To protect and preserve

Published March 9, 2007

On a recent Saturday morning, with a cigar in his mouth and dark sunglasses protecting his eyes from the Florida sun, police Officer Carl Avari-Cooper swiftly maneuvered his boat underneath the Fowler Avenue bridge on the Hillsborough River. Nearby, floating, was an SUV that had been reported stolen the day before. A diver was trying to wrap a strap around it so a tow truck parked at the river's bank could pull the vehicle out. Three other police officers were watching the action from a nearby marina. "Any alligators yet?" one screamed to Avari-Cooper and the diver. "Not yet," Avari-Cooper joked back. Soon the tow truck was hauling the big Chevy Tahoe out of the water. "Unfortunately, this happens more often than I would like to see it," Avari-Cooper said.

As the only full-time officer of the Temple Terrace Marine Patrol Unit, he knows all too well what's happening on the 16 miles of river he patrols five times a week. He's been on the job since last March, trading, without too much sentiment, his old Crown Victoria police car for two small boats.

"I love boats, I love water," said Avari-Cooper, who has been on the police force for 20 years and has been fly-fishing since childhood. "I love the river."

The marine unit, created in 1991, was operating for years on a "when we could" basis, said Temple Terrace police Chief Tony Velong. It wasn't until 2004 that money became available to put a full-time officer on the river.

"The need for increased hours on the river became obvious as our boating population grew and as did our city," Velong said.

Avari-Cooper's presence on the river hasn't gone unnoticed by Temple Terrace residents.

"It used to be that you'd never see a patrol on the river," said Wendy Badger, who together with her husband, James, has been on their boat each day for the past 30 years to mostly clean whatever trash there might be floating in the water. "Now, seeing it on regular basis increases the safety of the river residents - and I include all the wildlife in that category as well."

It is the preservation and protection of nature that soon became a major mission for Avari-Cooper.

"I had thought I was an environmentalist before," he said while sitting in his "office," a shaded bench and a table at a marina. "I wasn't."

He can become romantically evangelical talking about it.

"Once I started working on the river every day, the environment became so apparent and so precious to me," he said. "That's the thing about the river - it is a very emotional bond-provoking and evoking entity."

Last year he started a program, River Spotters, that united 40 or so Temple Terrace residents in an effort to make the river cleaner and more respected. It was a spotter who told Avari-Cooper about the Tahoe floating in the water that Saturday.

Badger, also a member of River Spotters, said the group was much-needed.

"We all have the same goal and that is to preserve the river and not to destroy it," she said, adding that littering has increased over the years. "It's our jewel."

When he sees someone disposing of trash in the river, Avari-Cooper will first issue a warning. Actually, for every ticket he issues he gives about eight to 10 warnings, he said.

And the tickets mainly come for a missing life jacket or speeding - activities that immediately endanger life. There are "no wake" or "minimum wake" zones on the river throughout Temple Terrace.

"I don't want to be the cop writing the ticket," he said. He believes he can achieve compliance through education, so he often makes pilgrimages to schools, community centers and local gatherings to talk to people about his job and the river.

Last spring, when the river's water level was particularly low, he spent many an hour with a pen and a map traveling back and forth to each and every corner and depth of the river marking natural obstacles, such as a submerged tree or a shallow rock bottom and the corresponding latitude and longitude.

The result - a printable PDF map prepared by the city's geographic information system specialist Gitfah Niles - is available on the city's Web site, and Avari-Cooper hopes more boaters will start paying attention to it.

"It would drastically decrease my role as AAA on the river," he said, partially joking.

Yet, he added, even the mundane and easily avoidable tasks that come upon him make it worthwhile, for he has enjoyed the bond he has developed with his patrolling area.

"The river has been good to me. I think it's been mutually a good relationship," he said. "But then, you should also ask the river."