“We soon realised that we had a mammoth task on our hands, and the only way we were going to solve it, was to take action every day, and keep asking ourselves; how can we do more?” These are the earnest words of Captain Hayden Smith, the founding trustee of Sea Cleaners, a New Zealand-grown outfit that removes rubbish from the sea, harbours and oceans.
“We set out to clean up, engage communities and raise awareness for the issues we found - plastic trash in our waters,” says Smith, adding that in 2002; “No one knew the problem even existed.”
Since they began, with just one boat and two crew, Sea Cleaners has removed some 8.5 million litres of rubbish, equalling over 85 million pieces collected – ranging from $20 notes to a bottle of mercury.
Today, Sea Cleaners has five vessels and collaborate globally with environmentally cognisant companies and tourism bodies like Hawaii Tourism Oceania. Following a successful beach clean operation on O'ahu last year, the organisations have united once again; this year with a focus on stemming the flow of plastics on the beautiful Island of Hawai'i.
The tropical paradise might be a magnet for big waves, but its location also means currents bring in nets, buoys and debris from as far away as Japan or Alaska.
To sustain the thriving ecosystem of the Hawaiian Islands, the volcanic archipelago comprising hundreds of islands in the Pacific Ocean has long been committed to promoting responsible tourism practices and engaging visitors in voluntourism opportunities.
On International Coastal Cleanup Day, September 21, this commitment was championed on the Island of Hawaii when the not-for-profit arrived with youth ambassadors and activists from Australia, New Zealand and Japan for a beach cleanup of epic proportions.
This next generation of environmental activists have taken on responsible tourism project by hitting the shores to free the beaches of marine debris. As they set about cleared the coastline, they gained a deeper understanding of the local culture to share with their peers the world over.
“As we've been developing the youth ambassador programme with the Hawaii Tourism Authority, it has highlighted how inspirational it is for the youth that join us,” says Smith.
“With this year's expansion, by involving international students, it provides a platform with global outreach and a chance to inspire a wider group of future youth leaders to help us share our knowledge of the issue with their own communities once they return home.”
During their visit, students - all while wearing reef-safe sunscreen - were familiarised with the Island's Pono Pledge. The Pledge was introduced as a way to increase awareness and protection of the islands' environment, culture and peaceful nature.
Pono represents responsibility, goodness, morality, and nature, and the pledge represents a promise to respect and care for the island, and oneself.
Working with local conservation group, Hawai'i Wildlife Fund, to clear otherwise pristine beaches on the south coast from rubbish and micro-plastics, students were also able to swim with manta rays, snorkel at the sacred site of Pu'uhonua o Hōnaunau and take part in a voluntourism experience in Waipi'o Valley with Pōhāhā i Ka Lani – an environmental not-for-profit focussed on cultural stewardship. Student volunteers embraced the opportunity to learn about the Valley's cultural significance and work in their wetlands by planting trees.
The hope is that in time, this relationship will endure and help stem the tide of waste washing up on the shores of the Hawaiian Islands from the surrounding Pacific nations and beyond. “We are hopeful, and we just want to help,” says Smith.
Pacific Rim communities have long held an affinity with the Hawaiian Islands, but it's those currents that connect them that also highlight the impact that plastics deposited in their waters can have on sea life and environments thousands of kilometres away. With this in mind, an exchange will see a group of Hawaiian youth ambassadors travelling to Australia to participate in a similar initiative.
It serves to elevate the understanding of how tourism can play a positive role in preserving the spectacular beauty of the Hawaiian Islands while also strengthening the connections between lands across the Pacific.
Smith says his favourite part of International Coastal Cleanup Day, is that it is another “clean-up day”. “Every day we must all take actions to reduce our plastic consumption. Every day we must stop and pick up one piece of litter. International Coastal Cleanup Day helps us to remind people of this.”