Bob Luce was fishing trash from the Hillsborough River when he spotted the young alligator basking in the sun, its toothy "smile" showing a fishing lure hooked in its lower lip. With deep passion for both the river and its inhabitants, Luce felt compelled to help.
After a few days of trying, Luce, who has a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for rescuing wildlife, used a long pole with a loop and snared the alligator. Rolling the reptile to one side, keeping the animal off-balance, Luce guided the gator to his kayak. The lure became unhooked almost unassisted.
And, with a camera in one hand, the other on the pole guiding the alligator back into the river, Luce captured the release on video, his gentle voice encouraging the creature to slide away.
The gator was not the first — or the last, including humans — to benefit from Luce's concern for the Hillsborough River.
In 2008, during his first visit to the river, Luce saw litter problems and took matters in hand, literally. Often going hip deep into and along the river, he collects trash two days a week for three or more hours at a time.
He focuses particularly on a 5-mile stretch around Temple Crest and Riverhills parks. At first he worked on foot, then realized a boat would help so he bought an inflatable kayak. He has gathered 21,090 gallons of trash in the past four years, and figures he has invested more than $2,000 in kayaks, waders, poles for snaring items and large construction-type garbage bags.
Luce keeps records of trash collected, chronicles his wildlife encounters with stunning photos and videos, and shares them through email and regular postings on YouTube and Flickr.
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The Hillsborough River was here long before bridges spanned it, parks sprung up and stately homes perched on its banks with docks allowing boats an easy glide into the river and out to Tampa Bay.
The river begins in the Green Swamp, 560,000 acres at the corner of Polk, Pasco and Hillsborough counties. Bubbling springs spew fresh water that takes a 59-mile journey southwest across Hillsborough County and eventually flows through downtown Tampa.
A leisurely float on the river through lush vegetation and under gently swaying Spanish moss gives a glimpse of a past going back more than 27,000 years, according to geological data. That's 12,000 or more years before humans lived here.
The river is home to a wide variety of birds — limpkins, blue herons and the list goes on — and animals, including an abundance of alligators. It provides recreation sites, including Hillsborough River State Park. The dam at Rowlett Park, originally the Hillsborough River Dam built in 1895, creates a 1,300-acre lake that supplies water for the city of Tampa.
Luce sees abundant reasons to take care of the river.
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"Go back 50 years, before the days of plastic bottles and Styrofoam. The beauty of the river brought tourists here to enjoy the water and to see wildlife. If the river is ugly with trash, why would anyone want to see it?"
He also sees firsthand how wildlife is affected by trash in the river.
"Bottle caps can be swallowed by birds and turtles. They may not poison, but they impact and eventually kill. Same for alligators; they'll eat anything. And then there is the trash that animals get tangled in," says Luce, who recently rescued a gull wrapped in fishing line, unable to fly. He caught the gull, tolerated beak attacks on his hands, cut the line and watched the bird soar free.
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Luce, 67 and retired, traces his love for water and the environment back 50 years. The product of a military family, he graduated from high school in Stuttgart, Germany, and spent three years in the U.S. Army, much of it in Vietnam. He earned a degree in biology from University of Hawaii and then worked in communicable disease control there. From Hawaii, he "bounced around" to San Francisco and San Diego, eventually settling for 15 years in Oakland, Calif., with APL shipping.
Luce met and married Christine. They came to Florida on vacation and found it to their liking.
"Christine loves warm weather. I love the water, swamps and critters," Luce says.
They moved here in 2003, settling off N Dale Mabry Highway near Sweetwater Creek.
"I started cleaning up the creek and would go all the way to Lipsey Lake. One day I decided to see Hillsborough River," Luce says.
He was stunned by the trash and planned his attack, not realizing that, especially after a storm, things get much worse as litter washes out of storm drains. An area he would leave pristine one week would be cluttered the next.
Luce says the bulk of the trash is Styrofoam, water bottles, and juice, soft drink and beer containers. But it's not limited to that. He has found all kinds and sizes of furniture, electronics including a large flat-screen TV, many old tires, clothing, purses and wallets that he turns over to the police, assuming that they've been stolen, contents removed and thrown in the river. One day he found four shopping carts. Another day he pulled out seven traffic cones.
"Do people think the river is a big black hole?" Luce wonders.
He figures there are three main sources of the trash: unsecured trash in bins awaiting pickup, especially on windy days when lightweight items blow and eventually end up in drains; storm runoff that picks up litter, carrying it to drains built long ago and with no barriers to contain plastic and Styrofoam; and a lack of public education about the serious nature of trash in the river. He also sees public littering as a contributing factor.
"I don't think people see the trash anymore," says Luce, recalling, decades ago, when public service announcements focused on "litterbugs."
"If everyone picked up trash that lands in front of their house, so much wouldn't go into the river," Luce says.
He also thinks that if retirees with free time want to be helpful, there's always trash to be picked up.
"I gain a sense of purpose, get great physical exercise, and my payoff from the river is the excellent wildlife pictures I get. That alone is reason enough to go.
"The outdoor environment is beautiful here. If you like this, you must take care of it."
Gail Diederich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.