Flying into Christmas Island you are struck by its isolation, out in the middle of nowhere,surrounded by so much ocean. From the air, it looks like a lush green paradise jutting up from the sea. It truly is the most amazing place; tropical jungle, crabs and sea birds everywhere, incredible coral reefs and sheer limestone cliffs surrounded by so much ocean. Unfortunately, like everywhere in the world, it is not immune to the impacts of marine debris. I was here to take part in the Indian Ocean Territories Marine Debris Project, joining a group of self-funded volunteers donating our time to clean up paradise.
Day 1 saw us all head out to Dolly Beach. A 45-minute trek through the jungle, passing through some of the most amazing stands of pandanus, saw us walk out onto what has to be one of the most idyllic coconut palm-lined beaches on the planet. Unfortunately, this beautiful stretch of white sandy beach, a known turtle nesting spot, is badly impacted by marine debris. Our team of volunteers was joined by lots of other keen participants including many Christmas Island locals, and even a few holidaymakers. We set to work collecting designated items like thongs, lighters, drink bottles, lids, straws, polystyrene foam before branching out to clean the whole beach. I found it incredibly hard passing over all the other rubbish to only collect lighters! In the end, 56 and ¾ bags of marine debris, weighing just under 350 kilograms, were removed from the beach. Included in that were 1031 thongs, 323 drink bottles, 412 lighters and 6899 pieces of polystyrene foam.
Pictured: Dolly Beach after the clean-up, returned to its natural beauty.
Day 2 saw us head to Waterfall Bay, a beautiful little cove only 60m long that was covered in marine debris. Again everyone set to work and within hours the beach was clean. Disturbingly 110 syringes were found amongst the debris lining the shore. 393 kilograms of removed from the beach, totalling 70 bags, all of which were audited for the entry into the Australian Marine Debris Database. Almost 7000 straws were collected, along with 1455 thongs, 586 drink bottles, 639 lighters, and 1846 lids. Speaking to one of the locals during the week, she told me how in the past Waterfall Bay wasn’t a beach they would choose to visit because it was such a mess but now they were so excited that they would be able to use it. And fingers crossed now that baseload rubbish has been removed it will be much more manageable for the local community to keep on top of any rubbish washing in.
Our last two clean-up days were spent at Greta Beach. Having visited Christmas Island last year I knew what to expect but even then the enormity of the task only becomes apparent once you start to clean up. Greta Beach is something else, the volume of marine debris, the rate at which it moves onto and back off the beach. It is hard not to feel completely overwhelmed.
In saying that the team got to work with help from the Yr 9 and 10 Christmas Island High School students. A small area was set aside for a complete audit and the rest of the clean-up crew focused on collecting the following six items: lighters, straws, drink bottles, polystyrene foam, rubber remnants, and thongs, before everyone turned their hand to removing as much marine debris as possible. The highlight of the day was an unexpected visit from a huge green sea turtle who hauled out for a short time before returning to the sea. We ended the day with our sample area completely audited but much rubbish still left on the beach.
Our second day at Greta Beach saw us all scrambling hard to get the rest of the rubbish picked up and the beach clean. It felt like a never-ending mission, as the rubbish was piled so deep in sections. While the high concentration of marine debris at Greta Beach is both overwhelming and confronting it is important to realise that Christmas Island is surrounded by cliffs which leave very little opportunity for the rubbish to wash ashore. Instead, it makes its way along the cliffs until it finds a beach and deposits there. Greta Beach is a prime example of this, acting as a collecting point, concentrating the rubbish. In one way it is easier to clean the debris up this way, highly concentrated on just 70m of beach, as opposed to spread across 20km, but what a 70m it is!! In the end, we removed over 275 bags of marine debris weighing over 2000 kilograms. This brought the total from both Christmas and Cocos Keeling Islands to just under 5 tonnes! An absolutely huge effort! It was such an honour to be a part of such an incredible collective effort, working with so many passionate, like-minded individuals to make such a difference, to collect such valuable data and to raise so much awareness of the persistent and insidious nature of plastic pollution.
The Indian Ocean Territories Marine Debris Project is funded by the Australian Government, through the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development’s Territories Division, the WA Department of Water Environmental Regulation and Tangaroa Blue Foundation, with support from the communities of Cocos Keeling Islands and Christmas Island, and the self-funded volunteers who travelled to the islands to assist in the clean-up events.