Conservation & Science

Teens tackle an unlikely source of plastic pollution: wayward golf balls

In the chilly Pacific waters off Carmel Beach, Alex Weber was practicing holding her breath and diving in search of jade in May 2016. Swimming down to the seafloor, she instead made a surprising discovery: a trove of lost golf balls. Some were practically new; others might have dated back decades.

Alex Weber and Jack Johnston hold a few of the thousands of errant golf balls they’ve recovered from Carmel Bay.

Alex, a lifelong Californian who is now 17, had volunteered in the past for beach cleanups, scouring the shore with a particular eye for plastic pellets.

“I’d been spending so much time in the sand picking up tiny micro-plastics. I thought these golf balls would make such a big difference,” she says.

She decided to make a practice of kayaking and swimming out to collect them in mesh “goodie bags”—the kind she’s since found can hold some 30 pounds of balls each.

Her efforts drew the attention of her 16-year-old high school classmate Jack Johnston.

Alex Weber and Jack Johnston inspired a coalition to carry on the clean-up effort.

“I was at the beach the same day Alex pulled out that first load, and thought, ‘What is happening? Are those just in our ocean?’ I immediately wanted to get involved,” he says.

The two have since collected close to 10,000 golf balls from Carmel Bay. Jack, a Canadian transplant who took to the frigid waters around the Monterey Peninsula long before he acquired his first wetsuit, says—depending on the weather —a day’s haul might range from several hundred to well over a thousand balls.

The Weber family’s garage is now stacked with baskets full of golf balls, which Alex and Jack plan to recycle or transform into an art project. In a testament to how much two determined teens can accomplish, their labors have also rippled into a collaborative undertaking that has drawn together federal officials, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and nearby Pebble Beach Golf Links.

Building a coalition

Some of the balls Alex and Jack find are pristine enough to tee up and drive. The dimples on others have been worn smooth by the scouring of the sandy seafloor, and now resemble ping pong balls. In some cases, only the innards remain, which in the case of older balls look more like a mass of frayed rubber bands than anything resembling a golf ball.

The Weber family garage is filled with golf balls that Alex and Jack have collected. Photo by Robert Beck/Golf.com

“The rubber-band core officially stopped being used in 2004, but it’s everything we’re finding right now,” Alex says, hinting at the magnitude of the problem, and how long the balls have been in the ocean.

But she and Jack would rather educate than vilify.

“Those golfers had no clue,” Jack says. “The fact that we’re spreading awareness will lead to less golf balls in the water.”

This mindset led to a campaign of sorts that found the two giving a presentation, complete with slides and statistics, to a roomful of folks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

During calm weather, divers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium help retrieve golf balls offshore of the Pebble Beach Golf Links.

Among those impressed with their efforts were George Peterson, the Aquarium’s director of dive programs, and Scott Kathey, federal regulatory coordinator for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Both of them support people working to protect natural resources. To Scott, the teenagers embody that spirit.

“Until Alex and Jack showed up with tubs of thousands of golf balls, I don’t think the true scope and scale of this was fully appreciated or understood,” Scott says.

“It was a call to action,” George agrees. Now, the two men are scaling up the work Alex and Jack started.

Natural collection points

A first step is mapping exactly where the tides tend to deposit golf balls along the shoreline. Alex and Jack frequent a spot called Arrowhead Point.

“We’re discovering after big swells the sand gets turned over, and so many buried golf balls pop up because they’re becoming exposed,” Jack says.

That’s promising information for Scott, who’s hoping to zero in on areas where the balls repopulate.

“What Jack and Alex have discovered is they can clean up this cove, take 400 balls out in one day, and come back a week later and there’s 400 more balls there,” Scott says.

The rubber band core of older golf balls resembles sea grass, when the cover of the ball wears away and the core unravels.

It’s the kind of “sweet spot” that cleanup crews of divers will visit regularly in the months ahead.

“We’ll do the reconnaissance to find out where these golf balls are,” he says. “Then the Aquarium’s efforts will be focused on the cleanup, the real heavy lifting. We’re trying to tag team this.”

That’s where George comes in.

With some 4,000 dives in his logbook, George is no stranger to this kind of work. “I used to remove balls from golf course ponds when I was a kid in Iowa,” he says.

Where Alex and Jack sometimes paddle out in a kayak, George’s cleanup crew will launch a 19-foot Boston whaler. Depending on the depth and visibility, George says they’ll use snorkels and possibly scuba gear.

“Weather permitting, we’re going to go out at least once a month,” he says. It’s hard to guess how many balls they might find, but early on, he expects they’ll be playing catch-up after decades of accumulation. By the end of 2017, officials hope to have a sense of what a steady maintenance effort might look like—and who will take long-term responsibility for the work.

In addition to the Aquarium team, Scott notes, “Pebble Beach Company has committed to doing weekly cleanups on their shoreline, where you can just collect (golf balls) by foot.”

Just the beginning

Alex and Jack’s ambitions extend beyond Monterey Peninsula. Their efforts have earned national media attention, they’re receiving donations online from golfers, and envision a model that other coastal resorts might follow to mitigate the impact of so many shanked golf balls landing in the ocean.

If the Pebble Beach cleanup proves a success story, other seaside courses could follow suit, Jack says, listing off places like Hawaii, the Bahamas and Scotland.

Finding support and encouragement from professionals working to curb ocean plastics has also been an inspiration, Alex says.

“It totally changed what I was planning,” she notes. She and Jack are now talking about majoring in environmental studies.

—Daniel Potter

Learn more about what Monterey Bay Aquarium is doing to tackle ocean plastic pollution.

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