Manta rays filtering the plastic and plankton soup in Bali
For many of us, scuba diving opens our eyes to the beauty of the underwater world. The absence of human impact and influence induces raw emotions that can truly overwhelm those fortunate enough to get a glimpse beneath the surface. The openness and serenity of the new surroundings can cause both the body and mind to relax in new and unique ways.
This meditative state instantly shatters once we are reminded of the imperfect world above—whether from a plastic bottle on the sea floor or a hermit crab that has traded its shell for a candy wrapper. Drifting slowly in the ocean current, single-use plastics seem to be ubiquitous throughout any dive. The problem of plastic in our oceans is easy to disregard as many people will never see it, but it’s a pressing issue that we can all do something about.
Abandoned monofilament nets are practically invisible in the water, and as a result, entangle and kill fish, and create extremely hazardous conditions for scuba divers
For several months, I worked as a divemaster in Bali, Indonesia, a small island with a very large tourism industry. Anually, 4.4 million tourists visit Bali, providing a boon to the small island economy; however, this influx of tourists brings negative environmental impacts to the regional infrastructure and surrounding waters. While many of the holidaymakers do not even enter the water, their waste will still end up in the ocean and on coral reefs—resulting in devastating environmental degradation.
Day after day, I would dive the waters around Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida, starting each dive with one last check of my camera housing and giving the “okay” signal for my buddy and me to descend. Below the surface, it is quiet, blissful, and serene. Drifting a meter above the reef, I hear a chorus of passing sounds: the muffled chomping of fish feeding on coral, the distant drone of a boat’s outboard motor, and of course, the steady bubbles passing my ears with each exhalation.
Calm currents carry me through the water, and as I look down, the reef slowly passes beneath. I become lost in the vastness of the ocean. It is completely alien. With the help of my camera, I take in the beauty of the coral reef—frame by frame—capturing images of schooling fish darting back and forth, scorpionfish waiting for prey, and the expansive marine flora swaying with the current.
Hawksbill sea turtles are commonly found on the reefs around Bali
A moray eel coming up and out of its sheltered home on the reef
Suddenly, a large snowflake moray peers out of its hole. Slowly, I alter my drifting approach while raising and readying my camera. Before pressing the shutter button, a two-liter plastic bottle comes into view just outside of the eel’s den. First, I take a picture of the bottle, then a few of the eel. Slowly and deliberately, I reach out and retrieve the discarded water bottle, compressing it and tucking it away into my BCD to be disposed of later.
Finding plastic waste is in no way a unique event and happens repeatedly throughout many of my dives. I was lucky to be part of Ceningan Divers, a dive resort focused on protecting the reef from human impact. Every dive, the guides would come up with any trash they could safely remove. The main pollution culprits were renegade plastic bags floating in the current like jellyfish, bottles tucked away behind coral heads, and floating wrappers drifting near the surface.
Sturgeon and bannerfish also seem to confuse the plastic with their diet
Construction bags once filled with concrete mix often end up covering the reef and ocean floor
These are just a few of the obvious ways I physically observed plastic on the reef. However, it can also be very destructive to the environment and resident species in less obtrusive ways. Reef fish will often confuse plastic that has entered the water for a natural food source. A majority of the plastic waste in our seas falls into a category called microplastics, which are classified as pieces 5mm or smaller. Microplastics may begin to grow algae while drifting, thereby mimicking the smell of food. Reef-dwelling fish in Bali seem to find this garnished plastic to be tasty.
Local fishermen are finding more and more plastic in the stomachs of fish. Some of the of the hardest hit organisms are filter-feeding species. A great example is the manta ray. These filter feeders can’t help but pick up large amounts of microplastic while gliding through the water with their mouths agape—filtering for different species of plankton. Microplastics have been found in manta ray stomachs and gill filaments, clogging the digestive and respiratory systems of the species. Many other reef fish have also been found to have large quantities of plastic chemicals in their bodies.
Manta Bay at Nusa Penida, a popular feeding site for the local manta ray population
Plastic doesn’t simply break down into smaller and smaller pieces. The chemical composition of most common plastics simply leaches away, leaving behind compounds that affect the biological function of marine species. Much of the plastic in our ocean is currently leaving bisphenol A, also known as BPA, which has been shown to interfere with endocrine systems and reproductive organs. Reef species that are ingesting plastics containing BPA could be promoting their own species’ decline through self-sterilization.
Other plastic products such as polystyrene break down into compounds that are known carcinogens. These compounds have been shown to have a wide range of negative health effects on marine species, including cancerous growths.
An old fishing trap becomes part of the reef’s ecosystem
The waters of Indonesia boast some of the highest marine biodiversity in the world. Yet, Indonesia is the world’s second-biggest contributor to marine pollution. Annually, Indonesia is estimated to discard over three million metric tons of trash, and a lot of this ends up in the surrounding ocean. In the past few decades, developing nations in the southeastern Pacific have increased their reliance on plastic products, mainly plastic bottles, food containers, straws, and single-use bags.
Products such as these increase the quality of life for citizens, but many island nations have not implemented adequate trash/recycling programs to deal with the increased use of plastic. In most cases, waste management plans entail discarding plastics in a dump or burning them. Unfortunately, neither of these methods help to eliminate plastic and chemical waste from entering the ocean and affecting ecosystems.
When the tides changes, plastic debris pours into Crystal Bay, a popular dive site on Nusa Penida
According to a 2014 study, 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are floating throughout the ocean, amounting to 269,000 tons. This plastic is found everywhere from deep-sea trenches to Arctic ice and coastal ecosystems. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has stated, “Every piece of plastic ever made still exists,” which is a staggering thought. By the year 2050, scientists have estimated there will be more plastic weight in the ocean than fish. This is also predicted to be the year that close to 90% of the world’s coral reefs may have disappeared. This all sounds grim, but there are currently steps being taken by the Indonesian Government to help curb the mounting problem.
The “end of dive” signal—just make sure you’re surfacing with some plastic in your BCD pockets
Up until recently, Indonesian culture has not emphasized the need to bring awareness to the impacts of plastic waste. There are now multiple national programs that were developed to educate Indonesia’s children and teens. One of the new environmental groups is Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC), which teaches school students about the impacts of not properly disposing of plastic waste, and how its accumulation on Indonesian islands will be detrimental to their environment.
Since its creation three years ago, the PPC has stopped the use of single-use plastic cups in pilot programs in Bali’s schools. Some 300,000 plastic cups have been saved to date, and the PPC now provides reusable metal water bottles to students. Through environmental education, more and more people are waking up to the detrimental impacts plastic has on our oceans.
A yellow margin moray eel taking a rest within the reef
Bye Bye Plastic Bags is an NGO that is currently campaigning against plastic use on the island, while also hosting beach and community cleanups. But these cleanups are only a temporary fix. There needs to be larger contributions from the local government to tackle the systemic plastic problem. The Governor of Bali, I Made Mangku Pastika, has pledged to make the island free of plastic bags by 2018. This goal is to be met through the development of legislation, environmental education, and local business pledges. Additionally, Bali has begun to figure out better waste management programs that include better access to recycling and reuse of plastic materials.
Treated rubber sinks settle and slowly degrade on the sea floor
There is also much we can all do as individuals to help curb plastic waste. Small gestures are a start, such as telling your server at dinner, “I don’t want a straw, thank you.” Straws aren’t needed for you to enjoy your drink, and by declining, you have not only stopped more plastic from entering the sea personally, but you will also send an important message to the server and restaurant. Less demand will inevitably lead to less supply over time. Another way to help would be to volunteer for a beach cleanup. Beach cleanups are fun—a great opportunity to meet like-minded people and help make the beach the beautiful place it should be.
Lastly, and most importantly, remember to take pictures of plastic while you’re diving, and show them to people who don’t realize what this nomadic waste is doing to our planet. Images are powerful tools and they can show those that don't dive the adverse impact we are having on marine ecosystems. Explain that we have a duty to help keep our planet's oceans healthy and clean. We all want to share the underwater world with future scuba divers, so it’s our responsibility to make sure that there will be a pristine marine environment for generations to come.
As divers, we should all pitch in and do our part for the oceans
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