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Conservation

Dumpster Diving New Zealand Style

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By Rob Wilson

The date was February 23, 2014, and I was ready to launch my event, which I called “Fight for the Future.” This particular cleanup was totally inspired by the work of Cas Renooji and Pascal van Erp with their Ghost Fishing adventures in the North Sea. I had watched in absolute awe as these guys operated at 60 meters clearing enormous nets.  As a GUE diver with a “Fundies” (Fundamentals) Tech pass, I knew I wasn’t ready for that. However, my enthusiasm would not be curbed. I wanted to make a difference. It wasn’t my first cleanup, but it was the first that I had taken on the organizational lead.

Rob Wilson and Serena Cox give the shore briefing before the clean-up efforts begin. Photo Credit: Amanda White.

Call it New Zealand Dumpster Diving!

During our first event we hauled out everything from tires to hundreds of kilograms of bottles. All of the divers had a blast, and we were eager to clean up more dive sites. After the success and impressive haul of this first cleanup, we were hooked and consequently started to get more regular cleanups underway.

Our following also grew and we went from strength to strength. We soon affiliated our project with the international Ghost Fishing crew and began sharing information. Cas was coaching me behind the scenes in everything from team management to how to deal with the media.

Free divers, scuba divers, and the shore crew work together to remove rubbish. Photo Credit: Amanda White

Meanwhile, my Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) training also continued behind the scenes with Instructor Trainer Jamie Obern. I had undertaken various courses and expeditions with Jamie. Each course was like a piece of a puzzle from one grand image that I didn’t even know existed yet, until all of the pieces started to fit together. The skill set that the GUE training with Jamie gave me made operating in extremely low visibility environments a lot easier, so did having good buoyancy and trim. With that skill set, we were able to swim neutrally with multiple street cones and safely do ascents while carrying objects and managing loads of gear.

As Ghost Fishing New Zealand (GFNZ), we have learned a great deal of lessons and are constantly improving and streamlining our skills, including topside safety procedures. We also have an outreach program and go to local schools and businesses to talk about Ghost Fishing and what we do and how anyone can help. We regularly work with local groups and also the NZ Coast Guard to further improve the safety and awareness of our diver teams.

One Person’s Trash is Another Person’s Treasure

The things we have found beneath the surface have been amazing. We found a small section of a comet that fell in Russia in the 1920s, glass jars filled with coins, a Vietnamese whiskey bottle with a king cobra and scorpion in it, and four porcelain toilets—one is now a planter in my garden.

Photo Credit for gallery images: Rob Wilson, Ghost Fishing NZ.

Our team has come from all areas of diving and marine science. We have free divers and every level of diver from open water divers to trimix-certified CCR divers. And we’ve grown in both number and capability since our first cleanup. The feeling of bringing so many people together as a community, to fight for our shared future, is incredible.

We have also won some fantastic awards. We were lucky enough to win one of New Zealand’s most prestigious diving awards, the NZUA Leo Ducker award, for our work, along with multiple awards and recognition for the environment and heritage. For our team and volunteers to be recognized for the work we have done is incredibly humbling and a great honor. Our goal is to work toward making it more beautiful down under!

Interested in reading more aquatic conservation stories? Find more here.


Rob Wilson, one of the youngest scuba divers to certify in New Zealand at age 13, is a photographer by trade (specializing in astro and landscapes) and founder of Ghost Fishing NZ (GFNZ), a volunteer organization that removes more than a ton of rubbish from the capital’s waters every month. Rob got involved with cleanup dives in 2010 when the local dive shop needed volunteers. “That first time I got such a rush out of knowing the 25 plastic bottles I removed wouldn’t be able to harm sea life.” He has been participating in and managing cleanup dives ever since.

Conservation

WWII WRECKS – A TOXIC LEGACY?

Maritime archeologist Matt Carter discusses what brought him to Chuuk Lagoon and his quest to call attention to the oil leaking from WWII shipwrecks, the focus of the Major Projects Foundation, where he serves as Research Director. The foundation was created with the goal of working with Pacific nations to protect their marine ecosystems from potential oil spills from WWII shipwrecks, and is currently working to determine determining how much oil the ships lost in the Asia-Pacific region still hold. Previously a team of international experts calculated the amount of oil to be anywhere between 150 million and 1.2 billion gallons.

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Header image by Steve Trewavas. The port propeller of the Rio de Janeiro Maru clearly showing the huge scale of the shipwreck.

Maritime archeologist Matt Carter discusses what brought him to Chuuk Lagoon and his quest to call attention to the oil leaking from WWII shipwrecks, the focus of the  Major Projects Foundation (MPF), where he serves as Research Director. The foundation was created with the goal of working with Pacific nations to protect their marine ecosystems from oil spills from WWII shipwrecks.

What many people know is that between 1939 and 1945, the Japanese military and the Allied powers fought an increasingly bloody war through South-East Asia and out across the Pacific Ocean. What fewer people know is that this maritime war saw the loss of some 3800 ships which sank, taking with them their crew, cargoes, and in some cases huge volumes of toxic heavy fuel oil. 

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A volunteer cleaning oil spilled from the wreck of the MV Wakashio in August 2020. (Photo: Shutterstock)

One of the questions that Carter is asked frequently is how much oil could these ships possibly still be holding today? In 2005, a team of international experts came together to answer just that question. Searching through archives for information on these potentially polluting shipwrecks (PPW), they calculated that combined, all of the ships lost in the Asia-Pacific Region could possibly still hold anywhere between 150 million and 1.2 billion gallons of oil!

MPF was established in 2018. After signing a memorandum of understanding with the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), the foundation began reviewing and prioritizing the 3800 WWII shipwrecks sunk in the Asia-Pacific Region, resulting in a priority list of 55 PPW deemed to be the highest environmental risk. Seventeen of these wrecks are located in the world-famous diving Mecca of Chuuk Lagoon in the Federated States of Micronesia.

One of the key tools that the foundation used for investigating the condition of the PPW in Chuuk was photogrammetry, a process where a wreck is scanned by divers taking thousands of overlapping photos which are then run through a 3D software program. The main focus of this photogrammetry work was the wreck of the Rio de Janiero Maru, as oil leaks from the wreck were thought to have impacted nearby mangroves in 2008. Over multiple dives, the foundation surveyed and scanned the shipwreck taking 7350 photos and three hours of video. This was the first time that any of the wrecks in Chuuk Lagoon had been recorded in this way resulting in the 3D model shown below. 

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3D model of the 140-metre-long Rio de Janeiro Maru. The model comprises 7,350 high-resolution images Photo Dr. Matt Carter/Major Projects Foundation

From this survey, Carter was able to create a baseline condition assessment of the Rio de Janeiro Maru including a hull integrity assessment that has allowed for a more accurate estimation of the amount of oil that may remain inside the wreck. This information was subsequently incorporated into a ‘Likelihood of Oil Release’ assessment providing MPF and the Chuukese authorities with a greater understanding of the potential threat that this wreck poses.

The survey of the Rio de Janeiro Maru has shown what can be achieved through the combination of marine archaeology, technical diving, and photogrammetry. However, this is only the first of the 55 potentially polluting wrecks throughout the Pacific that MPF and its partners urgently need to assess in order to mitigate the impact that these ticking ecological time bombs will have on the people and marine ecosystems of the region. 

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