What rubbish is this? How we cleaned Dassen Island
10km from Yzerfontein on the West Coast is a pristine protected island. And it’s full of plastic junk
When the boat pulls up at the island’s jetty we’re all talking about the water. It’s bright turquoise, crystal clear and the sand below is white. It is surprisingly beautiful. No, we’re not in the tropics. We’ve sped 10km across the ocean from Yzerfontein on the West Coast to Dassen Island.
Conservationist Marlene van Onselen, who has lived alone on the nature reserve for six-and-a-half years, meets us on the jetty. We’ve got bags for litter collection, clipboards for recording the data and our snorkeling gear. Once the boat is offloaded, Van Onselen leads us up to the reception area where we sign a register and find a sick pengiun. She will send it back with us to Sancob, a seabird rescue centre, when we leave in the afternoon.
The Beach Co-op founder Aaniyah Ormardien was tasked by the Plastics Federation of SA with cleaning up Dassen Island for the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup on Saturday (September 15). She invited artists, writers, filmmakers and a couple of marine biologists to help. The Beach Co-op is an NGO with a mission to eliminate, redesign and recycle single-use plastic which lands in oceans and on beaches.
For this cleanup, we will use the Dirty Dozen data capture methodology developed by Peter Ryan, a professor at the University of Cape Town. From his 20 years of research he selected the 12 most commonly found items along our coastline. Every five years Ryan’s research unit performs beach cleanup surveys at specific sites along our coastline, with the next five-year survey coming up in two years’ time.
Omardien said that getting citizens involved in collecting data allows them to reflect on how much plastic we use and discard. “Hopefully it is the starting point for improved consumer behaviour.”
From the jetty, we walk a couple of kilometres to the 125-year-old lighthouse on the other side of the island. It’s flower season along the West Coast and the short walk takes us through fields of arum lilies, soutslaai and flowering yellow suurtjies. The bird sound is deafening on the protected 230ha island, which is home to endangered African penguin, great white pelican, ibis, kelp gulls and four marine cormorant. Van Onselen’s job is to monitor and count the birds and their chicks.
Tortoises crawl along the paths we walk, while rabbits hop through vegetation on this flat, low-lying outcrop of land. The island was named by European sailors centuries ago after the dassies they found here. After they hunted all the dassies, European rabbits were introduced to the island for hungry sailors. Judging by the numbers, they have clearly adapted well to their new habitat. On the other hand, penguins have suffered.
Initially they were hunted as food, fuel for boilers and for their fat, but the main attraction was their eggs. A low wall was built along the perimeter of the island to keep the penguins laying eggs on the shoreline to facilitate egg collection. Harvesting of eggs was terminated in 1967, but the penguin population has never recovered. Now they suffer from lack of fish to eat – their foodstock has migrated elsewhere along the coast.
At the lighthouse we divide into two groups for the cleanup. Each group has a scribe who records the items we collect on the shore. As one would expect on an island inhabited by one human, it looks pristine. But when we scratch through kelp and sift through the shells we find the litter Omardien had expected. In less than two hours, we fill 11 big rubbish bags. The top three Dirty Dozen items we find are 213 cooldrink lids, 183 cooldrink bottles and 145 water bottles.
Omardien said: “Dassen is quite close to the mainland and so I expected to find the Dirty Dozen items. It mostly comes from the mainland but the few fishing ropes would be from sea. Some of the cooldrink and water bottles could also be accounted for from sea.”
John Kieser of Plastics SA has supported Ocean Conservancy cleanups in SA and documented the data for over 23 years. He helped facilitate this trip to Dassen Island. At first the data was used primarily as an educational tool by looking at the source of the material. “Now,” he said, “it looks at the material itself with a focus on microplastics.”
Kieser said the most important role of cleanups is to raise awareness. “Humans are tactile and believe something far more if they see it for themselves.” He describes himself as a “do-er”.
“I just like to get material away from the shoreline before the wind or tide takes it back into the sea.”
Kieser also believes cleanups could affect politicians. “They are always looking for what their constituency wants. If they see a lot of people taking part in cleanups, they realise that littering, poor waste management, poor design of packaging and single-use plastics need more attention,” he said.
After our cleanup we got into the turquoise water to snorkel through the kelp and other seaweeds. Dotted across the seabed are bright red sea anemones. It might not be a tropical island, but we’re all pretty convinced this is a piece of heaven on earth.
Jackie May is the founding editor of Twyg, a platform about modern, sustainable living.
These are all the Dirty Dozen items 10 people (nine visitors and the conservationist, Marlene van Onselen) found in under two hours on less than a kilometre of the shoreline on Dassen Island:..