The river time forgot

The cities of Florida are growing at a faster rate than anywhere else in the country. Nestled between them lie the waterways that fuel a wild state struggling to survive. One of them is the Hillsborough River.

Words & photographs by Drew McDougall

At 6:30 am, the sight of fog lifting off the water in a secluded, hidden part of Florida is one of the only bits of motivation that will get you out of bed and into your car. That, and a freshly pressed cup of coffee. Upon arrival,  there is a sense of stillness in the air and a feeling of isolation. This early in the morning, the sound of the interstate is barely heard, the buzz of Florida’s fastest growing city at a bare minimum, only miles away.

Nature, however, is wide awake. With the sun starting to show signs of life and colour, the voices of several species of birds fill the river basin echoing against the cypress trees that line the waterway. Fish rise to the surface and the occasional ‘pop’ of a largemouth bass peaks the interest of those of us that fish. Beneath my paddle board, bubbles emerge to break the surface tension of the glass-like water, a tell-tale sign the illusive, and seemingly shy, American alligator has just submerged.

It’s in these moments just miles away from the city, that one realises what it means to be fully immersed in nature. A glimpse of the white tails of deer remind you that you are not the fastest. The rolling of the spotted gar reminds you that you are not the oldest, and the thought of the alligator swimming beneath the surface allows you to understand what it means to be powerless. The smells are organic and the sounds come from animals, not machines. As a photographer, one can only hope that each photograph captures the essence of nature’s own art gallery.

For me, there isn’t much quite as peaceful as a morning on the Hillsborough River, but I’ve started to wonder how much longer these types of moments will be around for. Will there ever be a time in the near future that I will never be able to escape the noise of modern humanity?

Growing up in Florida, I’ve had the luxury of swimming with sharks, diving in the keys, and wandering through mangrove forests. With family roots that trickle back to the late 1800s, I believe it’s safe to say that I was raised a true Floridian. My passion for the state, and more specifically the waters surrounding it, have taken me into many natural wonders in which I try to reflect in my photography and appreciate while fly fishing. However, at only 22 years old, I’ve watched coral reefs die and seen acres of forests bulldozed and flattened for development.

Despite the large population Florida already hosts, it is also listed second in the top states people are moving to, further emphasising the stress that habitats throughout the state are currently under. Although there are already great environmental movements being carried out to save parts of Florida such as the Everglades, there are also several ecosystems on the brink that rarely make it into the public eye. The collection of each of these hidden treasures is what makes up and connects the life lines of Florida, and it wasn’t until I began a photographic exploration of the Hillsborough river that I realised just how under-appreciated and overlooked this water way was.

Nestled just north of Tampa running down from the east, the Hillsborough River acts as the city’s main waterway while also supplying thousands of gallons of drinking water. At over 60 miles long, it also sustains substantial amounts of different flora and fauna. From the revered American alligator, manatees, and black bears to towering cypress trees, ancient oaks, and even mangroves, the diversity of life spans across several ecosystems.

The river itself has been flowing for about 27,000 years and the first Native Americans who settled here, the Uzita, Tocobago, and others, saw both its beauty and what it could provide. The river was their life line, and they treated it as such. But nowadays, people are taking this river for granted and turning a blind eye to the growing pollution problem. Whether it is due to money, politics, or simply a lack of care or awareness, the Hillsborough river is quickly turning into a wasteland with dire effects on both animals and humans alike.

Just recently in March of 2023, over 630,000 gallons of sewage was dumped into the river due to a non-payment to Tampa Electric. With water sustaining the life of protected species, ancient species, and our friends, family, and children, it becomes quite perplexing how something like this goes unnoticed and barely punished. If not out of respect for every living creature that uses the Hillsborough as a home, then as respect for ourselves, we need to start learning how to live in harmony with nature before it’s too late.

The trash and plastic pollution hasn’t slowed either. With more people than ever before in the Tampa Bay area, there is not a time in any day where one can’t witness a plastic bag or bottle floating alongside a mullet or spotted gar.  These are simple mistakes and mistakes that can be fixed, but we have to first understand the importance of this river and that it is in a crisis to which we are the only ones to blame.

For me, the Hillsborough represents the thousands of other overlooked ecosystems around the world battling against pollution and habitat destruction. Each of these environments hold creatures as mighty as the Florida panther and as delicate as the ghost orchid; however, they cannot speak for themselves. This is where it becomes our job as photographers, journalists, naturalists, and as a part of this earth to speak on the behalf of those who can’t. But with this, comes a responsibility to stay committed and to represent even the smallest of critters or most neglected of habitats.

As a photographer myself, I think many of us fall victim to this age of technology and social competition. Always in search of the most breathtaking sunset or grand mountain, we have come to overlook the small bits of paradise that are right next to us while ignoring the damage we have done to them. It is time for us now to fight and speak up on the behalf of these forgotten places as a collective force with consistency that can actually lead to change through science and policy. It is time for people to take a step back and notice what they have right in front of them and how quickly it could be replaced with concrete and asphalt. It is time for each of us to do something.

I can remember so vividly the day  that I drifted within arms reach of a barred owl perched within a cypress tree. As each second passed, I could feel the trust between us strengthen and the comfort of each other’s presence grow. In that moment, looking into its large, dark eyes, I could begin to understand just how much we need each other. It is in these moments, whether it be with owls or manatees or ferns, that I’ve gained an understanding and appreciation for my hometown river, the Hillsborough. Through these long hours  I have come to respect each bird, fish, and plant and how, collectively, they depend on one another to make such a beautiful piece of land.

It would be my wish to give everyone the chance to see what I’ve seen or at least spend time in such a wild place as I feel it would change how they treat rivers and the environment as a whole. When most think of Florida, they think of the warm weather, the beaches, and Disney. Perhaps they think of oranges or low taxes. But, if people were able to take a paddle down the Hillsborough, they might gain an understanding of the  collection of waterways that run through the state. They might also realise that what makes up the heart of Florida is the parts that are fighting to stay wild.

As a photographer, I have always found it hard to figure out my role in all this. I think most people do. For myself, I looked to one of the most revered and wise people I’ve ever heard speak, Dr. Jane Goodall. In a talk about trying to save our planet, Dr. Goodall noted how hard it is to create change, but made it clear in stating that “You just need to focus on doing one good thing a day to make the world a better place.” I think the wisdom in that comes from its simplicity and how with everyone working together, we could save a habitat such as the Hillsborough.

Furthermore, for those of us that do write, photograph, or make films, Dr. Goodall emphasised perhaps the most important and motivating point of all. With all her great wisdom, she told us: “You’ve got to reach the heart, and the best way is stories.”



current issue

Back Issues

Enjoy so much more from Oceanographic Magazine by becoming a subscriber.
A range of subscription options are available.