Diving into the plastic seas in search of a healthier, vibrant world tomorrow

Having been fascinated with the ocean and its inhabitants since childhood, diving was inevitably going to be a big part of my life.

It’s an incredible thing to be able to do – to vanish from the surface into a totally different realm existing beneath the waves and glide weightlessly alongside an array of majestic creatures in their beautiful blue world.

This sounds idyllic, as it should, but increasingly the answer to the allure and mystery of what can be discovered on a dive is plastic.

It saddens and angers me that diving, even in places famed for their beauty, is all too often a matter of bearing witness to the degradation of an entire ecosystem.

Whale shark (c) Chris Milnes

Take only pictures, leave only bubbles (c) Chris Milnes

I have worked a lot in marine conservation and dived in both popular hotspots and remote areas but the story is too often the same – the kinds of places which mesmerised me as a child are getting harder to find and harder to protect.

This degradation is not entirely down to plastic, of course, it is one of many significant threats the ocean faces, but in my mind, plastic is the damning and representative evidence of how human activities so negatively impact on the world. Areas once vibrant and full of life are now either dead or dying – the waves of plastic waste adding to the impacts of overfishing, climate change and ocean acidification on our fragile ocean ecosystems.

I can easily believe the grim prediction that the volume of plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish by 2050 – a visual delve into the crevices of a reef is more likely to find a plastic bottle than a moray eel – and it is horrifying that this can all have happened within my life.

On that note, I was exasperated to find out that various bans and legislation on plastic were put forward in the 1970s but struck down by industry lobbying. The threat plastic posed to our environment was recognised decades ago but actively ignored. Now we find ourselves some 50 years later in a full-blown crisis, considering anew the same measures quashed all those years ago.

Considering the speed at which we have got here, and the ignored warnings along the way, I am aghast that the UK Government’s response to this overwhelming problem, and other environmental threats, is a 25-year plan. This is a period of time when our already hugely excessive plastic production, consumption and waste is set to more than double – and it is simply nowhere near good enough.


Plastic pollution is now commonplace in all of the world’s oceans

The UK Government and the international community need to step up, not with a 25-year plan or just with piecemeal action on items one-by-one but with bold, ambitious policy measures which progressively reduce industry’s production of plastics for throw-away uses.

The reaction from the public has been emphatic, record numbers of people are responding to government consultations, signing petitions and joining community clean-ups. From divers’ efforts to clean-up beneath the waves to plastic-free school initiatives led by schoolchildren, there are many active programs in place to try combat the plastic scourge and although it is tough to see young people have so much of their early ocean experiences dominated by plastic, it is heartening that they will be the change-makers of tomorrow.

It is, of course, the sheer amount of plastic being produced that is the problem. Clean-ups and their like cannot make a big enough dent at a quick enough rate, beaches are inundated with a fresh deluge of plastic with each tide – the ocean’s twice-daily plea to remind us of what now lies beneath its’ waves.

Chris Milnes filming underwater

Chris Milnes filming underwater

I have been to remote uninhabited beaches entirely covered in plastic, I’ve drifted on the surface in the middle of nowhere alongside rafts of plastic and I’ve dived to find the same below. What we see is only a tiny percentage of what is out there and only a tiny percentage of what we see is ever removed.

Plastic has beaten us to undiscovered parts of the ocean and it will remain there indefinitely. It is evident that global corporations and governments need to turn off the tap by swiftly moving away from using a material which lasts lifetimes in our environment for items designed to be used briefly and discarded.

The fix for the plastic pollution crisis needs to start at the source and it needs to happen now.