On Australia’s iconic Manly beach, volunteer divers are working quietly and without fanfare to clean the ocean.
There was a specific moment when Dave Thomas realised he had to devote himself to cleaning up the oceans. He had been diving to find fishing hooks and sinkers other fishermen and women had lost on the seabed, and came across a large sinker near a rock. He picked it up, but to his surprise, the sinker pulled back! It was attached to a small fish hiding in the rocks, which had swallowed the hook and was still attached to the sinker. “He looked me in the eye and I just knew,” Dave says. He got the hook out of the fish’s mouth and released it. But the act also unleashed a lifetime of dedication to cleaning up the seas.
Dave, who has always been a diver, now runs Eco Divers, a volunteer conservation organisation at Manly Beach in Sydney, Australia. It’s a small venture with close to 40 volunteers, and that’s how Dave would like it to stay. “We’re not a franchise, we’re not going to take over the world, we don’t go to Queensland and open up a branch,” he says. Ten years after the sinker incidence, Eco Divers now has an overhead of 1,500 Australian dollars a year and that’s it. “We are very low profile,” Dave says. “So we don’t create anything. It’s no good us producing plastic items with Eco Divers on it, as it goes against what we do.”
Small teams of up to ten divers get together once or twice a week to clean up the sea beds. That, and public education, is the focus of Eco Divers. Dave is a big fan of the low-key, hands-on approach. “It’s a trap that many organisations get into: they get too administrative. We still get out and clean up,” he says. “We call ourselves ninja conservationists, so we’ll go in and we’ll do an area, or we’ll come back to an area, we don’t put a big Facebook thing about it, we just go out and do it, and then we’ll go back and do it again in a month.”
Dave’s big fight is against what might seem very small to many people. He is battling the incidental, the seemingly innocuous products that are causing harm to the marine environment. “Fishing debris is a big one, and single-use plastic. That’s basically it, there’s not much else. If you can think about all the things you’ll find in the water, it’s plastic bags, plastic cutlery, balloons, little bits of plastic lighters, all the things around our disposable lifestyle,” he says.
Dave and his team of volunteers believe that society needs to break its dependency on plastic. “As a society we decided that we needed plastic lighters, bottle tops, soy fish, straws, cutlery, balloons. Lego and toys, tiling spacers, pens, just stuff breaking down, all those little things, bubble blowers, curtain rings, pegs, all that stuff. Once you start seeing, look around you and ask yourself, ‘What have I got that’s not plastic?’”
Coffee or cigarette anyone?
While the health impacts of smoking and drinking coffee get a lot of media coverage, less discussed is the pollution caused by these activities. “Cigarettes and smoking is a big one,” says Dave. “That’s the most littered item in the world, cigarette butts, but along with that come the lighters, comes the cellophane off the packet, comes other stuff – the filter, so there are lots of problems within.”
Then there are the ubiquitous take-away coffee cups and lids, and sugar stirrers. Dave urges people to take five minutes, sit down and have a cup of coffee at the coffee shop, without resorting to using take-away cups and lids. His philosophy is that every individual can make a difference. He wants people to rethink their use of the disposable, particularly plastic, and just stop using them. “Suddenly the lights go on. I have zero [plastic disposable goods]. I have no shopping bags, no that sort of thing. It’s sort of easy. It’s not like it’s a transition.”
Try, try, try again…
Spreading the environmental message is the other key driver for Eco Divers. At an Ocean Care Day on the Manly beachfront, Dave and his colleagues, most of whom also dive and help at events as well as with scientific research, set up a small stall and try to engage the passing public in the topic of marine conservation. They have a collection of mystery items in jars for people to ponder and try to guess what they are. One bottle contains thin plastic sticks that look like they’re from the children’s game, Pick-up Sticks. But the items are yet another single-use plastic item. “When fishermen catch lobsters, and they tag them, they trim the tag and toss it over the side,” Dave explains.
In another bottle are more plastic sticks that look as though they might be for a medical purpose. “These are glow sticks for fisherman, they float on the surface and they glow. Basically in the last ten years we’ve seen them go from non-existent to just horrific numbers.”
Indigenous people had that
Apart from initiatives like the information stall, Dave and the other volunteers talk at conferences and schools about environmental issues. And the divers, many of whom are marine scientists themselves, often assist other scientists or academics with their research about pollution of the ocean, for example by conducting experiments underwater.
Eco Divers’ main message is respect. “It’s not a new message. Our indigenous people here and everywhere else had that,” says Dave. He quotes a Native American saying: “Only when the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten and the last river poisoned will we realise that we can’t eat money.”
“That quote is from the 1800s and nothing has changed. People knew that stuff then and we’ve forgotten it.” Dave Thomas and Eco Divers are working to remind people of that mantra, and to clean up the ocean, one piece of rubbish at a time. But it is a seemingly endless quest, with the small team repeatedly cleaning up the same areas.
“I could be here for years and never be able to clean it all up,” Dave shrugs. But the daunting nature of the task is unlikely to shake him from continuing to take these small steps on his very long path.