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Cocos Keeling Islands Remote Beach Clean-up

Tuesday, Jan 19, 2021

Over November and December 2020, Sea Shepherd conducted a remote multi-island clean-up mission at the Cocos Keeling Islands, visiting South Island, West Island, Home Island and Direction Island, working collaboratively with the communities across the atoll.

During the two week campaign aptly named Sea Shepherd's 'Cocos Trash Bash,’ a total of 11,010 kilograms, over 800 bags and an estimated one million pieces of marine debris, mostly plastic, was removed.

Logistics for the campaign were challenging as the crew had to contend with tides, shallow waters, reef, rocks, inaccessibility of beaches, a huge volume of the trash and very hot conditions, making for long, tiring days. 

The Cocos Keeling Islands are 2,750 kilometres north-west of Perth, Western Australia, in the Indian Ocean. The atoll is a place of immense natural beauty, with aquamarine waters abundant with marine life including; green and hawksbill turtles, sharks, dolphins and manta rays. Like many remote islands across the globe, several beaches on the windward side of the atoll are tragically hotspots for ocean plastics.

Australian locations like Cocos, which are impacted by plastic pollution, require greater support to help these islands deal with this global environmental issue washing onto their beaches.  

"The beauty of the ocean and diversity of marine life on Cocos is so spectacular. It is devastating to see the levels of plastic pollution affecting some of the beaches in this tropical island paradise.”

- Marina Hansen, Marine Debris Campaigner

On the first day of the campaign, our crew removed a discarded fishing rope stuck on rocks in the lagoon approximately 100m offshore. The rope was around a kilometre long in length and was estimated to weigh at least a tonne. The rope was later identified as coming from a purse seine net, most likely used in tuna fishing.

The remainder of the time, the crew tackled beaches from Government House to Scout Park, cleaned Jetty beach with local staff from Parks Australia and hosted a community clean-up at Twiss Monument.

In total 301 bags of debris, weighing a total of 1.5 tonnes, were removed from 4.6 kilometres of beach. 

View images from West Island:

From day one of the clean-up, the volunteers were hard at work removing discarded fishing nets. Photo: Jake Parker
Volunteers removing over 1 kilometre of rope from the lagoon at West Island. Photo: Jake Parker
A discarded purse seine net weighing over one tonne. Photo: Jake Parker
Volunteers in the water to remove the rope. Photo: Jake Parker
Volunteers removing a fishing net from the beach at West Island. Photo: Jake Parker

Home Island is the cultural heart of the Cocos Keeling Islands and the beach at Pulu Gangsa was the location of Sea Shepherd’s second island clean-up. 

Here our crew were confronted with millions of microplastics lining the shore and floating in and under the surface of the ocean as the tide went out. So dense were the microplastics spread across several tide lines, the crew were able to scoop piles of microplastics up with their hands. The density was at a scale never seen before by our experienced campaigners and volunteer crew.

It took eight volunteers three days to clean the 250-metre-long beach which was also littered with thousands of pieces of debris, much of which was single-use plastic – plastic water bottles, straws, bottle lids, plastic water cups, plastic film, toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, polystyrene and thongs.

At Pulu Gangsa, Sea Shepherd crew carried out a data survey of a one metre square section of beach removed at the low tide mark. Shockingly, 5,302 pieces of debris were sorted and counted, with this high number of items only weighing a mere 3.2 kilograms. The number of microplastics in this sample were so high, they were not able to be counted.

View images from Home Island: 

A volunteer cleaning the beach at Home Island. Photo: Jake Parker
A devastating amount of plastic trash found in the ocean at Home Island. Photo: Jake Parker
So dense were the microplastics spread across several tide lines, the crew were able to scoop piles of microplastics up with their hands. Photo: Jake Parker
Marine debris strewn across the beach at Home Island. Photo: Jake Parker
Sea Shepherd volunteers cleaning up Home Island. Photo: Jake Parker

The crew camped at South Island for two nights, getting there by outrigger canoe which they also used to travel to the plastic hotspots further around the island. In one day alone, the crew removed 116 bags of rubbish, which were hand carried back to the boats, some 300 metres from a hotspot.

South Island saw the greatest amount of trash removed – 5.9 tonnes of debris, of which 4.5 tonnes was made up of discarded fishing rope and nets. Transporting the nets and ropes back to West Island by boat was not an easy task so we are incredibly proud of the crew for their determination to remove these death traps.

Other typical items found on South Island included thongs, plastic water bottles, polystyrene, hard plastic pieces and even nurdles – these items filled the 259 bags of debris removed during the three-day clean-up.

View images from South Island:

259 bags of debris were removed from South Island. Photo: Jake Parker
Volunteers removing trash from South Island. Photo: Jake Parker
Trash on the beach at South Island. Photo: Jake Parker
Discarded nets and rope were removed from South Island by boat. Photo: Jake Parker
Other typical items found on South Island included thongs, plastic water bottles, polystyrene, hard plastic pieces and even nurdles. Photo: Jake Parker

Two clean-ups were undertaken at Direction Island during the 2020 campaign. Our crew thinks the ferry journey across must be one of the most picturesque ferry journeys in Australia.

The colours of the crystal clear blue waters off Direction Island take your breath away, so it is no surprise that Cossie’s Beach (along the lagoon side of Direction Island) was voted Australia’s Best Beach in 2017.

On the opposite side of the island (windward), white sandy beaches are replaced by rocks and unfortunately the tides bring in ocean plastics. At Direction Island, our crew was sad to see large numbers of deceased hermit crabs trapped in plastic bottles. 

The two days the crew spent at Direction Island resulted in over half a tonne of trash being removed.

View images from Direction Island:

Plastic trash found underwater at Direction Island. Photo: Jake Parker
The turquoise waters of Direction Island. Photo: Jake Parker
Trash on the beaches of Direction Island. Photo: Jake Parker
A Sea Shepherd volunteer on the beach at Direction Island. Photo: Jake Parker
The two days the crew spent at Direction Island saw over half a tonne of trash removed. Photo: Jake Parker

“Cocos is not alone with plastic pollution on its beaches. Around the world there are many, many islands suffering exactly the same issues. We feel we have an obligation to remove that plastic when we see it on the beaches.”

- Liza Dicks, Cocos Campaign Leader

The Cocos Keeling Islands are truly beautiful, and seeing turtles pop their heads up is common, which reminds our crew why removing the trash is so important. We must protect our precious marine wildlife, their habitats and magical places like Cocos, so that future generations can continue to come and enjoy this ocean wonderland in Australia.

 

Watch and share our campaign videos below. 

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