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Friend of the Hillsborough River

Bob Luce captures the beauty and extracts the unsightly from the river
Bob Luce, who loves to take wildlife pictures on the Hillsborough River in Temple Terrace, has also been a one-man army over the years in what he sees for now as a futile battle against litter.
Bob Luce, who loves to take wildlife pictures on the Hillsborough River in Temple Terrace, has also been a one-man army over the years in what he sees for now as a futile battle against litter. [ Photo: Courtesy Bob Luce ]
Published Aug. 14

Times Correspondent

Bob Luce, a retired computer programmer who lives in Carrollwood, likes to go out on the Hillsborough River in Temple Terrace in his inflatable kayak, where he takes close-up pictures of alligators, captures limpkins and their babies on the shore and great blue herons in flight.

That’s when he’s not pulling trash out the river. If the weather is fair, he goes out twice a week for about three hours at a time. He carries 42-gallon and 18-gallon bags with him and grabber tools of various lengths. He figures that over 12 years he’s pulled about 50,000 gallons of trash out of the river.

Luce, 75, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the river, litter and how he approaches alligators.

You started cleaning the Hillsborough River about 2009, you say.

I had started a few years before that cleaning up Sweetwater Creek. That was frustrating, because I would no sooner clean it up, it would rain and it would look like I didn’t do anything. … The small stuff would just keep coming back. Plastic bags, water bottles, cups, whatever, Styrofoam, paper plates and stuff.

When I discovered the river, it was obvious that this is where I wanted to be. This is where the photography is really good. And then the creek, I just said, well, I’m going to have to give up on it, because it doesn’t matter what I do today; tomorrow it’s undone. And actually that’s true on the river, too.

Our population has grown dramatically over the last 12 years here in Tampa and that’s reflected very well by the amount of litter that’s dumped into the water. There’s the litter (that) goes through the storm drains, which is the majority of it, the Styrofoam and plastic bottles and bags and that sort of thing. Then there’s the illegal dumping that goes on. That’s where you find tires, everything you can imagine: fire extinguishers… bicycles, television sets. Once I even found a handgun right at the boat ramp in Riverhills Park, a loaded handgun.

Storm drains are a serious problem?

People throw whatever their trash is out of their cars or if they’re just walking (they) just throw it on the streets, sidewalks. This is true anywhere in Florida: when it rains, that trash goes into the storm drain system and then flushes out into rivers, lakes, ponds, creeks, retention ponds, or even the ocean. ...

And of course when storm drains were first invented, it was a great idea to stop flooding. … There wasn’t a litter issue 100 years ago. But now in this throw-away world that we live in, you’ve got all this stuff people are carrying around, plastic water bottles and whatever. They just toss it out their window. They don’t even think about what happens to it, and then it flows into the river. That’s where it gets ugly and also dangerous for wildlife. I’ve seen Styrofoam cups that have been pecked on by birds. ... Even if it doesn’t poison the animal it can cause an impaction, which will kill the animal. ...

I don’t mind picking up litter but there’s a point where it gets ridiculous. It’s just too much. It’s crazy. It doesn’t make any sense. And there’s nobody doing anything about it.

I mean, what are you going to do? You have to manage the storm drains. ... You have litter dams that you can put out, like Watergoat (brand). But somebody has to manage them. … The money is the bottom line every time.

What’s it going to take for people to care that litter on the street ends up polluting the river?

Obviously, school is a good place if it could be taught in the classroom, just like you’re teaching civics. ... Litter and pollution is a huge problem now in an overpopulated world and the school is probably where they could at least get the message out. …

And after that, really, you have to attack it from the fixing end. You have to have litter dams up and more groups out there picking up litter. And if you have to pay them to do it, do it, because it’s worth it.

But school would be number one. Social media also.

"I’ll sit there and just talk to them softly, and then they’ll calm down. They’ll stop hissing, and then I’ll start photographing," said Bob Luce about some of the moments with female alligators that he captures when he is cleaning the Hillsborough River.
"I’ll sit there and just talk to them softly, and then they’ll calm down. They’ll stop hissing, and then I’ll start photographing," said Bob Luce about some of the moments with female alligators that he captures when he is cleaning the Hillsborough River. [ Photo: Courtesy Bob Luce ]

You take a lot of closeups of alligators and their babies. How do you approach them?

Initially I was terrified. I went from being terrified to being so comfortable that I do things most people wouldn’t think would be something you would do. ...

The males tend to be shy and will avoid you. Or they’ll huff and puff a little bit and maybe they’ll show body on the surface of the water, trying to intimidate you. ...

But the females are a different animal. Once they have a nest that they’re guarding or babies that they’re guarding, they are very, very defensive. They will bare their teeth, they will hiss at you and then if you get too close they will come to you. I’m in my kayak, they will approach me. Initially, I immediately backed away. …

As soon as I would back away, they would back away. There was never any pursuit. ... And then I kind of had this rule: don’t be aggressive, but don’t be passive. Be neutral. ... I started to realize that if I didn’t back away, the female would approach and get very close and then stop, continue to hiss and threaten. Over the years, some of the females I’ve known – there’s one I’ve known for six years. When I say know, I mean I recognize her and I photograph her. I develop a kind of rapport with them. Not a friendship, but a rapport. And they will hiss at me and threaten. I’ll sit there and just talk to them softly, and then they’ll calm down. They’ll stop hissing, and then I’ll start photographing. …

I talk softly to them. I ignore their threats. That’s not something I recommend because I don’t know why I get away with it. …

Now here’s the other thing. You get in the water with a nesting alligator that’s got babies or eggs, you’re going to get bit. … My kayak is big, so the alligator sees that kayak and she’s intimidated, so she’s going to be a little bit cooler with me in the kayak. If I got in the water and swam up to her nest, it would be a whole other bag of doorknobs. And I would not do that.