The Velocity steams around the corner of South West Cape, the wind howling strong enough aboard to blow the milk out of your tea, and everything changes.
The most extraordinary landscape stretches out before you. Epic ridgelines and mountain ranges extend out to the east as far as the eye can see. Dolphins surf the boats’ wake, leaping in and out of the contours of a wild ocean. The dunes are so big they break holes in the clouds. You can observe the flight pattern of a lone shy albatross traced in a great looping calligraphy across the sky. Watery forests of bull kelp sway beneath the shadows of ancient clifftops. Whale skeletons emerge from the sand like forgotten relics.
This is a place that exists far beyond the adequacy of human language. These are the beautiful lands, oceans and rivers of the palawa people. This is lutruwita.
Some of Tassie's finest skippers generously volunteer their time and boats to make the cleanup possible. Skipper and expert abalone-diver Jesse Gasparinatos drops Cape Forestier's anchor in the calm waters of Port Davey. All photos Ula Majewski.
Once a year, I travel south to this wild little island at the end of the world, jump aboard a rolling cray boat, and steam west. I spend my holidays picking up thousands of pieces of rubbish with a fine crew of salty sea dogs. It is the sweetest thing I know.
The rugged south west coast of lutruwita/Tasmania is home to some of the most remote and beautiful beaches on the planet. The South West Marine Debris Cleanup – or Team Clean, a 100% volunteer, invitational expedition – has been protecting these special wild places since 2001.
“This is a place that exists far beyond the adequacy of human language”
These unique coastal ecosystems are formally protected in Tasmania’s World Heritage Area. But every single day, thousands of pieces of plastic wash up onto the sand. Warped clusters of drink bottles gather in tidal eddies and frayed lengths of polyprop rope loop around the jagged edges of salty rock formations. Disintegrating pieces of bait strap protrude from the sand. And everywhere you look, thousands of tiny plastic pieces punctuate the topography of this fragile landscape in a colourful cascade of toxic confetti.
Our oceans are choking on this plastic.
Team Clean on the tools at Green Island Main, one of the most trashed beaches we visit — this year, we cleaned up 13,457 items of rubbish from this one little cove.
“Plastic production is doubling roughly every 10 years. Before long, there’ll be more plastic in the ocean than there are fish,” explains Matt Dell, geo-scientist, surfer, frother and co-founder of the Cleanup. “Plastic doesn’t actually break down completely. It just gets smaller and smaller and smaller. It ends up in the stomachs of sea birds, marine mammals and fish.”
The rubbish comes from everywhere, swept into the sea from the gutters of faraway cities and along the great ocean currents that circumnavigate our planet. Eventually, a whole lot of it ends up washed ashore on this remote coastline – placing the ecological integrity of this spectacular wild place at risk, polluting ancient Aboriginal living sites, and endangering the lives of the wonderful winged and salty creatures that inhabit this special little corner of the world.
Over the past two decades, Team Clean have removed, counted and classified a whopping 711,055 items of rubbish from these remote beaches. 98% of this unfortunate haul is made of plastic.
“We’re noticing a big change in the makeup of the rubbish. We’ve already got most of the big stuff so now what we’re seeing is plastic that’s been breaking down over time, possibly even decades. Micro plastics are increasing as a percentage of what we find – there’s just a constant stream. If you wander along the tide line, you’ll find fresh ones washing up every single day,” says Matt.
Most of the beaches that we clean are accessible only by sea, via fishing boats and dinghies that are piloted by some of Tasmania's finest skippers. These legends generously volunteer their boats and their valuable time to make sure Team Clean can get in and out from shore safely.
“We do it because it’s a good cause. We do the Cleanup to raise awareness in the community and amongst our peers,” says Skipper Dave ‘The Wave’ Wyatt, a legendary waterman, surfer and cray fisherman, who co-founded the Cleanup with Matt. “One of the reasons I chose to become a water person and to live on the water was because I fell in love with surfing at an early age. I just figured this was a way to surf some breaks that no one else has been to and to discover some new places. It’s a pretty amazing coastline. There’s always something different, every time you come around. We just love to look after this place.”
The salty Cleanup crew is eccentric, brilliant, and diverse. There’s an architect and a sushi master, marine scientists and sculptors, electronics experts, doctors, teachers and expert abalone divers. We even have a Ranger in Charge. We all come from very different backgrounds, but we share a great love for our oceans and coastlines, and now a specialised skill set in extreme beach cleaning.
This year, we spent 10 days removing 95,304 items of rubbish. We know exactly how much, because every single night, after a long day’s work on the beach, the team painstakingly counts and classifies a mountain of trash on deck.
“The Cleanup is a powerful tool for lobbying, advocacy and public awareness”
Everything slows right down, out west. Time curls in on itself and gently stretches back out again. We wander the beaches in slow motion, so as not to miss any tiny pieces of plastic embedded in the sand.
“The actual process of picking up plastic – it’s like a meditation on what consumerism actually means. You’re sitting there in the most beautiful wild place, and picking up this detritus that is just so unnecessary,” says Matt.
Micro vortex. Each night, Team Clean counts and classifies a mountain of garbage on deck. After all the big pieces are removed, things get extremely micro.
This rugged stretch of coastline gets right under your skin. It takes your breath away, turns your eyes into dinner plates from too much wonder. It’s like a little piece of your heart gets lodged there forever – beneath a smooth rock, inscribed with the strange calligraphy of lichen, or caught in the bleached antlers of a gnarled piece of driftwood.
Plastic pollution is one of the most critical environmental issues that we face as a global community. We know that protecting our oceans from toxic rubbish requires serious systemic change from governments and corporations, along with education and local grassroots action on our beaches. Each year, the Cleanup coordinates an interactive educational blog, where school students can interact daily with a teacher embedded on the expedition. We’ve encouraged thousands of young people to learn about our amazing wild coastlines and to care about, and act on, the critical threats they are facing. Back in the world of buildings and people, the data and stories from the Cleanup also provide us with unique and powerful tools for lobbying decision makers, and inspiring and activating our communities.
The Cleanup is a crucial reminder of the most important things – caring for our wild places and beautiful communities, and the power of volunteering our time to do good stuff. The importance of generous hearts and curious minds, of love.
“The ocean is our life. We wouldn’t be here without the ocean,” says Dave. “We’ve got to look after it.”
This initiative is supported by Patagonia’s 1% For The Planet Environmental Grants Program. Find out more here.
Banner Image: Our office view is ok. Pre-cleaning vistas as a monster 8ft+ swell rolls into Stephens Bay. The rugged oceans and coastlines of the palawa people are some of the most special places on Earth.