An underwater cleanup activity is an entertaining way of preserving the ecology, meeting other people and engaging in a different underwater activity. Divers in a cleanup should wear all the equipment required for scuba diving, including gloves and a jumpsuit.

Participating in an underwater cleanup is a fun way to improve the environment, meet other divers and do something different on a dive in a familiar area.

Take note of the following tips for safe and effective underwater cleanups.


When diving in a cleanup, wear all usual equipment required for scuba diving, including a BC and an alternate air source. Even in warm water, wear gloves and a jumpsuit for abrasion protection. Dive with a buddy and follow your dive plan. Don’t let an exciting piece of trash cause you to run out of air or turn a no decompression dive into a decompression dive. Make slow ascents and never use your BC as a liftbag.

Coral reefs are alive, so you will want your intrusion to be minimal. Be patient and move slowly; exercise good buoyancy control. Make all of your actions slow and deliberate. Gently remove things from the reef so you do not harm more than you help.

Concentrate on cleaning up a small area. It is better to go slow and remove trash without disturbing the plants and animals than to dive like a road grader cutting a swath across the site. Avoid touching the living reef with your hands or fins. Try to work in a head down, feet up position. If your legs are higher than your head, it is less likely you will bump the reef or stir up a cloud of silt.

Underwater cleanup tips


In addition to your regular diving gear, you will need some equipment to make trash collection easier.

* Mesh dive bag – lightweight, easy to carry, water flows through, locks shut and most trash won’t fall through the mesh holes.

* Side cutters – also called wire cutters or dikes, to cut wire, plastic or monofilament line. You may want to attach a lanyard to avoid losing the cutters.

* Toenail clippers – heavy duty, large size clippers work well to cut monofilament line or six-pack plastic rings.

* Float and line – small sized marker buoys can be used to mark items too heavy or dangerous for your dive team to recover.

* Liftbag – if you know how to use a liftbag, it can be useful for retrieving filled objects or attaching to a mesh bag heavy with collected trash. It can also help keep the mesh bag afloat while you are swimming back to the shore or a boat.

* Slate – for recording the data, as you go, on what is collected. On shore this is done with data cards. Grids can be drawn on a slate for one buddy to record as the other collects items, which saves sorting through the trash when back on shore.


Knowing what to pick up and how, can be tricky. Start with a common sense approach to your decision making. Your goal is to remove unsightly litter and trash that may injure animals. In doing that, do not cause harm to the reef inhabitants or yourself.

For example, if you see a ball of monofilament fishing line partially embedded in coral, do not yank on the line. Simply snip the exposed line off with clippers. This prevents an animal from becoming entangled, yet does not rip apart the reef. Using a knife to saw through plastic fishing line can also damage the surrounding reef, so stick to side cutters or toenail clippers. On the other hand, if you find a thick rope, a sharp or serrated knife may be the only effective choice.

Remember that some rubbish may be critter refuges and should be left. Use good judgment; leave a soft drink can if it is someone’s home. If you find garbage covered with coral growth, leave it or only cut away the part that is free floating and could cause harm to marine animals. It is a judgment call for you and your buddy.

Common materials that you may find include plastic, glass, rubber, metal, paper, wood and cloth. All are foreign to the marine environment and have the potential for organisms to swallow, become trapped, be smothered or be covered up. Plastic bags and six pack holders can get wrapped around an animal’s neck or swallowed, causing slow, painful deaths. Fishing line has become more of a problem lately as super strong materials have come into common use. Fishing line entangles everything from sponges to scuba divers, making it a high priority for removal.

If you dive around a pier, marina or popular anchorage, you may be surprised at the weird items that end up in the water. Beds, toilet bowls, large appliances, shopping carts, lawn chairs, clothes, games, cameras, barbecues and sport equipment have been recovered during recent cleanups. If the cleanup site is near navigable waterways you may find such trash as food wrappings, boxes, cocktail glasses or bulk produce bags, tossed off ships. If the cleanup area is near a commercial fishing zone, you may retrieve parts of nets, floats, salt bags, lures or parts of traps.

Of course, once the trash is brought to shore and collection data tabulated, it needs to be placed in trash bags or bins and disposed of properly. One of the challenges of cleanup organizers is to make certain they have big dumpsters for the volume of trash that may be collected, including oversized items.


An underwater cleanup is a volunteer, recreational activity. You may find hazardous materials that need to be left for professionals to handle. They are beyond the scope of your training and acceptable risk factor.

Avoid touching or coming near any of the following items:

* Fifty-five gallon drums – can be harmless or toxic nightmares, so keep your distance, mark the area with a buoy and notify the appropriate authorities.

* Five gallon pails – the pail could be a pickle pail off a cruise ship or the remnants of a lethal chemical storage container. Keep your distance.

* Ordnance – ammunition from shotguns or large military-style ordnance should be left untouched. Mark the site and report your find to the appropriate authorities.

* Medical waste – syringes, examination gloves, bloody bandages, or disposable instruments unfortunately end up in the water or washed up on beaches. Do not handle these items. Report their location so trained personnel with special equipment can retrieve them. Medical waste needs to be placed in specially designed solid wall containers.

* Batteries – can leak acid, which is extremely dangerous if it comes in contact with your skin. Do not attempt to move large batteries.

* Glass – is not safe to collect if you have a mesh bag. If you are using an extra heavy duty, vinyl dive bag that will not be punctured by broken glass and have heavy gloves that will not be lacerated by the sharp edges, then you may be able to safely recover broken glass. It is a judgment call; err on the side of safety.

* Heavy things – do not try to retrieve items too heavy for you to safely lift. Even if you have a liftbag and can get the item to the surface, how will you get it into the boat or up on the shore? Also, be certain the large item was not placed on the bottom on purpose. Divers have been known to recover things such as an engine block that was the anchor for a permanent mooring buoy.


Personal commitment and peer group pressure are powerful tools in the war against underwater trash. Make it your personal policy that no trash is thrown overboard. Encourage docks or marinas to provide adequate recycling and trash bins. Local tackle shops may recycle monofilament line. Call (800) 237-5539, extension 320 to recycle fishing line through a Berkley center. Help organize and/or participate in an underwater cleanup program at your favorite beach and dive site.

If you see unlawful dumping, take photographs or videos of the dumping and the name of the vessel. International law and U.S. law prohibit the dumping of plastic trash in the oceans or navigable inland waterways and limit the overboard disposal of other garbage. The United States Coast Guard is charged with enforcement of the MARPOL Annex V laws.

If you spot potentially dangerous items such as 55 gallon drums or medical waste, notify local authorities. Which agency provides this service in a local area varies. Typically, the chain of communication is from the diver to the beach divemaster to the cleanup coordinator. This activity leader will then notify the local police, fire department or hazardous materials cleanup team as appropriate. When a governmental agency is aware of the hazard, it will have a prescribed communication and action plan.


If you have ever seen a ghost net drifting and killing hapless creatures caught in its webbing or a sealion slowly dying from a plastic ring cutting into its flesh or a pelican with its head and wing tangled in fishing line, you understand the lethal nature of marine trash. A fun day of diving is an easy contribution to the health of the underwater environment that returns the pleasure to us manyfold.


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