Can a scuba dive change the planet? You bet your bottom time it can.
Since PADI’s conservation arm Project Aware launched the Dive Against Debris program in 2011, more than 50,000 divers have participated in 114 countries around the world, reporting over one million pieces of trash removed from the ocean. The data collected from these dives has changed hearts and shaped policies, and the ocean has been left healthier and happier as a result. Their next goal? To add another million by the end of 2020, to highlight the severity of the global marine debris crisis.
Who wouldn’t want to get involved in that? One of my favorite aspects of my Wander Women dive retreats is a “choose your own adventure day” where every guest chooses a one day PADI speciality course that most speaks to them. Now, it kind of surprises even me that I designed this whole setup, considering I tend to live in a prison of my own indecision. But on this particular day, making a choice was a tad easier than normal. Conservation is close to my heart, and so I was all aboard to join the group signing up for the PADI Dive Against Debris speciality.
The PADI Dive Against Debris Specialty is straightforward but essential — it teaches divers to safely and effectively execute and organize effective Dive Against Debris surveys, empowering community leaders to better the places where they play, dive, work and live.
I couldn’t think of a better dive school to partner with for this course than Master Divers, one of the schools on Koh Tao with the most impressive track records for scuba sustainability. They do extremely thorough conservation briefings for all new students and customers, stick to the strictest of green diving standards, have an extensive recycling program and run an impressively low-waste business — they even have take out containers for students to borrow if they are grabbing lunch on the go. Through Project Aware, Master Divers has even officially “adopted” a dive site on Koh Tao, Laem Thein, where they hold monthly underwater cleanups (and land clean ups, as a bonus) since repeat surveys at the same location give the best results — as we were about to learn!
Our morning began in the Master Divers classroom, where we eagerly opened our notebooks to get our hands dirty with learning about underwater clean ups.
We started with a real downer — why marine debris is such a messy problem. It’s not just unsightly trash washing up on your otherwise postcard perfect beach, y’all. It’s wildlife deaths from entanglement and eating trash, it’s plastic smothered mangroves and coral strangled by fishing nets.
And while everyone has the power to cut down on their waste and dispose of it responsibly (and we all should) only divers have the skills to remove and report underwater marine debris. That’s kinda cool for us mermaids and mermen, right?
Obviously, the problem needs a bigger solution than individual divers picking individual pieces of trash out of the ocean. But it does make a difference, and also leads to even bigger ripple effects. The data and inspiration collected on these dives effects policy change, and sways the behaviors of those who hear the message. And the work also makes the ocean safer for marine life and environments, right away.
When it was time for a lunch break, we strolled right across the street to Coconut Monkey, where we met up with the girls who were spending the day taking the PADI Basic Freediver course with Crystal Dive. Coconut Monkey shares the same owners as Master Divers, and also the same values — it’s healthy food that’s good for you and good for the planet. No single use plastics here!
And then we were off for our afternoon dives!
Taylor and I rocking matching Flip Flip and Treacle
Our first dive was at a shallow bay on the north side of the island. After going over our dive plan and gearing up with our special clean up equipment, we descended to our mission. As we’d discussed that morning in the classroom, we carefully removed debris as instructed in buddy teams. Some of what you find is pretty funky — this map of the most commonly collected items on clean up dives may have you rethinking some of your on-land behavior.
Safety is the primary consideration of this course, which teaches you how to set safe dive profiles, master buoyancy, plan buddy teams, and safely remove a wide range of items you may encounter. It also delves into when to leave items in place (one of my biggest questions, going in) and how to incorporate cameras.
I mostly kept my camera safely tucked away, focusing instead on our mission — but I couldn’t help but pull it out when we were treated to an octopus free-swimming over the reef and putting on a major show. What a reward for our work!
Back on the boat, we dove into the next steps — weigh, sort, record, dispose, report! This part is pretty detailed in order to standardize data, but once you get the hang of the system, it’s easy and intuitive. I loved the thought that this was just one tiny little drop in the bucket of an enormous mass of data that will go on to build so much knowledge and make such an impact.
I was pretty proud of these girls for their interest in giving back!
While the PADI Dive Against Debris course only requires one dive to complete, most of the dive boats on Koh Tao run two tank dive trips, and Master Divers is no exception. So, we decided to tack on a second fun dive at Junkyard, a dive site made up of artificial reefs by ECO Koh Tao and contributed to by many dive shops, including Master Divers, and enjoyed by the entire island.
Constructed in 2009, the site eases traffic on other Koh Tao dive sites, and creates homes for marine life. We spotted pufferfish, hermit crabs, tons of my beloved juvenile batfish, even some super precocious saddleback anemones (also known as Nemos!), and more.
The site has tons of structures to poke around, from gym equipment to a car to a replica of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. There are also some coral nursery research stations, and a giant clam experiment. It’s a veritable hotbed of sustainable ideas and energy!
Believe it or not, this was actually my first time ever visiting Junkyard, after all my years diving on Koh Tao! I found it an incredible addition to the diversity of dive sites on the island and had a blast with a totally new landscape to capture with my underwater camera.
It was the perfect end to a feel-good, dive green kinda day.
Interested in organizing Dives Against Debris of your own? Sign up for a PADI course on your next trip or at your local dive shop, then dig into the Survey Toolkit for all the resources you need! If you live near a dive site, consider adopting one of your very own (I so wish I could!)
And if you love all things learning and conservation focused, keep in mind that this is just one of three Project Aware specialities. There’s also AWARE Shark Conservation and Project Aware Specialist — which I hope you’ll also read reviews of here someday!
By the way, wondering what the freediving group got up to while we were away? Check it out here!
I can now add this to my list of clean up dives I’ve taken part in in the USA, in the Red Sea of Egypt, and now Thailand. This is one speciality certification card I’m super proud to add to my dive bag (alone with a long list of others — including Enriched Air, Self Reliant, Sidemount, Cavern, and Photography).
It sounds eye-roll inducing, but I believe it — the ocean gives us so much, it feels so good to give something back! Wander Women retreats always include a strong conservation element, and in fact I loved this experience so much that in the future, I’ve shifted things so that everyone participates in a clean up day in future retreats.
Have you ever joined a cleanup dive?
Many thanks to Master Divers for hosting me on this course in order to write this review.