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A deep dive opens my eyes to plastic below the ocean’s surface

I traveled to Phuket, Thailand, this June on a mission to gather more documentation and data for my ongoing plastic project. Thailand is the world’s 6th-worst plastic polluter, behind several other Asian countries. But there are people trying to clean up the country, mostly through the beach cleanup model.

I got to do a lot in the 8 days I spent in Thailand. In between interviews and meetings with beach cleanup organizers, I managed to make new friends, visit temples and night markets, take photos, hang out at the beach and try new foods. I also got a monstrously bad case of food poisoning four days into my trip that left me doubled over in pain for three days.

While I soldiered on with my daily activities, sipping orange-flavored ORS, nibbling on white rice and downing antibiotics and antispasmodics, the pain was unbearable at times. As the days passed, I wasn’t getting much better. I was nervous that I might have to cancel the diving trip I had scheduled for Day 7. I certainly wouldn’t dive if I felt ill, but I knew I would feel sad if I scratched it.

The morning of Day 7 came and I woke up miraculously better. I said goodbye to a new friend I was staying with (who asked me about 15 times before I left if I was sure I was feeling well enough to dive) and walked out to the road to wait for a van to pick me up and take me to the marina.

Diver prepping equipment on boat. Photo: Erica Cirino

I met my instructor on the boat. He was a Thai man with a wide smile named Tanawat. As our boat cruised out to Ko Racha Yai, a small island with some wrecks and reefs, Tanawat told me, in his heavily accented English, our diving plan: We’d go down 24 meters first, through two wrecks and around a reef. Then we’d come up for lunch. Then we’d go down to 15 meters to another reef. He showed me field guides filled with photos and sketches of colorful fish, and maps of the area. The water would be warm and a bit cloudy—sediment from the summer rains, Tanawat explained.

View from the deck of the dive boat. Photo: Erica Cirino

I felt excited for these deep dives, which I had never before attempted.

We donned our gear and did our giant strides into the water. I remembered to bonk the top of my head with my fist, a signal to the boat that I was ok after jumping in. As we descended I could see the sediment Tanawat had mentioned up close—and I realized it wasn’t all sediment. A lot of it was plastic. As my body dropped down the water column, beams of sunlight illuminated shreds of clear plastic film, shards of hard plastic pieces and bits of white foam suspended all around me.

At one point Tanawat tugged on my ankle, pulling me away from the plastic confetti I was staring at and toward the first wreck. To be sure, the wreck—an old steel boat that we swam through—was awesome, as was the remainder of that dive, and the second dive. While on the reefs we saw coral, reef fish of all shapes and sizes, charismatic Moray eels and shrimp. While ascending on the second dive I got caught up in a school of small, silvery young barracuda, and I gently kicked my fins in the direction they were swimming so I was completely surrounded. Incredibly, they eyed me with no concern and just kept swimming, even with with me—a human invader—in their glittery school.

The wildlife was incredible to see, but the plastic bits were unbelievable. What I saw validated that what I learned onboard the SY Christianshavn last November was accurate. We pulled them up with a deep-water vertical trawl that went down 20 meters and a point water sampler that went down 200 meters. Plastic bits are traveling deeper through the water column than scientists have ever before observed, and on my dives I saw that firsthand.

After the second dive, Tanawat and I returned to the boat. As we took off our gear, I asked him about all the plastic I saw under the surface. “Oh, is that what you were looking at?” he laughed. “There is a lot of it now because it washes around with the rains, like the sediment.”

I asked if it concerned him. “It makes the water cloudier, but it doesn’t stop me from diving,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s something to really worry about.”

Divers in the waters off Ko Racha Yai, Thailand. Photo: Erica Cirino

Fish and plastic in the waters off Ko Racha Yai, Thailand. Photo: Erica Cirino

Back on the boat, I asked other divers—many of them visiting foreigners, like me—about their dives and thoughts about plastic. Many expressed a concern about plastic pollution but stopped short of saying they’d stop using plastic items like water bottles and clothing. Then I explained what I saw underwater.

“That was plastic,” they said, their faces disgusted. Yes, I told them. I felt disgusted too.

Suddenly one of the younger divers—a boy of 10 or 11—yelled, “Look!” and pointed to the water as he stood peering out over the ship’s railing.

The other divers and I gathered around him to get a closer look. We saw an elongated light shape floating toward the ship. It looked like maybe a fish. It was hard to tell until it floated closer. Not interested, the other divers left and went to get coffee and snacks inside the ship. I waited with the boy. When it got close enough to distinguish, we could tell it was a water bottle.

Fish? No. Plastic water bottle. Photo: Erica Cirino

“Oh, it’s just plastic,” he sighed, and walked away.

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Erica Cirino is an international science writer and artist covering stories about wildlife and the environment. Her work appears in Scientific American, Audubon, The Atlantic, VICE, Oceans Deeply, The Revelator and other science-focused publications. She is currently on a speaking tour about her plastic pollution expeditions, and continues to cover the story. In 2017 she was awarded a Kalpana Launchpad Fellowship from the Safina Center to help support her work. Learn more about her project here.

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