Protecting Paradise: Sea Shepherd's Mission in the Cocos Keeling Islands Marine Park

Wednesday, 08 May, 2024

The vast expanse of the Australian marine park estate covers 48% of our oceans, safeguarding the rich diversity of our marine environment and protecting iconic species to ensure they continue to thrive.


Within this estate lies the breathtaking and remote Cocos Keeling Islands Marine Park, located northwest of Australia in the Indian Ocean.

The park protects a pristine lagoon, inshore reef, and deep-water ocean, home to untouched habitats and unique marine species found nowhere else in the world, in a region facing ever-increasing environmental pressures.

Sea Shepherd Australia has taken up the challenge to protect this pristine marine oasis, collaborating with the Shire, local stakeholders, and Australia Marine Parks to address the ongoing ocean plastic pollution crisis.

Over the last four years, Sea Shepherd has been working tirelessly to safeguard the marine life of the Cocos Keeling Islands through intensive clean-up campaigns with dedicated and experienced volunteers and data collection in collaboration with CSIRO. Our campaigns have successfully removed over 40 tonnes of trash from across four islands.

Returning for the fourth successive year, nine volunteer crew flew from Perth's busy city life across the Indian Ocean to a remote tropical paradise, where they would stay for 14 days.

On approaching the atoll, the view of the stunning encircling reef and the lagoon's crystal-clear turquoise waters immediately highlighted why we come to the islands and the importance of reducing the impact of ocean plastic pollution. The lagoon is home to thousands of turtles, a unique pod of dolphins, manta rays, diverse fish species, a black tip reef shark nursery, and on the surrounding beaches hermit crabs, a marine life hotspot.

The lagoon of Cocos Keeling Islands, home to diverse marine life. Photo: Naomi Alefelder/Sea Shepherd

On day one the crew faced a new challenge, to remove several large fish aggregating devices known as "FADS" from three locations in the lagoon. We had not attempted this before and it was extremely concerning knowing that turtles were living close to these lethal devices, and the priority was to get them out of the ocean as quickly as possible.

We estimated the fads weighed more than two tonnes, and to successfully remove them we had to ensure we planned carefully, working within the limits of the tides and other constraints. Australia Parks and the Shire supported the mission providing the necessary equipment and rangers to complete the task.

At first light, the crew waded out into the shallow lagoon and spent many hours in the water under the hot sun. Caught on coral, first the FADS had to be released and then cut into manageable pieces to be able to lift them.

After a long day of cutting up the fads with knives, angle grinders, and brute strength, the pieces were loaded into canoes, ready to be pulled back to shore. FADS are often made from bamboo and a myriad of plastic objects, including ropes, nets, buoys, polystyrene, bottles, and sheets of plastic. Fishermen anchor them to the bottom, and they are designed to attract fish seeking refuge in the ocean, making it easier to find and catch them.

Their impact on the marine environment is significant, as they destroy delicate coral reefs, transport invasive species to untouched places, and entangle and drown many turtles and other marine life.

Removing the FAD from the lagoon with rangers from Marine Parks Photo: Naomi Alefelder/Sea Shepherd
Working below the water line to cut and remove ghost gear Photo: Naomi Alefelder/Sea Shepherd

Next day, three crew took two small boats to reach the last and biggest FAD lodged in a remoter part of the lagoon. It took several hours to free the huge structure from the bottom and tie up trailing pieces so it could be safely towed to land.

Our boats were not powerful enough to pull the fad, so the Marine Rangers from Australia Parks stepped in and used their boat to successfully pull it back to Home Island. It was then lifted safely off the beach by the Shire with their heavy lifting equipment. While this was happening, the rest of the crew commenced work on the ground to clean the impacted coastline of other islands.

The first one on the itinerary was Home Island, which in past years had the highest levels of marine plastics polluting the beaches. The goal was to clean the complete windward side of the island, which we had yet to achieve during past campaigns.

The high trash load, difficult access, and balancing on unstable coral rubble, meant progress was slow. We filled a hundred bags each day and carried two tonnes of fishing gear along the beach to the road. As we picked up items such as water bottles and cups, the density of microplastic was revealed. The lightweight plastic just crumbled into what can only be described as a plastic dust. Impossible to remove it affects all marine creatures, from microscopic to the very largest.

Loading ropes into the canoes to take back to shore. Photo: Naomi Alefelder/Sea Shepherd

The end of the island was in sight, so we pushed on until we finally achieved the goal after five days and completely cleaned this coast of marine plastic pollution for the first time.

We were happy to see on Direction Island that, in some areas, the efforts of the previous year's campaign had drastically reduced the loading of consumer plastics. However, more large ropes and fishing gear had swept in, including a one-kilometre rope from an industrial fishing operation. As there are no roads or vehicles on the island, removing these ropes was down to hard physical work. It took two gruelling days to dig them out of the sand, cut them up and carry them across the island, where they were piled up ready for collection.

The crew loaded 2.2 tonnes of trash into wheelbarrows and bags and then pushed and carried it along the path to a collection point by the jetty.

It took 5 crew members to pull out this massive rope on Direction Island Photo: Naomi Alefelder/Sea Shepherd

Global manufacturers rely on the good will and hard work of volunteers who are prepared to pick up literally thousands of pieces of plastic packaging every day and battle against trash overtaking our remote environment and killing marine life. If these manufacturers had to pay for the real cost of clean-up, then no one would be able to afford to buy their products. Presently it doesnt cost them anything to dispose of their packaging at end of life. Until things change, we have no other option but to clean up for the future of the environment and marine creatures.

Liza Dicks, Remote Marine Debris Campaigner
With no roads or vehicles on Direction island all the trash had to carried or moved in a wheelbarrow. Photo: Naomi Alefelder/Sea Shepherd

West Island was the final place we cleaned. Again, it was encouraging to see the loading drastically reduced along the beaches cleaned last year. This meant we could clean over 7 km of coastline, covering all the impacted beaches and removing 2.5 tonnes. We also managed to clean the small island of Pula Balan Madar, just named one of Australia’s best beaches.

During our time on island, we were saddened to see the impact of an eco-system under severe stress. The lagoon is suffering from sea grass degradation, the main source of food for Green Turtles. For the first time we saw several dead emaciated turtles on the beaches, skeletons scattered through the undergrowth and some in the lagoon slowly starving. Marine Parks along with the assistance of scientists are racing against time to find solutions and our work within the islands helps to alleviate one more pressure they are facing.

Marine plastic hotspot on Home Island. Photo: Naomi Alefelder/Sea Shepherd
Cleaning up Pula Blan Madar, named one of Australia’s top beaches. Photo: Naomi Alefelder/Sea Shepherd
Working together to clean the windward side of Home Island for the first time. Photo: Naomi Alefelder/Sea Shepherd.

The campaign included several community clean ups and wrapped up with a very successful film screening under the stars, where we were joined by over 80 community members at the island's Big Barge Art Centre. The Shire of Cocos Keeling Islands treated the crew to delicious vegan pizza as a thank-you.

Our motivated, hardworking, and passionate volunteer crew removed 11.5 tonnes of trash during the annual Cocos Trash Bash Campaign, and the crew departed exhausted but exhilarated by their achievements in protecting this unique and precious marine sanctuary.

We thank the Shire of Cocos Keeling Islands, Parks Australia, and the local community for supporting the annual Cocos Trash Campaign: we could not do this without their continued support.

Photo: Naomi Alefelder/Sea Shepherd.

Reported by Liza Dicks, Remote Marine Debris Campaigner for Sea Shepherd Australia.

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