It’s a shame to see all these different species of animals for the first time, dead on dry land.
In areas covered with layers of dead fish, I focused on framing the abundance of death in the scene. But the impact of Red Tide on people is also an important component of this story.
On the Gulf of Mexico side, determined vacationers did their best to enjoy their time on the beach in spite of Red Tide conditions.
Along Tampa Bay, city employees painstakingly worked to clean up tons of dead fish from along waterfront parks. In one instance a woman used her own boat to help with the effort.
Red Tide feels different this time. I witnessed fish dying at the water’s surface in the intracoastal off Treasure Island. The dead floated in large swaths at different stages of rigor mortis, some twitching in the final throes. I have never seen that before.
The stench was acrid, pungent and relentless. At one point, I was hanging the camera precariously over the dead fish and my strap fell into the soupy muck. I sterilized it but a hint of the odor remains.
This year I purchased a respirator, and I wore rubber boots. The respirator worked well to dull the smell but, as I drove home from St. Pete Beach, my car was loaded with the odor.
There is a larger variety of animals than last time including grouper, lady fish, snook, mullet, trout, eels and horseshoe crabs. As the fish lay in heaps their eyes seemed to follow me. Witnessing this death reinforces the message that we all need to work together to cure what led to this.
I covered Red Tide as an intern in 2018. It was my first experience with the strange phenomenon and I won’t ever forget the unbelievable sight that was thousands of dead fish on the gulf beaches.
This time I thought I knew what to expect. But the scope of destruction on both the beaches and the bay surprised me. The sight of thousands of diverse fish floating on Tampa Bay or lying on the shore, their eyes blank and unseeing, felt like a crime scene. If the sight doesn’t shock you, the smell will.
At Lassing Park I started coughing almost immediately. As I got closer to the water, I realized the insistent thrum in the air was from flies swarming among the rotting fish. I’ve seen herons walking among them, seagulls picking at them and dolphins dipping in and out of the water, stirring the bloated bodies of dead fish, while searching for their next meal.
Perhaps it feels especially cruel this time, considering how much being outside and surrounded by these bodies of water gave us an outlet and helped us cope during this pandemic.