Diving Against Debris:  For A Cleaner, Healthier Ocean Planet

“The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” ~Mahatma Gandhi


dad-interactive-mapdad-jan-2017I decided to host my first Project AWARE “Dive Against Debris” event here on Okinawa at the turn of the New Year, and I must say, it was a smashing success!  At a local dive site called “Kadena North Steps,” almost 40 scuba divers were successful is removing 198 pounds of submerged debris from the ocean, amounting to over 635 separate pieces of trash polluting our coastal underwater environment.  Check out our full Kadena North Steps report here.  A big shout-out to all those who came out in support of this worthy effort!


The SAD and DEPRESSING Underwater view of Kadena North Steps





If you are not aware, our oceans are under siege.  More than 250 MILLION tons of plastic is estimated to make its way into our ocean by 2025.  Our everyday trash is entering the seas at an alarming rate, and it has created a clear and present danger to the ocean’s ecosystems.  But a global community of proactive divers is beginning to fight back against this onslaught.  And I decided to become more an active part of the solution than a passive participant in creating the problem.





What is amazing is that all it takes to create grass-roots activism is to provide just the seed, although with creating an environment where that seed can germinate and take root.  What do I mean?  Make it “an event.”  Advertise.  Provide collection bags.  Offer donuts and coffee!  And take care of the debris after the divers have removed it….  Real and sustainable global change is only empowered through such grassroots action.





Marine debris is, simply put, deadly to marine life, often hazardous to human health, and costly to our economies.   Animals, especially marine mammals, become entangled in debris and even mistake it for food – both often with fatal results.  Toxins can enter our food chains, resulting in sickness for an individual, and detrimental depressions in local and national markets.


dive-the-blues-scuba-2017-dive-against-debris-counting-collected-trashThe event I hosted was a formal Project AWARE “Dive Against Debris” (DAD) survey.  That means we not just collected trash, but weighed, categorized, and reported the data to a global database.  I also offered training and certification, for those divers so interested, In PADI’s “Dive Against Debris Diver” specialty.  Eleven divers completed this course of education and training that morning!

Cleanup Divers Entering the Water at Kadena North

Cleanup Divers Entering the Water at Kadena North

dive-the-blues-scuba-2017-dive-against-debris-morning-diver-fueldive-the-blues-scuba-2017-dive-against-debris-kevin-event-organizerDive Against Debris® is Project AWARE’s flagship citizen-science program.  DAD is the first and only marine debris survey of its kind which utilizes scuba divers to report types and quantities of debris found on the ocean floor.  If you’re a certified diver, you can collect and report important data while removing marine debris during your dive.  With your help, Project AWARE can use the information you report to convince individuals, governments and businesses to act against marine debris.


dive-the-blues-scuba-2017-dive-against-debris-trashed-bottom-3However, Project AWARE goes even further.  Not only does the organization work to reduce underwater impacts of marine debris, but to prevent trash from entering the ocean in the first place.  Through “Partnerships Against Trash,” Project AWARE works with businesses, NGOs and governments to advocate for long-term solutions and influence waste management policies at local, national and international levels.





Since my experience running this event was so positive and down-right run, I have decided to take my activism to the next level.  Ultimately, the most dedicated Dive Against Debris leaders across the globe are increasing commitments to the fight against ocean trash through another program called “Adopt a Dive Site™” (ADS).   Leveraging enthusiastic dive instructors, and concerned dive centers and resorts, ADS ensures ongoing local protection and monitoring of our underwater playgrounds.


captureMy dive business Dive the Blues Scuba and I have adopted Kadena North as “my” dive site to care for.  This means I have committed to executing monthly Dive Against Debris surveys and then reporting types and quantities of trash found underwater each month from that same location.  To support this effort, Project AWARE will be supplying some additional survey tools, and will provide a yearly report on the state of my local dive site.  ADS is focused on removing debris on a sustained basis to ultimately improve the health of local ecosystems.




You can view “My Ocean Profile” at Project AWARE to see these local actions, and see the details of my first Dive Against Debris survey.  Finally, you can see my first Adopt a Dive Site event where you can determine if you too want to come out and become an active part of the solution, rather than be a passive part of the problem.


And don’t forget to come out and support my February 2017 Dive Against Debris survey this President’s day, February 20th, starting at 0900 local at Kadena North Steps.  Together, we can work toward a cleaner, healthier ocean planet.  One dive at a time.  And ultimately, we as a global nation of divers will be judged all the greater for it.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

“When a lovely flame dies, Smoke gets in your eyes….” ~ The Platters, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

The Cold, or Pollution?

The Cold, or Pollution?

Okinawa was put under an air quality alert this week as “fluctuating higher levels of pollutant aerosols [were] anticipated…,” the first time I recall this happening in my more than seven years spent on this island paradise. And the source?

Pollution. Made in China.

Slide from a Brief Warning of Increased Pollutant Aerosols

Slide from a Brief Warning of Increased Pollutant Aerosols

It’s an amazing coincidence as I just posted a blog discussing the massive pollution problem in China, witnessed firsthand during a trip there last November. See Pollution, Made in China for more.

Now, I’m not anti-China. In fact, it would be relatively easy to fall in love with what China can offer. Jody and I even found ourselves talking about living in Shanghai, it was that, well, “cool.” And then there were all the surprising turns that we didn’t expect. All those expectations and stereotypes that turned out to be patently false. See Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Misconceptions about China more just a few of those realizations.

So, walking outside yesterday, I was struck immediately by a slight odor in the air, one that was able to overcome the strong aroma of the steady sea breeze blowing salt and ocean across our entire neighborhood. But it was my limited sight line, my obstructed view-shed from our 5th floor building’s breezeway that stopped me in my tracks. There it was, the oppressive and offensive haze that was so ubiquitous in China, now the most recent but unwelcome import to Okinawa.

Okinawa PM2-5 Feb 2015

Okinawa Measures of PM2.5 Pollutants, 5 Feb 2015

PM2-5 RatingsAs forecasted, pollution from China swept across the East China Sea to affect Okinawa and beyond. While the smaller, most dangerous particulate matter (“PM2.5”) levels didn’t reach critical levels, they were hazardous to those at risk or who had respiratory vulnerabilities.  The air quality on Okinawa reached 154 on the 5th of February, a state considered “unhealthy,” while the most dangerous PM2.5 measure hit up into the 60’s, also considered troublesome.  By any measure, though, when pollution is thick enough to see and smell, it’s a problem, simply and most basically by being an affront to our senses, and an insult to Mother Nature. At worst, it portends a bleak future for the entire area, if not the globe. All based on pollution…originating from China.


How to Interpret Air Quality Readings

If you think this issue is being overstated, I answer with this: you have not spent any time experiencing the pollution of China firsthand. And if you still think, perhaps, that my sinuses are too sensitive, or that I have an owl’s eyesight and see the pollution differently than everyone else, check out this website where you can view movies of airborne pollutants throughout Asia. In fact, it’s so enlightening, I’ve included a screenshot below.


The Next Wave of Chinese Pollution due to Hit Okinawa this Weekend. A new type of typhoon?


There is simply not enough ocean between Okinawa and China.

There is simply not enough ocean between Okinawa and China.

China is facing its own coming crisis in dealing with their relatively unchecked effluence. That’s all fine and well for them; at some point, the people will rise up and force change. But, unfortunately, for the rest of the world, it’ll be too little, too late. China’s poor stewardship of their environment is certainly trashing the Eastern hemisphere, and it’s not too hard to see a time when what they do – or fail to do – will have immense global consequences.

China's problem is now the world's problem....

China’s problem is now the world’s problem….

Pollution, Made in China

Real-Time Air Quality in China, 4 Feb 2015.

Real-Time Air Quality in China, 4 Feb 2015.

“It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.” ~Dan Quayle, or something one might hear these days in China….

That's more like it.  Thank you, EPA!!

That’s more like it. Thank you, EPA!!

We were walking to our tour bus in Beijing, China, the Chinese capital city and third largest city in the world with a population of about 21.2 million. The pollution there was an affront to all our senses. It seemed thick enough to slice with a knife when we de-boarded our plane the day prior, and it seemed worse this morning. Curious as to whether or not this was the “norm,” I questioned our Chinese guide, “So is this fog, smog, or just pollution?”

“Yes!” our guide responded, with a knowing smile. And his tell was all I really needed to know….


Ever since landing in China, there was a strange acidic smell hanging in the air, causing our nose to fill with black muck each day. The smog was oppressive, hanging low and dense and hindering almost every attempt at taking scenic pictures of the beautiful sites in China. And this level of effluence was nearly constant, both across the week (we had ½ of a nice day in Beijing), and across the country, even in rural areas hours away from city centers.

“But the skies cleared just a few weeks ago,” our local guide continued. “The government shut down factories, coal plants, closed schools and took half the cars off the road to get ready for the big APEC summit that was held here earlier this month.”

“Did it actually work,” I asked.


“Yes!!” he emphatically exclaimed, a smile so big it threatened to split his face in half. “We actually saw stars at night and blue during the day! The children were out of school! Everyone was so happy!”

But of course it didn’t last. Two weeks later, with business as usual, and the repressive contamination was back.

Horrific pollution in Xian.

Horrific pollution in Xian.

The summit he was talking about – the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting – was held last year just outside of Beijing in early November. In anticipation of such an important and public meeting, China attempted to prevent Beijing’s ubiquitous smog by limiting driving and closing down factories within 125 miles of city center. Cars were permitted on the roads only every other day. Schools and government offices were granted a six-day holiday during the Meeting. Residents were granted free admission to tourist attractions in neighboring provinces in a blatant attempt to move as much of the pollution’s shadow away from town as possible. And other more desperate measures were instituted: construction sites were shut down, deliveries were halted, many restaurants were closed, and even crematoriums curtailed the burning of funeral clothes, a common sacrificial offering meant to keep the dead attired in the afterlife. All in an attempt to not solve a pollution problem, but rather to temporarily hide it.


Did the Chinese government really think that these rather unorthodox measures would go unnoticed? Or that they didn’t actually point a guilty finger at the pollution problem the government there is so quick to deny?

This is Hong Kong. But apparently it's also China's solution to their growing problem....

This is Hong Kong. But apparently it’s also China’s solution to their growing problem….

Amazingly enough, the air did indeed start to clear. Residents and citizens, seeing the effects that such simple measures could have over such a short period of time satirically labelled the improved weather conditions as “APEC blue,” which was meant to refer to something enjoyable but fleeting. Other Chinese joked that APEC stood for “Air Pollution Eventually Controlled.” But the oppressive smoggy skies returned the week of the meetings, with the US embassy reporting air pollution almost 50 times the World Health Organization’s safe daily limit.

Unlike Japan, where masks are wore to prevent disease transmission, in China they are intended to help prevent lung cancer....

Unlike Japan, where masks are worn to prevent disease transmission, in China they are intended to help prevent lung cancer….

The US embassy in Beijing regularly posts automated air quality measurements at @beiji ngair on Twitter. In the fall of 2010, the feed described the PM2.5 measurement as “crazy bad” after registering a reading in excess of 500 for the first time, a descriptor that was later changed to a more politically correct and scientifically-based “beyond index,” a level which recurred in February, October, and December of 2011. After new more sensitive equipment was installed, air pollution worsened with readings of up to 700 in 2013. The US Embassy recorded over 755 on January 1st, 2014, and 800 by January 12. If you read up on what these PM2.5 numbers actually mean, these readings are, without doubt, “CRAZY BAD.” A label that perhaps should be formally restored to characterize China’s rampant problem with pollution.

That's smog in the background.  Two hours away from Beijing.

That’s smog in the background. Two hours away from Beijing.

So, with the pollution still not hidden, what other steps could the Chinese take? Why, just deny access to the US data, of course! And worse, put up conflicting and erroneous pollution readings on their own websites and feeds…even though all someone had to do was walk outside and experience the particulate assault on their eyes, nose and lungs firsthand.

The only plus side for pollution?  Beautifully toxic sunsets....

The only plus side for pollution? Beautifully toxic sunsets….

According to the National Environmental Analysis released by Tsinghua University and The Asian Development Bank in January 2013, 7 of 10 most air polluted cities in Asian are found in China. And the pollution is beyond serious; it’s is damaging the very health of the (urban) Chinese people.

The gray stuff?  Let's just say it's not clouds....

The gray stuff? Let’s just say it’s not clouds….

Zhong Nanshan, the president of the China Medical Association, in 2012 warned that air pollution is poised to become China’s biggest health threat. Urban lung cancer and cardiovascular disease rates are 2-3 times that of rural China, and have been increasing, with air pollution and tobacco smoking being to blame.


America was traveling down a similar road after WWII. The scenes playing out in China today could have been anywhere in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s. What changed our path? How is it that we cleaned our waters and skies and moved from a culture of litter to one of waste management? Step in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).


The EPA was created via Executive Order by President Nixon in 1970 for the purpose of protecting human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress. It seems that not all Executive Orders are not bad, even ones signed by crooks.

SO2_1970-2010_small-1e1h5a1By most accounts the EPA, now over 40 years old, has been singularly instrumental in setting policy priorities and writing and enforcing a wide range of laws that have literally changed the face of the Earth for the better. It’s not just North America we are talking about; the EPA’s existence and effectiveness has also inspired scores of other countries to create their own environmental agencies along the same lines, with similar far-reaching effect.

NOxNO2_1970-2010_small-1xca9c2The Clean Water and the Clean Air Acts are early examples of sweeping legislation (some would classify them radical or even seditious) that only a dedicated environmental agency could properly oversee. Today the EPA remain focused on reversing and managing both ozone depletion and climate change.

Our success story with cleaning up our skies.

Our success story with cleaning up our skies.

The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering leadership, published, with the guidance of more than 20 key environmental leaders including several former EPA officials, a list of “10 ways the EPA has strengthened America over the past 40 years:”

Banning widespread use of DDT (and saving several species of birds)

Removing acid from rain

Rethinking waster as materials

Removing lead from gasoline

Clearing second-hand smoke (indoor smoking bans)

Vehicle emissions & efficiency

Cleaning the environment (“Superfund” Sites)

Managing toxins

Cleaner water

Public information and right to know

Before the EPA, American communities faced numerous perils without even knowing it. For baby-boomers and those born earlier, vivid images of American rivers so contaminated they could be actually lit on fire and choking smog-filled skies over major cities are etched in the mind. And that was just forty years ago — not so long when one considers the profound improvements that have been achieved in our air and water quality since then.  In the same time, China has achieved the reverse; my Father, who visited China for the first time in 1983, reported NO smog or other pollution….

The pollution in China is even visible indoors!

The pollution in China is even visible indoors!

China is facing their own similar crossroads. The New York Times claims that “[China’s] environmental degradation is now so severe, with such stark domestic and international repercussions, that pollution poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese public but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist Party.” According to the Chinese Ministry of Health, industrial air pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death. And the problem has moved beyond China’s borders: sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides created in China fall as acid rain on Seoul, South Korea, and Tokyo. According to the Journal of Geophysical Research, pollution made in China even reaches across the Pacific Ocean and is now a constant and recent import at Los Angeles, USA.

At least we can export our clean air to China!

At least we can export our clean air to China!

Despite the Chinese government’s best efforts to temporarily curtail and hide rampant pollution, the air in Beijing quickly returned to a stifling gauzy white, registering as “very unhealthy” on the US embassy’s air quality scale. But apparently the government there is not about to take any drastic corrective actions necessary to change their country’s path. For example, after the summit, China and the United States announced that their two nations would work to reduce greenhouse gases and restrain pollution. The United States vowed to cut carbon emissions to levels 25% below those recorded in 2005 – an amazingly lofty goal, but China only agreed to “limit” their peak carbon emissions by 2030 (the first time China has agreed to cap their emissions) and strive to achieve 20% of its energy from sources that do not produce carbon emissions. Seems like a pretty ding-dang crappy deal if you ask me, not balanced in the least. From all quarters, it appears that China is simply not organically structured to create, implement and empower an EPA of their own…even though they already have one.

It seems we can have it all.  Or most of it.

It seems we can have it all. Or most of it.

For me, I will never curse the EPA ever again. Seriously. Yes, it is expensive to live cleanly. And yes, it does involve government oversight and regulation. But left to our own devices, unchecked and unregulated free-market capitalism would destroy the environment; there simply is too much money to be made. And our focus is generally and, for many, necessarily, on short-term consequences. Like protecting jobs and ensuring economic growth. But certainly the last 40 years under the EPA has demonstrated, quite conclusively, that we can have them all – a clean environment, jobs, and sustained growth in GDP!


As a 10 year old kid on his first trip to Europe circa 1976, I immediately noticed the offensive and noxious fumes along the busy roads of Rome. Later I learned it was lead in their automobile fuel – something the EPA had removed from American gas before I could remember. That small change with such dramatic consequence has always stayed with me, highlighting really how easy it could be to protect the earth. But this trip to China has driven home the dangers of unchecked, unfettered human activity. After all, in the final analysis, if we mortally wound Mother Nature, jobs and the economy matter not.


Next time you enjoy twinkling stars in the sky, or a clear, cool glass of tap water, or unobstructed clear blue skies of most of our cities, thank the EPA. Without it, we might be a lot more like China that we could ever imagine.



For more information, please see the sources used in drafting this blog: