she had never seen the ocean. Although she landed in Orlando, far from the coasts, she decided shortly after her move that this was something she wanted to change.
She looked at a map, found Apollo Beach in Hillsborough County and drove toward the water. The experience wasn’t at all what she expected.
“It was March, and I thought the water would be warm, but it wasn’t, at all,” Clark said. “I jumped in near what I thought was a rock, but it was a manatee. It was so large and it scared me. I had never seen anything like it before.”
What struck her the most on this visit, though, was the amount of trash and drug paraphernalia she found along the beach and in the water.
“I already knew that the world is impacted by people and the garbage they leave behind, but I didn’t know the extent of it until I moved here,” she said.
Eventually, she moved to St. Petersburg and began joining beach cleanups organized by groups like Green Peace and 4ocean.
“I liked working with the larger groups, but I saw that there were a lot of areas they never went to,” she said.
She began organizing solo beach cleanups and last year; until health issues impacted her toward the end of 2019 she could be found cleaning up a different beach every Saturday.
Most frequently, she picks up trash at Vinoy Park in downtown St. Petersburg. Bada Bing Water Sports, realizing the work she was doing, began offering her a free kayak or paddleboard so she could travel farther into the bay to scoop up trash.
“Every Saturday, I was paddling up and down the sea wall to collect as much trash as I could,” Clark said.
She’s also cleaned up other beaches in the county — as far south as the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and as far north as Clearwater Beach, where she has picked up trash and sea animals that washed to shore after bad storms.
“Humans in their everyday lives don’t think about the things they throw away or how it impacts animals and the environment,” she said.
She’s discovered animals that have turned trash into homes, just to get stuck in the garbage, and fish caught in plastic bags.
“I’m astounded by the number of animals that get caught up in the trash,” she said. “This is such a beautiful place that people come to for vacation. We should keep it that way.”
Clark has adopted the moniker “Mermaid Warriors” for her work, and her mission is two-fold. In addition to cleaning local beaches and waterways, she also wants to inspire those who came through the foster care system.
“I really started Mermaid Warriors for the lost, depressed, forgotten and saved — foster kids, abused kids,” she said.
Growing up, she was in and out of foster care herself, and knows how tough that can be on children.
“It was a hard way to grow up, but I try to stay positive. I want to make sure that other foster kids, kids that have been abandoned, kids that have been abused, have some place to go and are maybe inspired to take action to make the world a better place,” she said.
Now that her health has improved, Clark will begin monthly public beach cleanups in 2020. Anyone interested in cleaning Pinellas County beaches is welcome to join her at her first cleanup of the year, which will take place Jan. 14, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Vinoy Park.
For more information about her efforts, connect with her on Instagram @mermaid_warriors.