The Oceans Are Trashed. Can Volunteer Scuba Divers Help Clean Them Up?

Divers are taking ocean clean-up into their own hands.


Dive operators at Rainbow Reef Dive Center in Key Largo, Florida, weigh and record debris removed from the ocean. // Reason

75 FEET UNDERWATER, CONCH REEF — At first it's hard to spot among the florid colors of the reef, but there it is: a thick, ugly rope, wrapped around barrel sponges and winding through the fragile coral garden, as out of place and unwelcome as a snake in your living room.

I'm tagging along on a "dive against debris" with Rainbow Reef Dive Center, one of the largest dive operators in the Florida Keys. Three groups of scuba divers are sweeping along Conch Reef, about five miles offshore from Key Largo, on the hunt for marine debris and trash.

Scuba divers around the world, from Oklahoma to Saudi Arabia, were participating in similar dives in late September as part of AWARE Week, a global initiative to clean up ocean debris organized by Project Aware, a nonprofit group that coordinates with volunteer divers.

Several divers go to work on the line with knives and shears, cutting it up in sections to avoid damaging the coral and stuffing the rope into mesh bags that they will haul back to the boat waiting on the surface. A loggerhead turtle making its way along the reef stops to survey the commotion before swimming away.

Modern industry and global trade has raised the standards of living for billions around the world, but the byproducts of that miracle—the packaging that wraps goods, the bottles, bags, and mass-produced doodads of convenience—are filling the oceans and the digestive tracts of the creatures that live there at a fantastic rate. An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic find its way into the sea every year.

The result is that in under a century, we have come dangerously close to doing something that humans didn't even think was possible in all the previous millennia of our existence: despoiling the ocean, an area so vast and bountiful that it defies our land-bound imaginations.

By now, most everyone has heard about the giant gyre of floating trash out in the Pacific Ocean, and 32 million people have watched a YouTube video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nose. A pilot whale washed up in Thailand earlier this year with 17 pounds of plastic bags inside it.

In response to dire warnings from conservationists and scientists, governments have started to take action. India has passed some of the toughest anti-plastic laws in the world and pledged to eliminate single-use plastics by 2022. In the U.S., cities are banning bags and straws to cut down on single-use plastics. Major companies, eager to display their corporate responsibility, have joined in. Earlier this year, Starbucks announced it was ditching plastic straws.

Of course, as Reason pointed out, Starbucks' new strawless lids actually use more plastic to make than the old ones. Environmentalists responded that at least the lids are recyclable, unlike plastic straws, but less than 10 percent of plastic in the U.S. end up being recycled. The back-and-forth illustrated one of the fundamental issues facing those fighting ocean pollution: Can raised awareness, innovation, and policies like straw bans get us out of the mess we've created, or are we just painting the rails on a sinking ship?

In the private sector, some people are thinking bigger. The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit run by a 24-year-old Dutch entrepreneur, has raised $35 million to set up massive floating booms in the Pacific ocean to collect plastic. If it works, the group says it could cut the size of the great Pacific garbage patch in half in five years. In September, the Ocean Cleanup towed one of its garbage collectors 300 miles off the California coast for a two-week test run.

The problem is no one, not even the Ocean Cleanup, knows if it will work, and marine scientists are skeptical. Can it survive the brutal Pacific seas without breaking up and creating even more ocean trash? (The collector, it must be noted, is made out of plastic.) Will it trap and kill marine life along with plastic bags and water bottles?

The more direct solution would be to stop trash from ending up in the ocean in the first place. Countries with poor waste management, such as China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Thailand are the leading contributors of plastic to the world's oceans, according to a 2015 study.

"Let's say you recycle 100 percent in all of North America and Europe," Ramani Narayan, a chemical engineering professor at Michigan State University, told National Geographic in a June cover story on ocean pollution. "You still would not make a dent on the plastics released into the oceans. If you want to do something about this, you have to go there, to these countries, and deal with the mismanaged waste."

In the pristine waters of the Florida Keys, giant rafts of plastic waste aren't an issue, but there's still no lack of work for underwater cleanup crews.

The reef is a protected area inside Florida's John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The first underwater park in the U.S., it was established in 1963 in response to the devastation right here on Conch Reef. In the early and mid-20th century, enterprising businessmen were pulling up coral with crowbars, and sometimes dynamiting the reef, to sell trinkets of coral to tourists. Today, TNT-toting plunderers aren't as much of a concern as a sneakier and more persistent foe: trash.

Abandoned "ghost" nets and lines like the ones we found can entangle and kill sea life. The heavier stuff gets tossed by storm surges and bashes against the reefs.

"We've found so many crazy things, especially after [Hurricane] Irma," Rainbow Reef dive instructor Annie Huebner says. "We've found refrigerators, we found the top of a golf cart a couple weeks ago. We found a basketball hoop."

"A big problem here in the Florida Keys is the lobster traps," she continues. "Before the hurricane, the fishermen didn't really have time to go get them, so there's big clusters of traps everywhere. The rope wraps around coral, and the traps themselves damage the coral polyps. It's doing a colossal amount of damage to the reefs."

The dive operators at Rainbow Reef say they once pulled four pounds of monofilament fishing line off the sunken wreck of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Duane, now an artificial reef and home to schools of barracuda, grunts, and snapper, as well as bull sharks lurking in the distance.

Back on shore, we empty the mesh bags, weigh the debris, and record it. Project Aware uses debris surveys like this to track pollution at dive sites.

The total haul is 146 pounds of trash—fishing line, rope, chains, weights, pieces of derelict lobster traps, two anchors, and four bottles of Heineken that look like they were tossed in the ocean that same day.

All told, staff and volunteers at Rainbow Reef will pull 600 pounds of debris out of the sea during AWARE Week. Rainbow Reef's record weight for debris removed on a single dive is 1,200 pounds.

It's a drop in the ocean, so to speak, but it's the sort of act that often precedes something bigger. It's safe to say no one who picks up a Heineken bottle off the seafloor will throw one back in.

"Thousands of people come through here a year—we're one of the biggest dive operators in the world—so it's been a good opportunity to spearhead it," Huebner says. "We have so many people to show what we're doing, which is way cooler than working on your own."

Bonus: Watch Rainbow Reef's dive against debris in action below.

NEXT: Amazon's New $15 Per Hour Minimum Wage: Silencing the Critics or Keeping up With the Times?

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  1. It’s a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed, and if it’s true that plastic is not degradable well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice towards plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allows us to be spawned from it in the first place: it wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it, needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old philosophical question, “Why are we here?” “Plastic, assholes.”

    -George Carlin

    1. Imagine if water polymerized or crystallized at, say 45 degrees C, that’d spoil the ocean’s, right? I bet no one, with their land-bound imagination, has ever thought of that before.

      1. Er, what?

        1. I must’ve mistaken your statement a bit. It’s a rebuttal to the whole notion that we have to do something lest we spoil the oceans (right?). I also assumed it was a statement about the fathomability of the issue. Specifically against the line:

          The result is that in under a century, we have come dangerously close to doing something that humans didn’t even think was possible in all the previous millennia of our existence: despoiling the ocean, an area so vast and bountiful that it defies our land-bound imaginations.

          To wit; we routinely conceptualized “spoiling” not just the oceans, but our entire planet, millions of times over in ways that aren’t even possible.

          1. I was just posting what I thought was a funny quote from one of my favorite comedians.

            Seriously though, I’m not that concerned about all this environmental stuff. Something like 99.9% of all species that have ever existed have gone extinct. The planet will recover from whatever humans do to it. It always does.

    2. Plastic does break down over time. After a short while, when the large scale products have broken down to pieces, it acts reasonably similarly to rocks and sand

      Large scale items like ropes and shipwrecks are local problems, but not exactly the end of the world.

    3. I believe it’s 90% of the worlds oxygen that comes from the oceans floor. The plastic does break down over time and like a heavy dust covers and kills the Phytoplankton that produces oxygen. Those that Pollute land thus the ocean are slowly killing all life on the planet. The morons that are fanatic about “Climate Change” had better grow up and get real about their trashing of the planet.

      1. You don’t even correctly describe the interaction between plankton and plastic debris as environmentalists present it — and even they are speculating. The phytoplankton aren’t covered in plastic and killed. They eat the plastic. Whether this is actually harmful on a large scale is speculative.

        1. I’ve been trying to explain this situation to people for about ten years now. I’ve kept a close eye on the problems being caused by the, one of seven, Pacific Garbage Patch. FYI photoplankton, like other plant life, gets it’s energy from the Sun; it doesn’t eat plastic. I’m not looking for it now but there is scientific proof, and data, that the plastic is slowly breaking down into a dust and that dust from the island of plastic man made garbage the size of Texas is, in fact, covering areas of the ocean floor with a thickness that is killing the Phytoplankton.

  2. Hurricanes are tracked for weeks why couldn’t the lobstermen collect their stupid traps?

    1. why couldn’t the lobstermen collect their stupid traps?

      Too busy staring at Lobster Girl?

  3. No.

    If the “Oceans are Trashed” there’s no way a handful of Scuba divers are going to clean it up. You’d need armies in the tens of millions to do it.

    But there’s certainly value in a small (relatively) group of divers cleaning up a particular reef. More power to them.

    1. It’s better than nothing, I suppose, but it’s like bailing water with a sieve.

    2. If the “Oceans are Trashed” there’s no way a handful of Scuba divers are going to clean it up. You’d need armies in the tens of millions to do it.

      Something like 10,000 shipping containers are lost en route every year.

      I’ve got nothing against people picking up trash in their immediate vicinity but the blind optimism/pessimism of environmentalism is mentally retarding.

      1. Something like 10,000 shipping containers are lost en route every year.

        Busted! Off by a factor of 20.


        1. When Comfort and Rena are added to the equation, that number climbs to 1,679 containers per year. The MOL Comfort, which broke in half on June 17, 2013 and subsequently sunk during a prolonged attempt to recover her stern, was the worst container ship disaster in history: 4,293 containers were lost in a single incident.

          I knew 10,000 was a wild overestimate. My point was more that a single bad year or even incident in shipping can dump more debris than these guys pick up in a decade. Four lbs. of monofilament is pretty paltry if even a single shipping container full of it has fallen overboard.

    3. The Pacific Garbage Patch is fifteen to twenty feet thick and takes up an area to size of Texas. Volunteers can’t even keep up with the clean up of trash that breaks away from the Patch and washes ashore on Pacific Islands.

  4. if Ocean Garbage Man pays commensurate to regular Garbage Man i may be in

  5. Oh come now, Reason. Environmentalism is a left-wing concern. The Left gains power by feeding off of environmental problems. Don’t give them any more legitimacy than they deserve. The proper response here is to bury stories like this and in their place put stories ridiculing The Left as a bunch of Stalinist oppressors. Screw your “save the whales” bullshit. I want to see more stories demonstrating how Blasie Ford is a lying slut whore!

  6. But in all seriousness – this is a cool story.

    1. this is a cool story.

      Of course you’d think that… Commie.

  7. The USA is hardly the problem. Why dont they go to China and india?

    1. They aren’t white male patriarchy.

  8. “The result is that in under a century, we have come dangerously close to doing something that humans didn’t even think was possible in all the previous millennia of our existence: despoiling the ocean, an area so vast and bountiful that it defies our land-bound imaginations.”

    Easy with the hyperbole, hippie.

    “Mucking up some scenic reefs” isn’t “despoiling the ocean[s]”.

    (Plenty of room for environmental concerns in a libertarian worldview, mind – just keep to the facts and rational analysis of the costs and benefits.)

  9. What gives? It took me almost three weeks to get that rope around the reef just the way I wanted it.

  10. The sky is falling, again!

    Plastic-eating enzyme accidentally created by scientists could help solve pollution crisis

    Innovation beats regulation to the punch. Again.

  11. marine scientists are skeptical.

    That opinion and $1.79 will get you a diet Mt. Dew at any gas station in the midwest.

  12. Ocean Cleanup gave me $35 million also when they heard I intended to address one of the worst problems at the source rather than wait until somebody needs to clean it up. I’ve already hired 20 seamstresses to sew 700 million fish and crustacean diapers and now I’m looking for a diaper diver crew to go in and wrap up the project.

  13. This is nothing new. I ran a SCUBA club at my university in South Florida (FIU), and we used to do this all the time. I’ve been on dozens of reef cleanup dives, and that was the late 90s.

    1. Is that normal in Florida? I was taught that ethical diving means no touching coral and other marine life.

      1. There is an exception if you are advancing a socialist agenda item – – – – – – – –

  14. A bunch of divers flailing around an active reef are liable to cause a lot more disruption than some trash.

    1. I’m ‘way too late for my comment to be read, but you are correct AFAIK. The effort does nothing other than make the divers ‘feel good’

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