I have been diving for the past 13 years, the vast majority of my life. I was raised with an awe, respect, and love for the ocean and all it contains — except for trash. Except for the hundreds of little pieces of plastic I see swirling around the water. Except for bottles and pipes and car parts and home appliances that I see strewn across what once was pristine reef. People in California often don’t know this, but we live right next to one of the world’s most popular dive destinations, due to our unique and beautiful kelp forests. Year after year teams of citizen and professional scientific divers like me go out and assess the health of our reefs. Year after year they find problems, some new and unknown, and others old and unaddressed. Among these old problems is pollution, and it’s the most striking one underwater. You can’t see a fish population fished into extinction in a dive, and you can’t see global warming stress entire ecosystems in an hour. But you can see a sea of trash, floating before you, sinking past you, and resting below you.
I always come up from a dive with trash in the pockets of my wetsuit, whether it’s as small as the corner of a wrapper someone tore off then dropped, or as big as a wine bottle. But the California coast where I dive is actually mostly protected from trash; the currents along the California coast are strong, and the upwellings (the cold deep water coming up to the surface) prevent much of the ocean’s floating trash from showing up on my dives. That to me is the scariest thing: that this level of trash is the new pristine, the new baseline from which all other areas’ trash can be measured. There is no significant patch of ocean without trash anymore; it has gotten everywhere. Even when I dive in places that have only allowed specially trained scientific divers in for decades and that are extremely sheltered from the world, I still see the plastic bags floating and glass littering the seafloor.
During the last two years California had an epidemic called starfish wasting disease that massively damaged the populations of all six common native starfish species that are here in California. Starfish are extremely important apex predators and this could cause a completely different kind of ecosystem to form. Luckily, it seems the disease has passed and the populations are slowly recovering. Every time there is a new problem in the ocean like starfish wasting disease and scientists are scrambling to find the cause I find myself thinking, maybe we just hit the threshold, maybe that last granola wrapper just made it into the ocean and we can never go back. As big and powerful as the ocean is, we are killing it, and it will eventually die if we don’t act.
I started working at The Watershed Project because I realized that change had to come from upstream. We have to change how we consume the products of this modern era. We can help by picking up trash; it may seem insignificant at first, but I always think of how few pieces of plastic it takes to kill an animal. Even picking up six bottle caps may save a fledgling albatross from dying. The biggest change however is going to come from voting, both on ballots and with our wallets. Tell companies you don’t want three layers of packaging. Tell them you don’t want disposable everything by not buying their packaged products. And vote for laws like the plastic bag ban that help force change on the bigger picture. These are easy things that we as individuals can do to make the world better for all life, for generations to come.
Starfish; Sheanna Steinglass