As the sun rose over the waves, he walked down to the shoreline, slowly filling his white-laced shoes with sand. His eyes drifted to flies swarming around a foot-long flounder.
Then he saw hundreds of other dead, smelly fish washed up at Indian Rocks Beach.
Caulin Donaldson is used to finding cigarette butts, empty water bottles and candy wrappers on Tampa Bay’s beaches.
But dead fish? He’d never seen that before.
Donaldson took out his phone.
“This is quite honestly an environmental disaster,” he said while walking down the shoreline on July 21, recording a video. He used his shirt as a shield from the stench.
He shared the video with his 1.4 million TikTok followers, many of whom, he said, are kids living in Tampa Bay. In 2019, he vowed to spend 500 days cleaning up Tampa Bay’s beaches and built his audience from there, at one point gaining 10,000 followers a day.
The video eventually garnered over 500,000 views, 170,000 likes and many concerned viewers.
Tampa Bay’s Red Tide problem is having a moment on TikTok, the fastest-growing social media platform.
TikTok allows users to play short videos that can be synced with popular music. It started out as a way for teens to lip sync and dance in their own music videos. Last year, former President Donald Trump tried to ban it, calling it a Chinese surveillance tool.
Now, it has more than a billion users of all ages and has been downloaded 200 million times in the U.S. The hashtag “Red Tide” has over 27.3 million views and more than 600 videos.
One TikToker took a road trip from Jupiter to Tampa Bay and found a dead manatee and Goliath grouper in St. Petersburg. Another TikToker said they accidentally swam in a Red Tide at Siesta Key Beach and suffered an itchy, red rash all over their body.
TikTok is also how many are learning about the Piney Point disaster that scientists believe likely helped fuel the outbreak. In March, a failing reservoir at an old Manatee County fertilizer plant threatened to flood neighborhoods with hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater.
The state averted disaster by letting the property owner pump 215 million gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay. Scientists believe the nitrogen released may have exacerbated a Red Tide bloom that has killed more than 1,800 tons of fish.
Many users have recorded and edited videos explaining Red Tide, its causes and what people can do to help.
They also gave viewers a look at the crisis as it unfolded.
Hashtag ‘Red Tide’
Donaldson, 25, went to Treasure Island Beach with a friend on July 24 to record more videos for his TikTok account “@TrashCaulin.” Hundreds of dead fish were scattered across the sand, lying right on top of a sea turtle nest.
“This is by far the worst thing, the worst situation of Red Tide that I’ve seen so far,” he said in a video that has garnered more than 1.5 million views.
Born and raised in St. Petersburg, he moved to California in June but returned when he saw other TikTok videos chronicling the growing Red Tide problem. Now he’s staying with his family and spreading awareness about the situation.
When Donaldson returned to his friend’s house, he noticed his friend’s eyes were puffy and swollen. He said it was scary to see his friend sickened by Red Tide. He’s never experienced a bloom this bad before.
The last time Manuela Baron saw it get this bad was three years ago.
That was during the 2018 bloom that afflicted Florida’s west coast. She was helping clean up Pass-a-Grille Beach with the Suncoast Rise Above Plastics Coalition and the piles of dead fish stretched as far along the shoreline as she could see.
The 25-year-old from Sarasota remembers immediately feeling sick. She couldn’t bear the sight nor the smell.
Then later that day, she received a call from a friend. Baron said a tear rolled down her cheek as her friend shared that a dead manatee was lying in front of her beach house.
She remembers asking herself, What can I do?
Baron started posting videos on YouTube to tell people about Red Tide and other environmental issues.
Then in April, Baron called her friend to discuss the Piney Point situation. Her friend didn’t know anything about it.
If my friends from Sarasota don’t know, others must not either, Baron thought.
That inspired Baron to reach a younger crowd using TikTok.
Now, she gives tips on sustainability, living a zero-waste lifestyle and how Red Tide is harming marine life on her TikTok account “@TheGirlGoneGreen.”
“You know we’re told that Red Tides are going to happen,” she said. “This is not a surprise. It’s not a warning, but here we are.”
What can I do?
Some of Donaldson’s videos got a few things wrong about Red Tide, however.
In one video, he described the water from the Piney Point leak as “toxic” and said Mosaic — the Tampa company that is one of the largest producers of phosphate fertilizer in the world — owns the site. Other TikTokers have made similar claims.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the wastewater released from Piney Point could be toxic to some sea life but not to humans. The agency also said fish kills were not reported immediately after the discharge.
And Mosaic does not own Piney Point. The state is suing the actual owner, HRK Holdings, for damages and to get a judge to shut the site down.
Donaldson told the Tampa Bay Times he wasn’t aware of those errors and will work to improve his accuracy in future videos.
Social media platforms like TikTok can be used to spread information that’s wrong. The problem with (unintentional) misinformation is that it can then lead to (intentional) disinformation, said Claire Wardle, co-founder and U.S. director of First Draft, a nonprofit that combats harmful misinformation.
She explains in a video discussion that when someone with a high standing on social media shares disinformation, their followers could then spread it, making the situation worse.
Baron plans to help her hometown of Sarasota through her organization — The Girl Gone Green — and keep making videos, so others can stay aware of these issues.
Donaldson started his own organization, Down to Earth, to help keep Tampa Bay’s beaches clean and encouraged his followers to do the same.
During Donaldson’s daily beach clean ups, he posted videos on TikTok about a dolphin he said he found washed onto Redington Shores. Two days later, he said he found a 50-inch grouper on the same beach.
Although most beaches remain clear — for now — of dead fish, he said there is still work to be done. He aims to help, one TikTok at a time.
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Red Tide coverage
Tampa Bay has Red Tide questions. Here are some answers.
Is it safe to eat seafood? Here’s how Red Tide affects what you eat.
Can I go fishing? The state is limiting saltwater fishing.
Piney Point: The environmental disaster may be fueling Red Tide.
Red Tide resources
• The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a website that tracks where Red Tide is detected.
• Florida Poison Control Centers have a toll-free 24/7 hotline to report illnesses, including from exposure to Red Tide: 1-800-222-1222
• To report dead fish for clean-up in Tampa Bay, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-800-636-0511 or file a fish kill report online.
• In St. Petersburg, call the Mayor’s Action Center at 727-893-7111 or use St. Petersburg’s seeclickfix website.
• Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county’s tourism wing, runs an online beach dashboard at www.beachesupdate.com.
How to stay safe near the water
• Do not swim around dead fish.
• Those with chronic respiratory problems should be careful and stay away from places with a Red Tide bloom. Leave if you think Red Tide is affecting you.
• Do not harvest or eat mollusks or distressed and dead fish from the area. Fillets of healthy fish should be rised with clean water, and the guts thrown out.
• Pet owners should keep their animals away from the water and from dead fish.
• Residents living near the beach should close their windows and run air conditioners with proper filters.
• Beachgoers can protect themselves by wearing masks.
Source: Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County