From 400 Feet Above, a Lake’s Algae Problems Look Clear

The New York Times recently published an article highlighting the growing problem of toxic algae in Lake Okeechobee, South Florida. To capture the vastness of the issue, photographer Josh Ritchie used a drone to provide aerial views of the lake and its surroundings.

Lake Okeechobee, the largest lake in the Southeast United States, suffers from toxic algae blooms caused by agricultural fertilizers. These blooms not only poison the air but also pose a threat to popular beaches when seasonal rains cause the contaminated water to disperse.

Josh Ritchie, a photographer based in Margate, Fla., spent four days launching his camera-equipped drone from the shores of Lake Okeechobee. His goal was to capture aerial views of the electric-green algae, as well as photograph and film the water, nearby municipalities, and the sugar cane fields that contribute to the issue.

Ritchie faced the challenge of visually conveying the extent of the algae problem because the main subjects were not humans but rather a massive body of water, agriculture, and engineering. Nevertheless, he aimed to create images that would deeply resonate with viewers. He focused on capturing the patterns of the algal blooms as they spread across the lake, and he flew the drone 400 feet in the air to document the lake's locks and dikes, the sugar cane fields, and the sunrise over the town of Pahokee.

According to Matt McCann, a photo editor at The Times who collaborated with Ritchie on the project, using drone photography was essential to convey the size of the lake and the flatness of the area. It offered readers a perspective that allowed them to better understand the scale of Lake Okeechobee and the plans of the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

This is not the first time The New York Times has employed drone photography. In previous projects, drones were used to showcase the grandeur of Mexico City in 2016 and to highlight the vulnerability of Stone Age sites on the Orkney Islands in 2018.

Ritchie, who has been a photographer since the late 1990s, began experimenting with drone imagery in 2018 when the technology became more user-friendly and obtaining licenses became easier. While using a drone presents some challenges compared to traditional handheld cameras, such as adjusting to glare and light exposure, it allowed Ritchie to capture images of algal blooms that were not visible from the shore. Additionally, drones offered a safer alternative to photographing the lake, which is known for its abundance of alligators.

By employing drone photography, The New York Times successfully provided readers with a unique perspective on the issue of toxic algae in Lake Okeechobee. The aerial views captured by Josh Ritchie's drone helped convey the magnitude of the problem and enabled readers to better comprehend the Army Corps's mitigation plans.

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