It's no secret that the world's oceans are littered with plastic. Last month, a dead whale washed ashore in the Philippines and marine biologists found 40 kilograms of the material in its stomach. Plastic consumption was deemed to be the cause of death.
Less than two weeks later, I went on a dive that made the reality of marine pollution off the coast of the UAE devastatingly clear. On March 29, I took part in a Dive Against Debris – an initiative started by Project Aware, a non-governmental organisation registered by scuba association, Padi – alongside 50 volunteers. The idea is pretty simple: gather together a group of volunteer divers armed with net bags and gloves, and send them down to a reef or site to pick up litter.
We dived from the beach at Ras Al Khaimah's Hilton Al Hamra Beach & Golf Resort and headed to a site about 15 minutes from the shore.
As someone who dives exclusively for fun, I went underwater with mixed emotions. I love diving, but I knew I was unlikely to enjoy it on this occasion. As a bit of a plastic warrior myself (last year I only used seven water bottles in total), the sight of masses of rubbish in the water off the coast wasn't going to be any fun.
My dive buddy and I filled up two bags of rubbish. Between our group of 40, 101kg of litter was collected in less than an hour. We found 117 plastic bags, 25 plastic bottles, one piece of metre-long piping, 22 pieces of metal, 10 pieces of cloth and more than 160 scraps of plastic. It amounted to 372 pieces of debris – a fraction of the estimated 8.2 billion kilograms of plastic waste that National Geographic believes enters the ocean every year.
We also found 11 fish tangled in the debris: bannerfish, trevally, yellowtail surgeonfish and hammour, to be precise. All of these creatures were released, unharmed by the divers.
“Our message and passions are clear – our sole purpose is to make a difference,” said Emille Artigas, the project leader from Hilton. “We want to protect the fragile marine environment, share the importance of reef ecosystems and contribute to the longevity of this beautiful underwater kingdom.”
Our day started with a thorough Project Aware briefing, delivered by Teo Brambilla, Padi's regional director. After the clean-up and survey, divers were given the opportunity to use the rest of the day to achieve a Dive Against Debris Speciality Padi qualification. Project Aware launched the initiative in 2011 and it has already united about 50,000 divers from more than 114 countries with the common goal of removing and reporting on marine debris. At the time of writing, 1,329,547 pieces of debris have been uncovered across the course of 8,036 surveys. There have been only 556 debris-free surveys.
Since taking part in the dive, Sir David Attenborough's Our Planet has been released on Netflix. At the premiere, the renowned British naturalist gave a moving speech. "We can still stabilise our planet once more, but there is not much time," he said. "It will require significant global co-operation on issues such as population growth, climate change and management of the oceans.
“This is a communication challenge rather than a scientific one. We need to make it easy for the world to understand the issues and to enable an increasingly urban population to connect with nature and feel a shared responsibility for it.”
Individual diving centres and groups around the Emirates run Dives Against Debris. My day at Hilton Al Hamra Beach & Golf Resort concluded with a pledge from the hotel, alongside Doubletree by Hilton Resort & Spa Marjan Island, Adventure Sports, Al Jazeera Diving and Divers Down, to carry out regular clean-ups of these sites with the Adopt a Dive Site programme. At Zero Gravity in Dubai, dives are held every month.
If you enjoy diving as much as I do, and want to do your bit for the planet, then I highly recommend getting involved.