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Local Divers Work To Cleanup The “Wasteland of Plastic” On The Gulf Coast

Hidden just beneath the glittering emerald surface of the Gulf of Mexico and coastal waterways lies a terrible secret: a vast wasteland of plastic pollution.

Local divers are more than aware of this issue and have stepped up to become heroes of environmental protection.

Scott Cole, a volunteer diver and leader of Emerald Coast Scuba Dive Against Debris, is on the frontline of the fight to protect our Gulf and sea life from the ever-growing issue of pollution.

“As scuba divers, we are in the unique position to be able to actually clean up the underwater world, at almost all depths. Every dive we pick up trash. On this last dive, I probably picked up five 8-ounce-or-bigger lead weights and a bunch of monofilament (plastic fishing line). I personally dive 6 times a week, picking up two to five pounds of trash each time.”

The Gulf Coast is world-famous for its pristine, white-sand beaches, its diverse wildlife population, and its abundant water. These natural wonders lay the foundation for our community’s economy, lifestyle, and recreation. Without protection, the environment — and therefore our community — is threatened.

Bobby Wagner, executive director of Trees on the Coast and co-founder of the Divers Down Pollution Project, woke up to the realities of environmental damage through his work as a local photographer and videographer.

“The waterways, the jetties, and all of these beautiful things are not man-made. We all benefit, live, and depend on these natural resources. It needs to be locals from all counties to make sure these natural resources stay here.”

Wagner recounted the shock he experienced upon his first cleanup dive.

“It’s alarming actually," Wagner said. "It’s really insane. It's a desert wasteland of plastic. What people need to understand is that the trash there is the collective whole from everyone. I’ve seen oil cans, steering wheels from boats, I’ve seen everything. It’s a decades-old museum of trash.”

On their dives to the seafloor, volunteers collect all kinds of pollutants. Local divers also assist in freeing wildlife entangled in dangerous debris, such as plastic fishing line.

Scott Cole and other divers are part of a worldwide effort by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors Aware Foundation (PADI), where cleanup efforts are meticulously tracked.

“We log all this debris we pick up into a worldwide database. The global community logs all this debris. Even on dives, we don’t pick up debris, we log those too in order to keep track of which areas are clean. It is pretty incredible.”

Alex Fogg, coastal resource manager for Destin and Fort Walton Beach, is developing a monthly dive focused on the cleaning and maintenance of artificial reefs deployed along the coast to provide sea-life habitat.

“Marine debris removal is beefing up here with all of the artificial reefs. With our huge fishing industry here, there is quite a lot of monofilament, lead, hooks, jigs, all these things accumulate on these reefs and become entanglement hazards for divers, fishers, as well as turtles and other sea critters.”

Fogg lends some advice for beachgoers looking to keep our coast pristine.

“Bring out what you bring in. Make sure your trash, cans, bottles, whatever you have, don’t get buried or blown away. Make sure to bring them with you. There are plenty of trash cans on the beach.”

Environmental pollution stands as a pressing threat to the blessings of nature upon which our community depends. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme’s report on microplastics, the effects of plastic pollution on wildlife is clear.

“The physical effects (on wildlife) of plastic debris due to both entanglement and ingestion have been clearly demonstrated.”

Brennan Wehrhahn, the Chief of Operations co-founder, and head scientist of the Divers Down Pollution Project explains the importance of eliminating plastic pollution.

“We are removing these plastic items before they become microplastics, or plastics smaller than 1.5 mm in length. When these plastic items hit the water it’s a catalyst of decomposition.”

According to Wehrhahn, these microplastics not only are harmful to sea life, but they end up on our dinner table.

“It does make its way back to human beings. These microplastics become home to microbial colonies, which are then eaten by fish, and those fish are eaten by bigger fish as we follow them from the food web. Because it is a synthetic material, that piece of plastic remains inside that fish.”

Scott Cole reports seeing the direct impact of local dive cleanups.

“What I’ve seen over the past few years is a stable flow of divers who are very passionate about this. I’m seeing the coral come back and the fish remain rejuvenated because of the efforts we are making locally. What I’d like to see in the future is more environmental consciousness. I’d like to see reefs come back. I believe it will happen. It will happen over time with some serious effort.”

Wehrhahn provides some simple advice for anyone looking to make an impact and help clean our beaches.

“Just do it. Go to an area you enjoy and just do it. If you see trash, pick it up.”

Tips from Leave no Trace Okaloosa:

  • Take ONLY memories - Our sand, sea oats, and other natural elements create a thriving ecosystem for wildlife and sea life that consider Okaloosa County their home.
  • Leave ONLY footprints - Put trash in proper waste receptacles when enjoying the outdoors or remember to bring a garbage bag along to make hauling your trash back home for disposal, a little easier.
  • Pitch in and Pitch it! - Leave your environment better than you found it. Even if you didn't toss the litter, it feels good to do more good than required. If you see trash floating around, pitch in and pitch it!
  • Sea Turtle Nesting Season begins May 1 each year - Lights out after dark and filling in those holes after a day of building sandcastles will help the baby turtles make their way safely to the surf.