Diana Digs in with Sea Cleaners August 2018

Sea Cleaner Volunteers, Diana Smith and Pal Van der Water

It’s Tuesday, it’s 8 am down at Opua Marina, and I have easily spotted Tracy in the large Sea Cleaners Ute, ready to go collecting rubbish from the shore thus preventing it entering (or returning to) the sea.

With recycling and sea pollution a big issue in the news world-wide, this was my opportunity to see one way in which New Zealand was tackling this challenge. I’d volunteered to accompany Tracy on her daily job of scouring secluded shorelines. Tracy is Bay of Islands born and bred and now works for Sea Cleaners, a charitable trust based in Auckland whose vision statement is:

‘To preserve the New Zealand coastline for the benefit of marine life and enjoyment for all users.’

Tracy’s Sea Cleaners patch ranges from Warkworth up to the top of the far north, a huge stretch of coastline. It wasn’t until later that I realised just how enormous the task ahead of her really is.

She was so friendly and funny I knew immediately that however hard the work was we’d have a good day. Equipped with borrowed gummies and gloves and accompanied by Paul, a regular volunteer, we set out to clean up Skudders Beach. No Sea Cleaners boat necessary today as the high tide was exceptionally low and a boat wouldn’t be much use in the mangroves.

Like a kid on a school trip I ate my lunch as soon as we arrived (which was just as well considering how disgustingly mucky I was about to get!). Then, tucking spare rubbish bags in her waistband, Tracy led the way. Paul definitely had a knack for this job – before he’d gone more than a couple of paces, he scooped up, of all things, an abandoned garden gnome and an alarm clock. We all soon amassed a treasure trove of rubbish along with heaps of more mundane bottles and plastic waste. As we filled more and more sacks Tracy advised focussing on plastics, so the rusty tractor (yes, really) and the dilapidated boat had to stay for another day.

Clambering through the tangled web of mangrove trunks and spindly branches, tugging rubbish from thick mud and then hauling our loads back to the truck wasn’t easy. A short water break was essential, then back to business. Refreshed, we retraced our (sinking) steps through the pungent mangrove, wads of spare bags now tucked in my gummies. I was honestly pretty appalled by the amount and variety of rubbish either washed in by the tide or abandoned from the shore.

33 large blue sacks of rubbish (plus a plastic garden chair, two car tyres, a starter motor and several lengths of hose) had to be hoisted into the back of the ute. It took 2 trips to the transfer station to offload it all. Both Tracy and Paul agreed it had been a tough day but although we were all coated in mud, smelling pretty rank and at least one of us had a leaky wellie full of black goo (ok, it was me!) it was totally satisfying to have cleared so much from that section of the shore. Countering that was the knowledge that we could return the next day and probably collect just as much again. I’m back home now, looking like a Jackson Pollock mud splatter, pretty much worn out, but left pondering the massive challenge of littering and how to deal with it.

Fortunately, the local beaches here are regularly cleaned, and many people pick up litter as they walk (or actually don’t drop it in the first place) – our beaches are fairly pristine as a result, but Sea Cleaners is another level. Getting into difficult to reach areas where debris becomes trapped or washed out to sea in the next tide is a never-ending task which people like Tracy tackle in incredibly cheerful fashion day after day.

If volunteering to help collect litter which could, if left, ultimately contaminate the New Zealand coastline and sea, sounds like something you could do, I would highly recommend dropping Volunteering Northland or Sea Cleaners an email. Just take your wellies and be prepared for some hard work!

- Volunteer reporter, Diana Smith