[Originally published July 13, 2013]
I recently started diving with a new dive buddy. Like any relationship, you spend a few dives trips getting to know one another – learning the eccentricities, what works and what doesn’t, and how best to click with one another without having visions of leaving your buddy back on shore.
By the third dive, I noticed something quite quirky about my new partner… On almost every dive, he returned to the surface with a BCD pocket full of trash. Maybe not much, but his pockets were rarely empty. While I’d be fully immersed in taking pictures of something bright and tiny, he’d be close by, scouting out new subjects for me, all the while keeping a sharp eye out for foreign items – trash discarded by topsiders who seem to fully embrace “out of sight, out of mind”.
In March, I was lucky enough to dive in Indonesia, arguably, one of the most beautiful dive spots in the world. All the dives were breathtaking as if I was diving in an aquarium. The assortment of fish was a diver’s dream and the vast quantities, stunning. Yet even with all the beauty, I noticed something wrong – something terribly wrong – a blight on and below the surface. The ocean was full of trash. And not just bits and pieces, but GARBAGE – and lots of it – torn bags, heavy and laden, with contents strewn about floating listlessly with the currents. Bobbing on the surface, you often waited to descend sharing the vast space with discarded plastic water bottles and pieces of paper. Drifting down through the water column, you found yourself floating through a garden of plastic cruft drifting aimlessly along. Meandering along the bottom, it wasn’t too hard to find the remnants of humanity in a place where humanity really doesn’t belong. Bottles, cans, ghost nets and even five bags of cement. I often found my pockets stuffed full of junk before the dive was even halfway over. I ended up using my knife more than once to free some unwitting coral from debris choking its very existence.
It broke my heart. It was a wrenching, ripping out, jumping up and down destruction of my heart. This world. This pristine, glorious world – trashed.
The waters here in SoCal are ‘clean’ – comparatively – at least on the surface. Unlike those in distant lands, we have landfills and dumps, and dumping in the ocean can bring stiff penalties and fines. While it’s not unusual to find discarded trash bags closer to shore, often floating in the harbor, the amount of trash is miniscule to what I witnessed in Indonesia. The “Keep America Beautiful” campaign changed a generation and our way of life. Legislation – such as the Clean Water Act and Ocean Dumping Act, both passed in 1972, were instrumental in starting the long process of creating healthy marine environments. Organizations, such as Ocean Defenders Alliance, spend their time policing our local waters for debris – ghost nets, traps, lines and such, that can kill marine life or create navigation hazards, while groups like Surfrider and Heal the Bay remind us of how we’re doing and how we can be better. We are not a third world country struggling to get entire populations onboard to “doing the right thing” – we’re actively working to do the right thing – or appear to be at least trying.
But still, there are problems and some, I worry, so severe we may not yet understand the gravity of the situation.
Reports of the return of the black sea nettles started during the first part of July of this year. Last year, I was lucky enough to see maybe 10 or so of these amazing jellies during dives in San Diego. While the first photo of this jelly turned up around 1926, the black sea nettle didn’t get it’s official scientific name until 1997 (Chrysaora achlyos). These are deep water blobs that remain a mystery. Scientists don’t know much about the creatures only that they seem to just show up in large clusters – blooms as they’re called, and they’ve done so in 1989, 1999, 2010, 2012 and it appears, 2013. They are huge jellies, with long arms, trailing upwards of 25ft behind and stinging tentacles. Their enormous bell, often 3 feet across, is an unmistakable deep purple – bulbous and pulsating, giving shelter to small fish and crabs, as they drift along. There’s nothing quite as eerie or mesmerizing as watching one of these jellies slowly come into view from the darkness.
Yet, why are they here? Scientists don’t know much about these creatures but suspect jelly blooms may be related El Nino/La Nina events, and/or to the high concentration of zooplankton – the favorite food of jellies. In turn, fertilizer runoff (with high levels of nitrogen and phosphate), may be responsible for the increased concentration of zooplankton. While this might be very good for the black sea nettle’s dinner plans, there are other ramifications for sea life and even humans. Red tides – red phytoplankton blooms, are situations where jellies thrive but fish die – the lack of oxygen kills them. Jellies in mass quantities have sunk ships (Diasan Shinso-Maru in 2009), and stopped up power plants (Orat Rabin in Hadera, Israel). While they are amazing to dive with, they shouldn’t be here… – the “jellyfish stable state” where jellies rule the ocean, is not a natural, nor desirable, state. It’s a kind of a mess, maybe a sunbather’s worst nightmare but definitely a good indication that the ocean might be out of whack.
It’s the trash we can’t see – the “invisible” pollutants – the byproducts of humanity in a world where everything eventually makes it’s way to the water. And it’s not just fertilizers – there are plenty of pollutants causing issues. The burning of fossil fuels has increased the CO2 levels in the atmosphere that, in turn, raises the CO2 levels in the oceans causing ocean acidification. The ocean water becomes more acidic making it difficult for sea life to create and maintain calcium carbonate structures. If you like oysters or shell fish, enjoy them now, as they may not be around in 50 years. Having dove Belize, seen the damage and listened to the old timers, it’s not as pristine as it was even 10 years ago. The world’s second largest reef (and it’s first largest, too), is struggling to survive.
Our most well known Channel Island, Santa Catalina, has the distinction of being one of the dirtiest beaches in the United States five years running, as tagged by the National Resources Defense Council. Avalon Harbor Beach apparently suffers from the failing Avalon sewer system – century old clay and metal pipes, corroding away under the harsh salt water allowing raw sewage to spill untreated to the waters below. In 2011, the City spent $3.5m testing and fixing the failing infrastructure but that didn’t change the NRDC’s findings. The beach remains tagged as a problem in 2012/2013 with over 40 warnings about contaminated water unsafe for human activities. Until the city replaces all the pipes, the water and the marine life will suffer.
The list goes on… On any given day, in any given medium, it’s not hard to find an article about how we’re abusing our oceans – whether it be pollution, overfishing, global warming – whatever. Today might be the article about shark finning, tomorrow, another Deep Water Horizon and next week, another about how jellies are stinging bathers in record numbers.
Sadly, it seems that for every step forward, we find ourselves doing something else wrong – creating another problem, or realizing that we’ve already made the mistake and now need to find a fix. It’s a never ending battle between nature and humanity, life and death, aquatic animals and people, and ultimately, my lifestyle and choices vs. yours.
I’m not a scientist, and I don’t claim to know a lot about the science or politics behind what is happening. I’m just a diver who’s passionate about my little patch of the Pacific and someone who believes in the ripple effect – start screwing with something you don’t fully understand, and you can never really be certain of the outcome – for better or worse. Do nothing, and you’re just as culpable as those who’ve caused the problem. Do something, and know that at least you’re trying and others may follow your lead. It’s our responsibility to ask questions, to insist on answers, to require solid science, and when needed, demand change – even if it changes our way of life. We need to look at ourselves, too, see how our actions impact the ocean and be willing to make changes. You don’t think that cigarette butt matters? 2 million of them were picked up during the 2012 International Cleanup Day and guess what? It only takes something like 2 to 25 years for them to decompose AFTER they’ve leeched out all the carcinogens (I guess we’re all smokers now). I mentioned that to a guy on a street corner in New York after he carelessly tossed his butt in the gutter. “Seriously? You didn’t just toss that, did you? Do you realize….” He looked at me like I was crazy and walked away without bothering to pick it up leaving me to my rant. That plastic bag you just used and discarded? They do look like jellyfish – a favorite food of sea turtles and sadly, you’ll end up with a dead sea turtle. It’s not going to kill you to use a cloth bag – really.
It’s not my problem, it’s not your problem, it’s all our problem.
So my dive buddy and his need to pick up trash? His actions make me smile and make me do the same. I enjoy getting back to the boat and seeing what he’s found. Changing the world? Maybe not the world, but at least he’s trying to make a difference in our small part of it. It’s a good lesson for all of us and yes, I can live without seeing a black sea nettle. In fact, I will be very happy indeed. They can return from whence they came and we’ll be all the better for it.