Underwater Debris: Out of sight, out of mind. Or is it?

Every weekend we run a scuba diving charter on our boat, Got Air, in the beautiful 1000 Islands. This weekend was no different, except that on Sunday morning, as we headed out to dive the Lillie Parsons shipwreck in the Brockville narrows, we encountered a large surprise floating in the middle of the St Lawrence River: a full size, rusty hot water tank that someone had carelessly and improperly disposed of.

Sadly, we weren’t all that surprised. We often find debris in the river, but usually it’s hidden at the bottom and forgotten by most people besides us. The only difference this week was that in addition to being an environmental concern in terms of rust and chemical breakdown, this rather large piece of debris was also creating a boating hazard in a very high boat traffic area.

After hauling the hot water tank to shore and advising the coast guard of its location, we started debating amongst ourselves. How could a hot water tank end up in the river, if not by being discarded intentionally? Could someone have been transporting it by boat and failed to notice it fall overboard? Could someone have left it on their dock and failed to notice when it fell into the water? Or was it simply a case of someone needing to replace the hot water tank at their cottage or home, and the easiest and cheapest place to dispose of it was in the river?

Unfortunately, our only conclusion was that that tank must have been thrown in by someone who expected it to sink, erasing any trace of it. It really does seem that with regards to our waterways, lakes, river and oceans, most people truly believe in the age old axiom of “out of sight, out of mind”. If they can’t see it, it’s no longer a problem.

As divers, we know better. We understand that everything we throw into our waterways continues to exist and in fact becomes an unwelcome addition to the marine ecosystem. Just because we can’t see the debris, it doesn’t mean that it is not impacting our environment.

Are there societal factors that contribute to this? Of course.  In the Western world we are consumer society. We buy a lot of things. Eventually those things need to be replaced or disposed of. The environmentally options for doing so are not always obvious or accessible. Sometimes garbage dumps charge a disposal fee, which in theory should be used to offset the cost of proper processing of non-biodegradable items, but more often than not simply encourages people to find free places to dump their garbage. Like our rivers and lakes.

So what can we do?

First, we can think before we buy. Can we reduce the amount of “stuff” we bring home and subsequently throw out? Can we aim to buy things with less packaging?

Second, we need to encourage our communities to make it easier for people to dispose of debris. Sure it costs money to collect garbage and large items, but in the long run, isn`t there a higher environmental cost to letting garbage end up in our rivers, lakes and oceans?

Third, we can educate the people around us that we need to dispose of all debris, large or small, carefully and properly. We need to break out of the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. Support organisations like Project Aware as they seek to make real change and increase awareness.

Finally, get involved. Join a local cleanup or start your own. Pick up debris every time you dive and encourage your buddies to do the same. Take the PADI Search and Recovery scuba diving course and learn how to salvage larger items. It can make diving the same sites over and over fun again by adding the additional challenge of debris recovery.