12 Months on from Cyclone Nathan

Alligator Creek, this remote and largely unknown jewel of a coastline north of Cooktown (Far North QLD) became infamous in 2015 for anyone caring about marine debris in Australia by being the worst polluted beach ever recorded in the country: After Cyclone Nathan it took 30 volunteers days to clean up only a few hundred meters of beach. Back then, we collected the sad record of 1,250 kg of plastics from 550m of coastline. So in 2016 we were keen to find out how much had washed up without an extreme weather event interfering and headed off to our first (and shortest) of the Cape York clean-ups of the year.

After heavy rain the days before, the Cape presented itself in the freshest and greenest way imaginable, and clear streams ran across the unsealed roads. With a small crew of only six volunteers we decided to set up our bush camp right next to the beach, and with no facilities provided we became very inventive utilising the fresh shallow creeks as bush “showers”.

To satisfy our curiosity we headed down to the beach straight away and – voila – found a piece of plastic every few meters! This was good news. Why? Because in 2015 we only found a piece of beach every few meters in the stream of plastic! This difference shows how pivotal it is to clean up the mess after a cyclone before the debris gets further dispersed into the environment or washed back into the ocean.

Within the next days we did not just easily clean-up last year’s section, but also went further along the beach, recording every item we found. As always in Cape York, we collected countless plastic remnants, but also life vests, a very mysterious flying or floating scientific measuring device from Canada and a full body industrial wetsuit, heavy and half buried in the pumice. Fortunately, our fear of discovering a dead body was dispersed as sand – and not bones – poured out of this creepy shell.

And then we found a monster: North QLD might be short on icebergs, submerged to 90%, but it offers something else instead: When our volunteer Iris, started to pull on a piece of fishing rope sticking out of the pumice and failed we thought a second or third hand would fix the problem. It didn’t. It took deep digging and two 4WDs from the Hope Vale rangers to excavate a rope-berg that was certainly worth a look: 4 cubic metres and an estimated 500kg of tangled mess – fishing rope and ghost nets – once rolled around as a “fur ball” on the sea floor, possibly killing countless animals on the way before the ocean spit it out.

With the help from our Indigenous partners we managed to collect and sort 969kg of rubbish and also give a brief presentation to local community kids about marine debris and ways to prevent it. In the end it is their generation to deal with the problem. The first two out of probably another 90 silo bags full of recyclables for the season were then dropped off at our depot in Lakeland. Just like in 2015, by the end of the year all the Cape York plastics from 2016 will get baled and sent away for recycling, closing the cycle of rubbish as good as we can.

This event was part of the Great Barrier Reef Clean-up and coordinated in cooperation with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority through Reef Trust. A big thank you also goes to the Hope Vale rangers for their support and help with our work as well as our dedicated team of volunteers.

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