After the inspiration of participating in the successful beach and diving clean-up operations organized by Coral View beach resort and BICD respectively, the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center decided to join the effort and instigated a snorkeling rubbish collection across Utila harbor. With the intention of making it a weekly initiative, we started small, inviting a handful of volunteers from the Iguana Station to join the WSORC team and we gathered at the Center for a brief briefing from director Lucie. Once the health and safety has been taken care of and everyone was equipped with a mask, snorkel and the all-important mesh bags we were ready to roll.
Starting from the Utila Lodge dock we headed west along the harbor front at a leisurely pace, scanning the bottom for garbage. The seagrass beds, which cover a great deal of the bay area, seemed clean at first but upon closer inspection contained dozens of glass bottles hidden between the fronds. Some had become homes for numerous sponges, molluscs, crustaceans and other encrusting species and was deemed too much of a disturbance to remove them. However we still collected a great number and were soon weighed down by the combined weight of the glass. Those who were collecting from the sandy areas found a much more varied assortment of refuse, with noticeably more plastics, aluminium, and other strange items including football boots, a computer monitor, a standing fan and a multitude of car tires. Before we had even reached 200m we were forced to turn and head back to dock, as we had collected literally all that we could carry. We hauled all the bags out of the water for the final weigh-in and were astounded at the amount we had amassed in such a short time – 85 lbs (38 kilos) in total! Not bad for a first try.
After sorting the rubbish into categories to submit the information to Project AWARE, it became clear where the vast majority of trash was being produced – a proliferation of beer bottles, plastic cups and aluminium cans indicated the amount of waste stemming from the many bars along the waterfront. Numerous empty plastic bottles also showed the vast amount of recyclable materials that end up clogging up the natural environment. Thankfully we were able to recover a large proportion of these recyclables and ensure they would be able to be reused in the future.
Altogether the snorkel clean-up was a great success, with plans being laid to create a weekly or biweekly event to continue cleaning the trash from the harbor and regain as much of the recyclable materials as possible. However it was also a very eye opening experience, showing the consequences of continued use of so-called ‘disposable’ items that do not simply vanish once they are out of our sight. Collecting rubbish that has already been dumped provides a valuable service to the environment but is not a solution; instead we need to stop our collective dependence on disposable items and help change the “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy.