Top Tips for a Successful Underwater Cleanup

Trash in our oceans is a serious problem that threatens the marine environment and dependent livelihoods. 80% of marine trash comes from land-based sources and, although it is an entirely man-made problem, it is also entirely preventable. As well as refusing single-use items, reducing your waste, reusing items and recycling trash, you can become part of the solution and make a difference by running beach and underwater cleanup events.

As well as preventing waste from entering the ocean, running cleanup events also helps raise community awareness about the issue of marine debris. Plus, recording data on the trash you collect can influence long-term solutions and decision making. 

Inspired to run your own underwater cleanup event? Here are a few tips from The Reef-World Foundation team (who coordinate the Green Fins initiative with the support of the UN Environment) on how to make sure it’s a success and that you don’t cause any further damage to the reef while removing marine debris. Please make sure any participants of your underwater cleanup are fully briefed on the following information before you begin your cleanup dive:

Maintain good neutral buoyancy throughout the dive

It’s important to keep good neutral buoyancy during any dive. However, be aware your buoyancy will change during an underwater cleanup dive because, as you collect more trash, your rubbish bag will become heavier. So, make sure you’re adjusting your buoyancy to stay clear of the reef throughout the dive.

Picture of a scuba diver swimming over a coral reef.

Watch your fins

Watching your fins so you don’t contact the reef or stir up any sediment is just as important – if not more so – during an underwater cleanup than a normal dive. Although your attention will be focused on finding and collecting rubbish on the dive site, please make sure you’re still aware of all your equipment, especially your fins, throughout the dive. 

Touch only trash

Be careful not to touch, move or manipulate marine life in your attempt to collect any litter. 

Ensure equipment is attached, streamlined and gauges are tucked in

If your equipment is dangling, you risk making damaging contact with the reef. Please make sure everything is tucked in and fully secure.

Assess the environment before beginning removal

Heavy swell or currents will make avoiding environmental damage during collection very difficult. So, it’s important to assess the environment before you begin your cleanup to ensure conditions are suitable. If the current is too strong or there’s too much surge, it’s best to postpone your underwater cleanup until conditions are better.

Hold your trash bag so that nothing trails or touches the bottom

Make sure you’re not damaging the marine environment by allowing your rubbish bag to touch or drag along the bottom. Ensure you’re carrying the bag clear of the reef and nothing is trailing or dragging.

Dive in a head down position

This will help you avoid stirring the sediment or contacting the bottom with your fins.

Work slowly and carefully in buddy teams

During your underwater cleanup, work in buddy teams and allocate each diver a specific role. One person should wear gloves and collect the trash while the other diver should hold the rubbish bag. Work slowly and carefully and be careful not to touch, knock or damage the reef during your collection.

Avoid removing items that cannot easily be lifted

During your cleanup you might find heavy items such as tyres or car batteries. If items are too large or heavy to be easily lifted, please leave them where you found them – trying to remove them could cause even more damage. Never use your BCD to try to lift heavy items.

Use appropriate equipment

In addition to your standard scuba gear you will need:

  • Mesh sacks for collecting trash
  • Gloves for protection from trash and sharp objects
  • Scissors or shears for cutting items such as fishing line or tin cans. Scissors are preferred to dive knives

What to remove

Marine animals easily confuse items such as plastic bags with their normal food source and can, consequently, suffocate. Please remove all non-biodegradable items, such as those listed below:

  • All plastic (e.g. plastic bags, food wrappers, plastic bottles, bottle caps, plastic containers, plastic 6-pack rings)
  • Clothing
  • Bags and rice sacks
  • Fishing gear (e.g. line, nets or broken fish traps). Never try to pull fishing line free. Instead, cut and remove it in sections to avoid damaging any organisms growing around it. Use scissors or shears, rather than a knife, and wind the line around an object to control it.
  • Batteries
  • Glass bottles
  • Tin cans
  • Cigarette butts

What to leave

Make sure you check all trash before removal as there will be some instances where you should leave things where they were found. Do not remove any items that contain marine life or that have already become incorporated into the environment and are supporting life in any way. Cut tin cans open to make sure there is nothing living inside. Please leave:

  • Glass bottles covered in growth
  • Sand and silt contained inside cups or cans (hold these close to sandy parts of the seabed and shake out the contents carefully)
  • Anything stuck or encrusted with growth
  • Anything, no matter how ugly, that has become overgrown with marine life
  • Anything that may be dangerous or cause injury
  • Heavy items (never use your BCD to lift heavy objects)
  • Metal drums or containers that may contain hazardous materials
Thank you for helping to protect the marine environment – and avoid causing further damage to the reef – by following these simple guidelines during your underwater cleanups.

And remember, you can download the Green Fins cleanup guidelines for free today:

If you have any photos from your cleanup event, make sure you tag Green Fins on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram so your pictures can be shared with the rest of the Green Fins network. 

Picture of the Explorer Ventures team returning from an underwater clean-up. A diver is passing trash to a person on a boat.

The Explorer Ventures team returning from an underwater cleanup

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