Inaugural Cocos Island Marine Debris Project!

Report by Patricia Swallow Tangaroa Blue volunteer

Fourteen volunteers jumped at the opportunity to help Tangaroa Blue Foundation and Keep Australia Beautiful WA in their inaugural marine debris project on the Cocos Keeling Islands..

Cat McCartney, a passionate Tangaroa Blue supporter for many years, was the instigator of this important clean-up campaign. Having visited West Island on lots of occasions, she was well aware that this tropical paradise had a big problem with marine debris washed onto its shores and wanted to do something about it. Check out our photo album of the week on Facebook.

With much needed assistance from Keep Australia Beautiful and the Department of Environmental Regulation, and the support of Tangaroa Blue Foundation, the project was soon up and running and the eager group of volunteers descended on Cocos Keeling Islands on Saturday 18 March. And they didn’t waste any time getting started, having a safety briefing that afternoon before cooling off in the tranquil Indian Ocean waters and attending a welcome barbeque at the Cocos Club later that night.

The next morning the volunteers joined the locals on the beautiful palm fringed beach next to West Island’s Scout Park. It was here that the sad facts of marine debris came home to all, for on the sandy beach fronting the stunning turquoise waters of the lagoon was a vast amount of rubbish, in particular thongs, plastic water bottles, lighters, toothbrushes, packaging of all sorts, and plastic remnants. Everyone pitched in to help with collecting the all-important data for inclusion in the Australian Marine Debris Database, which helps track the various items that had washed-up on the beach, with the prize of the day going to Mary for finding a pregnancy predictor kit!

Monday morning arrived and we were off on our next clean-up, this time to another beautiful beach located between the new and old jetties on West Island. We watched as the Malay children arrived by ferry from nearby Home Island to attend the Cocos Keeling High School, some of whom came down with their teacher to assist in the clean-up. The team collected an enormous amount of rubbish, much of which had been blown into the dense bush immediately behind the beach. A much needed swim followed the clean-up and all are delighted as turtle heads pop up close by in the lagoon, making everyone feel good at having cleared some of the rubbish from their path. Far too often turtle bones are found in the ghost nets that drift in our oceans. During the daily data input, this time the prize was awarded to Jenna who found a bra in the bushes!

Now you might think this keen band of volunteers would slack off on their rest day, but even though a canoe trip was planned for the Tuesday, they couldn’t resist taking some clean-up bags with them and filling them as they explored the small islands that fringe the beautiful lagoon formed by the Cocos Keeling Islands atoll.

An early start on Wednesday saw the happy group of volunteers catch the ferry to Home Island, where they were collected in electric cars and transported to a beach close to the nearby school. Local elders, teachers and school children helped with the clean-up. The usual marine debris suspects were in abundance, including fragments of rope and string and it was here that Karen and her son Jordan found a crab tangled up in several pieces of fishing line. Carefully cutting him free, we all cheered as Mr Crab happily scuttled off into the water, free to enjoy life once again. That evening we were guests of the Cocos Keeling CEO and Malay Elders, and following presentations, including an inspiring one from our very own Heidi Taylor, we enjoyed a wonderful spread of local dishes. And in case you are wondering, today’s prize catch was a plastic bottle proclaiming ‘Testosterone’!

A highlight of the week on Cocos Keeling Islands had to be the Thursday clean-up. Taking the ferry once again to Home Island and then on to Direction Island, the group caught sight of the pretty, uninhabited island that is famous for its rip. The tide was just right on our arrival and we donned our snorkels and fins and set off up the white sandy beach to launch ourselves off the rocks and into the rip. It was great fun riding the current, looking down at the fish and a black-tipped reef shark, before being gently dropped a little way out from the beach. After our fun we headed through the bush to the ocean side of the island. And what a shock! Washed up on the rocks was a veritable mountain of marine debris. We quickly got stuck in and the end result was very rewarding as we looked across a much cleaner beach. In fact, after the day’s data input the stats showed we collected 100 thongs and three lighters per kilometre. Not counting all those plastic bottles, which had come from places such as China, Indonesia, Malaysia and The Maldives. Maureen from Keep Australia Beautiful WA provided a most welcome lunch, as she and Sam did every day. And in case you are wondering, today’s find was a can of mace!

Our last day was one of rest and we headed out to The Big Barge Art Centre, where resident artist Emma Washer and other local artists make wonderful gifts from marine debris, and provided a delicious morning tea for the volunteers. We returned to the same location that evening for a night of thanks for the volunteers, as well as Cat McCartney, Heidi Taylor and Matt Wheldon from Tangaroa Blue, and the wonderful Keep Australia Beautiful WA representatives Maureen, Sam and Tim, without whom the trip would not have been possible.

The volunteers were a great bunch of all ages and from various walks of life, not forgetting Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, who started the Plastic Free July campaign and the youngest volunteer, Josie, who was only ten months old. Everyone was unanimous in wanting to return again next year, as besides being very rewarding, it was great fun! Also thanks goes to AMDI partners Coastal Crunch and Ocean Grind for providing the volunteers with granola and coffee for breakfast every morning!

Statistics from the marine debris collected during the week follow.

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