Plastic Tides: Using Sea Kayaks to Help Rid the Ocean of Waste

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(By Ken Campbell) My name is Ken Campbell and in addition to being a long-time kayak guide and instructor, I am the director of the Ikkatsu Project, a small nonprofit in Tacoma, WA, focused on marine debris and plastic in the ocean.

Decades of kayaking and writing about it took on a new direction as I began to become aware of the massive impact that plastic is having on the ocean and the unbelievable amount of debris that can be found on every beach on the planet. As it turns out, the oceans don’t keep us apart; they connect us all, regardless of where we live.

Ken Campbell,director of the Ikkatsu Project, a nonprofit in Tacoma, WA, focused on marine debris and plastic in the ocean.

Beginning in 2012, when debris from the Japanese tsunami began washing up on beaches in the Pacific Northwest, initial efforts included beach surveys documenting the types and quantities of items washing up on the roadless coast of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Since then, programs that work with middle and high school students on freshwater microplastics, data collection about debris deposition and distribution and beach surveys and cleanups in some of the most remote locations in southeast Alaska have been included in the full and varied schedule on the calendar.

Because many of the locations where the Ikkatsu Project does its work are remote, seldom visited and hard to access, sea kayaks have been used since the beginning as research and cleanup platforms. Ducking in and out of pocket coves and boulder-choked shorelines is easier (and a lot more fun), than attempting the same thing in a different vessel. The freedom and dependability that kayaks provide allow adventure and science to come together in some of the most amazing places in the world.

Some of the fruits of their labor…

Exploring those connections and how our addiction to plastic, especially single use plastic, is affecting our world and everything in it has been an amazing journey. From sea kayak expeditions in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska to actually building and racing kayaks and standup paddleboards made from plastic bottles and foam found on the beach, it hasn’t been hard to keep busy. While there is often lab work to be completed or reports to be filed, most of what gets done takes place outdoors, and quite often in a kayak.

Among the programs that the Ikkatsu Project puts together each year, the South Kuiu Cleanup is one of the most compelling. Cape Decision, at the southern tip of Kuiu Island, is a pristine and wild place, with black bears in the forest and humpback whales continually feeding just offshore. But even here, so far removed from “civilization,” the beaches are choked with trash. It is mostly plastic, from a wide variety of sources, and documenting and getting it off the beaches in this area has been an annual effort since 2018.

A major partner in the South Kuiu Cleanup is the Cape Decision Lighthouse Society, a nonprofit that preserves and maintains the century-old lighthouse overlooking Decision Pass, that acts as our base camp each summer. Volunteers stay in the lighthouse, where meals are prepared and tasks alternate between debris collection and related chores, along with assisting in basic lighthouse upkeep. Days are spent paddling to different locations and working to fill sacks with fishing buoys and net fragments, bottles and foamed plastic of all shapes and sizes. The data that is collected along with the debris is used to track its distribution as well as where it comes from and continues to be used in ongoing research.

plastic tides As of this writing, more than 5000 pounds of debris has been removed from the beaches of southern Kuiu Island. This coming year will be the sixth year of the program and one of the things we’re planning on doing is paddle a 35-mile stretch of coastline that we haven’t seen before, cleaning beaches and collecting stories as we go, mixing work and wonder every single day.

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—Ken Campbell (ken@ikkatsuproject.org) is the Director of the Ikkatsu Project and author of several paddling books including Around the Rock; A Newfoundland Sea Kayak Journey and Shades of Gray; Sea Kayaking in Western Washington. For more information, visit www.ikkatsuproject.org

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