'People need to get their hands dirty': Newfoundland diver cleans ocean floor, one discarded tire at a time
‘Way more money goes into destroying the ocean than saving it.'’
Shawn Bath is familiar with danger.
He's spent two decades diving for spiny sea urchins and contending with the risk of frostbite and decompression sickness and the other usual hazards that come with being a professional diver. Bath also held a commercial seal-hunting licence and occasionally found himself on a nine-metre longliner, kilometres from land, surrounded by ice and choppy waters.
Still, Bath soon learned he had more to fear from the trash gathering on the bottom of the ocean.
"I'd see garbage on the ocean floor and think, 'This is disgusting,'" he said. "But I didn't put things together. I mean, I was tossing trash out of my car on the highway. It took me time to realize that (a) there was a problem, and (b) that I was part of the problem."
Bath's habits first began to change after he met his girlfriend. "It bothered her when I littered; that got me thinking," he said. "Then in 2018, I was off work and to keep busy, I started diving and hauling tires out of the Bay Roberts harbour. I pulled 15,000 pounds of trash out of the ocean by myself and realized I had to do something." He dramatically altered his life at that point, starting Clean Harbour Initiatives (CHI), a non-profit to clean up the waters of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the focus of the documentary Hell or Clean Water, streaming now on CBC Gem.
Director Cody Westman and a film crew followed Bath for a year and a half while he struggled to keep the project going. Bath personally funded the cleanups in the early days and sank so much of his own money into it that he was on the brink of bankruptcy. Westman was amazed by both Bath's tenacity and the sheer volume of garbage he was pulling from the waters. "The problem of ocean pollution is vast, but it's amazing the difference one person can make," Westman said. "That's the message of the film."
When Hell or Clean Water premiered at Toronto's Hot Docs festival in spring 2021, it struck a chord with viewers, winning two audience choice awards. And the timing of this film is perfect as experts assert we're at a crucial moment in the fight for clean oceans. Despite increasing public awareness, it's estimated that more than nine million tonnes of plastics still end up in the oceans each year. At least 10 per cent of those plastics come from ghost gear — abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear — which kills millions of marine animals each year.
Since the film's festival premiere, Bath has used the newfound publicity to draw attention to the issue of ghost gear. "Most people don't even know what ghost gear is, let alone the damage it can do," he said. "In a hundred years, that gear could still be killing creatures."
On a recent cleanup in Hickman's Harbour, N.L., Bath's team knew of a popular beluga that frequented the waters. "Locals told us that it was almost a town mascot — almost everyone had seen this whale," he said. "And because belugas are social, it had become playful and seemed to like visiting with boaters. We had our fingers crossed that we might get to interact with him."
They had enough funding for about four days of cleanup in the harbour. In that time, they managed to clean one side, and then came ashore to drum up more funds to finish the job. Unfortunately, during that lull, the beluga became ensnared in ghost gear.
"That was a tough one," Bath said. "In the few days we were ashore, the beluga got caught in old sunken mooring ropes. These ropes are tied to grapples that weigh over a hundred pounds; once he became entangled, there was no way to get free. If we had the money to immediately clean the other side of the harbour, that wouldn't have happened."
While CHI still needs funds to grow, the documentary's success has increased individual donations, and Bath has managed to grow his fleet. He's no longer on the brink of bankruptcy and has hired another commercial diver. But promises of corporate donations have so far proven fruitless.
"We had a few big corporate sponsors promise us the world: they'd pay for any gear we wanted," Bath said. "But so far, those promises haven't amounted to much. We need someone to come aboard and we're hoping that we'll be able to make that happen when we gain charitable status, which is something we're striving for."
Bath would like to bring on three more divers and two boat operators, and he'd like to expand his focus to include more beach cleanups — a new area for him and his crew, but he's thrilled with the early success. "We went to Long Harbour with the intention of diving, but the visibility was poor and it just wasn't safe. So we decided to expand into cleaning the beaches at St. Croix [where prevailing winds blow trash onto the shore]," he said. "Each day we were out there, we were able to collect about three boatloads full of plastics. It's a sustainable way to do cleanups because it doesn't require any fuel."
Although Bath is grateful for the increase in awareness and additional donations the documentary has brought his way, he said it's hard to stay positive sometimes. "I've been a fisherman. I've seen the other side of it," he said. "Way more money goes into destroying the ocean than saving it. People need to get their hands dirty."
Amanda Bulman is a librarian, filmmaker and writer. Her first book, Salt Beef Buckets: A Love Story, was published last fall.