What it’s like to be retrieving underwater ghost nets with Luminox

What it’s like to be retrieving underwater ghost nets with Luminox

Deep issues

Text: Celine Yap

Keeping the ocean floor clean and safe is all work – and a little play

It's been an hour and a half since we left the jetty and we're still not in the water. All suited up in diving attire, I am on a boat — a weather-beaten wooden vessel that's definitely seen better days —headed towards Hin Yai, which means big rock in the local tongue. We are in Sattahip, Thailand, where fishing is a traditional way of life for many locals, and by we, I'm referring to Scott Cassell, a semi-retired combat diver who divides his time between saving the environment and military action, a select group of journalists from around Asia including Singapore, and representatives from the sponsoring organisation, Luminox.

The purpose of our visit is to assist Save Our Seas (SOS), a local volunteer association comprising divers of all ages committed to help clean the seabed of trash, looking in particular to retrieve ghost nets in order to wipe out ghost fishing. Ghost fishing is what happens when lost or abandoned fishing nets sink to the ocean floor but continue killing as fish and other marine life get tangled in them and die from starvation, laceration, exhaustion, and even suffocation. Like everything made of plastic, nets can last a long time, taking hundreds of years to break down. In that length of time, they continue to kill massive numbers of sea creatures just by laying there. Removing them would be the first step in helping the ecosystem regenerate and thrive.

Another 30 excruciating minutes later, we arrive at the spot, Hin Yai, where it is said fishing vessels frequent. "The local fishermen take their jobs very seriously," says Sarina who distributes Luminox exclusively in Thailand. "Please don't disturb any underwater fish traps that you might see." Apparently ours is the only non-fishing boat to come to this area, so the fishermen will know exactly where to get their revenge if needed.

Copy that. Don't touch the fish traps; only clear out ghost nets and garbage. The instructions were crystal clear but the same cannot be said of the water visibility.

As an experienced diver, I've frolicked in the gin-clear waters of Sipadan, East Malaysia, and explored the beautiful turquoise blue Indian Ocean while in the Maldives — among several other places. Diving has always been like therapy to me; it's what I do to relax. Every dive is usually just 60 blissful minutes of me gliding leisurely through the water, staring at ocean critters going about their day. It's fun.

Which is why I'm a little miffed that it has taken us so long just to get into the water and slightly taken aback that I've had to set up my own equipment. "Don't they have people for things like that?" I wondered incredulously.
Rows of diving gear 

The time finally came for us to take our giant strides into the water. Ours was the first group and once everybody was in, we began to descend, but for some weird reason, I couldn't. Despite adding an extra weight, I still couldn't go deeper than two metres — this has never happened before. The dive leader tried pulling me down by force, and then the mystery revealed itself: My equipment had been snagged onto some ropes at the surface.

Divers on a mission to retrieve ghost nets from the sea floor 

But with that problem solved, another one surfaced. One extra a weight meant that I was rapidly descending to the ocean floor and, danger alert, it was covered with sea urchins! Before you ask, no, that's not the uni we find in Japanese restaurants. Simultaneously I finned furiously upwards and fumbled with my buoyancy control device. For the next 12 minutes I was a tumbling disastrous mess, or what diving parlance calls 'panic diver'.

I managed to sort myself out eventually and then I found myself fuming: "Why is no one concerned about me?" As you can imagine, I'm used to being chaperoned by dive guides. But looking around, all the other divers had their noses to the ground, their trash bags filling with garbage. They were all completely focused on the work in front of them: The ghost nets. There were so many, and some were huge! And then it hit me.

This dive trip is not like others. It isn't one of those where we get to be pampered by dive masters who take care of everything, where all we need to do is enjoy the dive and have a good time. This is a work dive. We're on a mission. Our job is to clear as many ghost nets and as much garbage as we can! It is no one's job to chaperone anyone, it is no one's job to pamper anyone. Talk about a wake-up call. Ashamed to be the only slacker on the team, I began filling my trash bag. Before long, it was time to ascend. We did our five-metre surface stop and returned to the boat.
Diving for ghost nets in Pattaya Thailand

We did two dives that day, both at Hin Yai. According to SOS, the total amount of net and garbage collected weighed in excess of 200 kilogrammes. Judging by how practiced they are with their gear, you can tell how experienced these divers are. They are also remarkably protective of the reefs, as they make sure to comb through the nets to find any signs of life to return to the sea.
Ghost net retrieval in Pattaya Thailand 

Even net removal is a meticulous process where steel cutters and ceramic knives were used to cut up the nets, so as to minimise reef damage. "You can't simply yank the nets off the reefs," Cassell had learned. The Luminox ambassador has been clearing ghost nets in the waters of California where there are no corals, so he could simply grab and go. No such luck here, as the net removal method is akin to surgery — 20 metres below sea level.Divers with Scott Cassell 

Underwater missions like this one aren't recommended for amateur divers as well. Even advanced divers like myself may experience some difficulty. Not only are we expected to keep our buoyancy perfectly adjusted, we had also to accomplish a number of tasks including cutting up nets and inflating air pockets to collate the trash. And we definitely don't have the luxury of an easy time. We can't simply drift with the current. No, we go wherever there are nets even if it means swimming against the current.

Being caught on those ropes at the surface and unable to move without knowing why, I know how it feels to be like a sea creature trapped in a ghost net — only, I was never truly in danger.

Which is why I have such profound respect for the team at SOS. These people dedicate their free time to clearing the ocean floor; they even pay out of their own pockets to do it. It's so deeply inspiring to know that there are people like that among us. They get nothing in return, not even publicity, only the knowledge that they've done something good for the environment, and maybe some fun on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon.

For me though, this trip was no fun. It was certainly enjoyable and very memorable too, but spending an entire day out at sea collecting nets is most definitely hard work, and I'm glad I did it.