In New York City, scuba divers’ passion for the sport becomes a mission to collect undersea litter

A family, left, spend time as scuba divers, right, leave the water during an underwater cleanup on Aug. 27 in the Queens borough of New York. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

NEW YORK — On a recent Sunday afternoon, the divers arrived on a thin strip of sand at the furthest, watery edge of New York City. Air tanks strapped to their backs, they waded into the sea and descended into an environment far different from their usual terrestrial surroundings of concrete, traffic and trash-strewn sidewalks.

Horseshoe crabs and other crustaceans crawl on a seabed encrusted with barnacles and colonies of coral. Spiny-finned sea robin, blackfish and wayward angelfish swim in the murky ocean tinted green by sheets of algae.

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Not all is pretty. Plastic bottles, candy wrappers and miles and miles of fishing line drift with the tides, endangering sea life.

The undersea litter isn’t always visible from the shore. But it has long been a concern of Nicole Zelek, founder of the dive school SuperDive who four years ago launched monthly cleanups at this small cove in the community of Far Rockaway, where New York City meets the Atlantic Ocean, about 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) south of John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens.

A throwaway culture of single-use plastics and other hard-to-degrade material has sullied the world’s waters over the decades, posing a danger to marine life such as seals and seabirds.

Dive by dive, small groups like Zelek’s have been trying to undo some of the damage as part of the DIVERS-ity Inititative, which promotes inclusion in the sport.

“Every month we have a prize for the weirdest find,” she said. They have included the occasional goat skull, perhaps used as part of some ritual, Zelek surmises.

“The best find of all time was an actual ATM machine. Unfortunately, it was empty,” she said.

The divers’ haul one late-summer Sunday wasn’t much, but there were clumps and clumps of fishing line untangled from underwater objects. What the divers can’t pull away by hand is cut with scissors.

“Unfortunately, tons of crabs and horseshoe crabs — which are under threat — get tangled in the fishing line and then they die,” Zelek said.

While more ambitious projects are underway to scoop up huge accumulations of floating debris in deeper waters, small-scale coastal cleanups like Zelek’s are an important part of the battle against ocean pollution, said Nick Mallos, vice president of conservation for Ocean Conservancy.

“The science is very clear and that’s to tackle our global plastic pollution crisis,” he said.

Every September, the conservancy holds monthlong international coastal cleanups. Since its inception nearly four decades ago, the cleanups have retrieved about 400 million pounds (181.4 million kilograms) of trash from coastal areas around the world.

The best way to combat plastics going into the oceans, Mallos said, is to reduce the globe’s dependence on them, particularly in packaging consumer products. But human-powered cleanup is the least costly of all cleanup options.

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