On the surface, ocean water conservation efforts are in the spotlight. Thousands of people take part in beach cleanups throughout the year, while watchdog agencies keep tabs daily on water quality. Underwater things aren’t so transparent. Man-made pollution, perilous to ocean life and divers, is dumped in the dark. But Ocean Defenders Alliance (ODA) is shining light on the problem through action.
The marine conversation nonprofit was in San Diego last week to clear abandoned underwater netting from a shipwreck called The High Seas located a mile and a half off the coast of Point Loma. Ghost netting and other underwater debris entrap sea life and puts recreational divers at risk, according to Kurt Lieber, president and founder of the Orange County-based ODA.
Tom Boyd, an underwater cinematographer, is one of 11 volunteer divers who participated in the cleanup.
“In over 40 years of diving I have seen the ocean deteriorate,” Boyd said. “I love the environment and would love to see it make a comeback. I want to give something back because it’s given so much.”
Boyd said before the dive he hoped he wouldn’t see any dead animals.
“That’s the downside of what we’re doing,” he said.
Video taken in 2011 of the High Seas shipwreck confirmed the presence of the ghost netting. During the filming, divers found a dead Leopard Shark trapped in the netting.
The environmental adventure got under way as Ryan Wilbarger, who donated his 45-foot boat Humbolt, steered out of Quivira Basin. At 8:30 a.m. on a Monday, the Humbolt was the only boat in the channel. The 40-minute trip to the dive site was quiet and uneventful; with winds at six knots, the waters were calm under battleship-gray skies.
Divers chatted, checked their gear and changed into scuba wet suits. Three divers were from San Diego, seven from Orange County and Los Angeles and one from New York. Boyd brought his underwater still camera and the boat has an underwater video camera. All divers were certificated by Global Underwater Explorers (GUE), dive instruction that claims to be the most rigorous and meticulous in technical dive certification. Divers’ experience levels vary and not all these volunteers have cleared netting before.
The New Yorker on board that day was Bob Sherwood, a world-renowned GUE dive instructor. Even though he was the most experienced diver, this would be his first cleanup dive with ODA.
The husband-and-wife team of Karim and Heather Hamza drove down from Los Angeles, where Karim owns Hollywood Divers. The Hamzas donated the divers’ double tanks and gear.
Before the 100-foot descent to the shipwreck, Heather prepped the team on what to expect and how to cut nets.
“One person pulls the net and one cuts,” she explained, demonstrating by rolling netting like a tube of tooth paste. “It can get caught in your gear, but don’t worry — you can get untangled.”
Silt would pose another challenge. Visibility can go from 15 feet to zero in a second because cutting nets stirs up sand, she said.
“Just be patient,” she said. “The surge will come along and clear it out.”
Another difficulty can be holding onto cleared netting; once cut, it can easily slip back to the ocean floor.
“You’re going to burn through a lot of gas. It’s intense physical labor,” she said.
By10:17 a.m. Lieber had helped the last of the two-person dive teams slip into the ocean.
“You never know what you’re going to get until you’re down there,” Lieber said. “The haul can be big or small.”
ODA’s biggest haul was off the coast of Catalina Island, where divers removed netting and toxic items from a concrete-hulled sailboat that sunk during a storm.
Within an hour, three float bags, each with 150-pound capacity, bobbed to the surface. Lieber hauled in the bags and dumped the netting on deck. Just as the last team of divers ascended, Wilbarger called the expedition. Mother Nature had changed plans for a second dive as calm waters turned choppy and swells increased.
The net haul this day was 150 pounds — overall not the biggest yield. But the divers weren’t dispirited; they bantered jubilantly about the dive, comparing the cutting tools they used and looking at underwater images captured by Boyd and the Humbolt. And no sea life was discovered trapped or dead in the nets. They knew they made headway and that they will be back.
Sherwood likened the effort to the joke about how you eat an elephant.
“One bite at a time,” he said. “It would take a month of diving to clean up what’s down there.”
For more information on Ocean Defenders Alliance, visit www.oceandefenders.org.