Inside a plastic bag left behind on a sandy beach was more plastic: empty water and soda bottles.
Also on the beach and in the water were plastic forks – "tons" of them. And fly swatters, hypodermic needles, children's toys, strings of beads, shoes and food wrappers.
Along Tampa Bay's beaches, the children of Community Stepping Stones collected trash and debris that had washed ashore. But instead of sending it to a dump they turned some pieces of the discarded plastic into a mosaic mural showing how waterways and estuaries nurture wildlife, and how pollution destroys the habitats.
"I think it's a really good message because this is about the estuary where babies arrive," said 17-year-old Sarah Mccartney. "If babies don't make it the whole sea life goes down."
The mural – One Waterway, One Tampa Bay – will be on display at the Ybor School of Visual and Performing Arts through June 28, with a reception on closing night.
The mural also will travel to The Florida Aquarium, Tampa's Riverwalk and The Pier in St. Petersburg. And it will be on display at the Tampa Convention Center from Oct. 20-25 during the sixth annual conference of the nonprofit Restore America's Estuaries.
The project was funded with a nearly $5,000 grant from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. Community Stepping Stones was founded nearly a decade ago as a nonprofit youth organization that uses art to teach knowledge and life skills to children in Sulphur Springs.
It recently added a commercial enterprise to held pay for its programs. Local artists teach classes to the public. Some Community Stepping Stones' students work as artist's assistants, and people and businesses can hire the organization to create artwork.
Science teacher Diana Kyle and University of South Florida students guided beach cleanups and science lessons at Caladesi and Picnic islands in preparation for the mosaic mural.
"Most of them had never been on a boat," said artist Sigrid Tidmore, the nonprofit's executive director.
Field trips included lessons in canoeing, photographing and drawing marine life, and dissection of a lobster that was later on their dining menu.
Recently volunteers strung together 1,500 plastic bottles that will be hung across the entrance to the mural display. The "pollution necklace" represents the 1,500 bottles of water consumed nationwide each second of every day. Most of those bottles are tossed away as garbage and wind up in landfills. But they also go into storm drains that carry them to rivers and oceans.
Scientists have documented five massive trash whirlpools, or gyres, filled largely with plastic in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, and smaller ones near Alaska and Antarctica. One known as the "Pacific Garbage Patch" is twice the size of the United States.
"You'll have to swim through plastic to get to the exhibit," said Tidmore. "I think it's really a great lesson for the kids."
Stepping Stones students voted to ban plastic bottles from its campus.
"The kids are pretty motivated," said USF student and volunteer Olivia Mustain.
The most shocking find on the beach for 12-year-old Elisha Edmonds was a dirty diaper.
Mccartney got a surprise when she picked up a conch. "Inside it was a tiny baby crab," she said. It crawled out but, "we caught it and we put him back in the shell."
The litter and debris they collected was brought to their campus and sorted based on material and color. Then Tidmore worked with the students to create a design and step-by-step pieced it together.
One final piece of the mural will be a mangrove made of recycled bicycle tires.
Yudit Martinez, 14, and her sister Karina Castelan, 17, were on the beach cleanups and spent nearly two hours sorting the litter. The fun was in watching the mural take shape, said Castelan.
"It was like solving a puzzle," said Martinez.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: One Waterway, One Tampa Bay art exhibit by Community Stepping Stones
WHERE: The Ybor School of Visual and Performing Arts at Hillsborough Community College, 2112 N. 15th St.
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday through Friday; and noon to 7 p.m. on Tuesday. Exhibit ends June 28 with a reception from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and a presentation by estuary artist Sigrid Tidmore on "Unintended Consequences."
INFORMATION: Contact Community Stepping Stones at (813) 932-1950