The Story of One of the Biggest Coastal Cleanups Ever

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Editor’s note: This article has been lightly edited from the original TED Talk, which can be viewed here.

Twenty years ago, as a young guide on Canada’s west coast, I had the idea to explore the end of a long inlet on a remote island in the Great Bear Rainforest. 

I was leading my guests on a weeklong expedition in this globally significant region and they trusted me to show them natural wonders. Maybe we’d see a pack of coastal wolves on the estuary that morning. 

But when we stepped out of the shore boats, instead of beauty, we were literally knee-deep in washed up plastic. I felt shocked. Heartbroken. Little did I know then that the moment would lodge deep inside my soul, and would one day save everything I’d worked for.  

This is the story of how five ecotourism businesses threw aside competition to collaborate and pull off one of the biggest marine debris cleanup in history.

The Beginnings 

I’ve loved this coast all my life. Before I could ride a bike, I stood on the deck of family boats as we cruised around the islands. I kept exploring, was a professional mariner during university, and later became the owner of a marine tourism company.

The Great Bear Rainforest is one of the largest temperate rainforests left on Earth. It is roughly the size of Ireland — and even greener. And this is where I work. 

In the early 2000’s, there were just a couple of us – tourism boats nosing through its channels and fjords, usually miles apart, avoiding each other. We were wary; we didn’t want to share our secret spots. 

But gradually, we began to work together: to fight to protect the bears from trophy hunters and the coast from oil tankers, to share time in wildlife rich areas, and to proactively tell each other where we had spotted charismatic megafauna. 

We learned that we all ran better trips if we were open and generous with each other; we eventually formed our own group called the Small Ship Tour Operators Association. 

But, at the end of the day, we still kept a respectful distance and mostly kept to ourselves.

© Simon Ager / Maple Leaf Adventures
The Pandemic Hits

Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Our tours were temporarily shut down by the Canadian government, but the First Nations whose territories we work in closed their borders to tourism completely  – and we respected that. We didn’t want to repeat history by bringing in a deadly disease to these remote villages.

But the impact was that we were in free fall. We’d worked hard for decades to make responsible choices, to build businesses that protected this coastline, its wildlife, and its people.  

Suddenly, it was we who were unprotected. 

As seasonal operators, we’d spent serious money preparing for the 2020 season. Normally, we’d make that investment back pretty quickly. But not without customers.

Tourism was hit first and hardest from the pandemic. The only people who could understand our pain were our direct competitors. We met online and tried to make sense of the total obliteration of our lives. One of Zoom’s drawbacks is when someone shares to the point of tears, you see the tears.

How would we survive? There were no answers.

A few days later, I was talking with my wife in our home office when that spark from 20 years ago flared up. I remembered standing knee deep in plastic. And I said, “We should clean up the Great Bear Rainforest’s outer coast.”  What unfolded from that small, dark moment blew up bigger than I could have imagined. 

The Collaboration 

Naïve and determined, I brought the idea to the Small Ship Tour Operators. A few of us decided to write a proposal. 

But we had to figure out what it would cost. And that meant sharing financial information – with our competitors. Yikes! Not exactly what any business owner wants to do. 

All of my type-A, captain-of-their-own-ship colleagues shared proprietary information, including their operating costs. I plugged it into a spreadsheet and did the math so each company would be fairly compensated. By that point in the pandemic I knew this would be the only revenue each company would make – and I wanted each company to survive.

We sent the idea to the Coastal First Nations, asking for both their permission and involvement. We respected their territory closures. We’d have to respect a hard no from them on this, too. Fortunately they replied quickly, with full support of our ambitious plans. 

Serendipitously, our proposal dovetailed with the priorities of British Columbia’s government to remove plastic from the environment. They thanked us for proposing a solution rather than a bail-out. They created the Clean Coast Clean Waters initiative and funded our proposal for 3.5 million dollars. 

© Maple Leaf Adventures
The Marine Debris Removal Initiative

Now, we rolled up our sleeves to do what we knew best: plan and execute complex marine expeditions on the BC coast.  

It would be a highly weather-dependent, dynamic, remote, potentially dangerous, six-week expedition for 110 brave crew members living and working aboard nine ships, 16 shore boats, a tugboat with a huge barge and a helicopter, along hundreds of kilometers of coastline. 

We met on Zoom again but now with energy and optimism to design the expedition, selecting safe anchorages and figuring out how to set up a recycling sort on a barge at sea. Everyone threw themselves into it. I was so proud to be part of that team.

By late summer with our crews back onboard, the project began to breathe on its own. It was no longer an idea among colleagues. It belonged to the whole community. 

© Kevin Smith / Maple Leaf Adventures
The Expedition 

The ships headed out, each under strict quarantine: we knew Covid could still take out an entire ship, and we needed to protect the fleet. 

The physical element of the expedition was insane. Our coastline is jagged at every scale: jagged islands and inlets become jagged coves and surge channels. Sea conditions and tides were in charge; at every captains’ meeting we reminded ourselves that despite the challenges, our top priority was to keep the crews and the ships safe. 

We innovated every day, using long logs as levers, and short, fat logs as fulcrums to unearth buried long-lines and massive nets. We played with physics like kids on a beach, only we got good at it. Ingenious solutions were disseminated to the whole fleet. 

Sometimes you’d find the top of a net in the sand and think, okay, let’s pull this out. Six people can dig a hole the size of an SUV before lunch. Eventually after digging and pulling and cutting out pieces, we would get it and then chop it into manageable chunks, because these nets were often too big and heavy for the helicopter to lift. 

I can still hear the crinkle of plastic water bottles when we stepped above the shoreline and into the forest edge. In total we picked up 88,000 bottles that had floated across the Pacific. We carried coffin-sized blocks of Styrofoam from where the biggest winter storms had tossed them. 

Much of it was massive, industrial equipment, from international fishing, some of it 60 years old. Once lodged in the great pacific garbage patch, it finally spiraled out and tumbled onto our coast. 

A couple of weeks in, we came to an offshore archipelago, an ecological reserve for seabirds. This designation as the highest level of protection should have meant it was pristine. But it was a bumper crop of marine debris. We removed everything we could. Yet underneath, you could drag your fingers through a rainbow confetti of microplastics. 

This was also a sacred place for the area’s first peoples. Old canoe runs striped the shallows in front of once busy village sites. It was like entering an ancient cathedral to find aliens have been tossing garbage onto it for the last half century. 

That was the emotional truth of each day on the expedition: total triumph at what we’d done to save the place; total helplessness at the enormity of the problem. It fed everyone’s anger and love into scraping one more rope from the sand, one more plastic bottle from the salal. Everyone agreed we also had to get this message out to hopefully slow the source of marine debris entering our oceans.

© Simon Ager / Maple Leaf Adventures
Human Momentum

And that was the most unexpected part of it all: the triumph of the human spirit. The grit and determination of every person who would not stop until they’d exhausted every opportunity (and themselves) to protect this living place. 

I look back on the so-called competition and realize how much we had in common. We love this place and we love that the act of sharing it with our guests helps to protect it. Together, we create momentum.

Our effort spawned a coastwide movement to remove marine debris. We proved that tourism operators could lead a regenerative conservation economy. It inspired the BC government to fund a second expedition by us, plus additional coastal clean-ups, in 2021. Over the two years, together we removed 2 million pounds of debris. 65% of it was recycled. 

And more recently, there is this: in 2022, when we were finally back to operating, guests who had paid more than $12,000 for a weeklong trip wanted to be part of the solution while on tour. 

When they heard our story, they asked for collection bags to go clean up the beach. 

About Maple Leaf Adventures:

Selected for Canada’s “Signature Experiences Collection” by the Canadian Tourism Commission, Maple Leaf Adventures has provided conservation-focused, big adventures aboard small ships since 1986.

With a reputation as one of Canada’s top operators of small ship cruises, our multi-day excursions give guests one-of-a-kind experiences in some of the most beautiful and rare places in the world, often in areas that were once under threat of destruction or in dire need of protection. Our strong expedition ships are also heritage pieces themselves.

In 2012, Maple Leaf was awarded the Parks Canada Sustainable Tourism Award, for promoting the appreciation of Canada’s natural, cultural and aesthetic heritage, while also protecting them.

As a long time practitioner of ecotourism, Maple Leaf Adventures pioneered travel in BC’s Great Bear Rainforest and northwestern Vancouver Island and has made significant contributions to conservation. National Geographic Adventure has rated Maple Leaf Adventures one of the “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth”.

Maple Leaf Adventures Corp. is registered in beautiful British Columbia, Canada.

© Kevin Smith / Maple Leaf Adventures
© Simon Ager / Maple Leaf Adventures
© Simon Ager / Maple Leaf Adventures
© Simon Ager / Maple Leaf Adventures

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