Wednesday, 19 June 2013

From a Ripple to a Wave – The Second Thames River Clean

Last year a good friend of mine Chris Elliott asked me to volunteer as a diver on a river clean he was organising. On Sunday 17th September 2012 I found myself taking part in this great initiative created by Chris to help clean some of the debris that damages and ruins the aesthetics of our riverine environment. It raised a great amount of public awareness and in a team of 26 student kayakers, divers and shore volunteers, as well as 11 members of the community and staff, we managed to remove two skips full of rubbish including 22 shopping trolleys, 304 glass bottles, 3 bicycles, 1 gnome, 1 bird bath and more!  

This was just the tip of the iceberg as that day we did a 100 metre scope and realised there were hundreds more trolleys and countless other items on the river bed. That day we decided we could do more, a lot lot more…

Skip forward to 2013 and Chris is encouraging me to lead on the second river clean project. Hesitant at first of committing to something so big in my final year at university and knowing how much work organising the student-led river clean volunteering project can be, I finally said yes; it would be a great chance to show employers my project management skills, represent my degree course in environmental science, give something back to the river that guided me home in those months as a fresher and make it safer for river users.  

And so with Chris Elliott, KUSU Volunteer Coordinator Jemma Houghton and Thames 21 supporting me, as well as equipment donated by local dive shop Aquanaut, we took up the challenge once again. We set out to not just repeat our previous success but to build on it, extensively refine our methods, make it easier to repeat and try and make a bigger impact.
We originally wanted to continue clearing the stretch of river we had previously worked on, but due to some last minute building works nearby we decided to focus on the relatively unknown area just North of the bridge known as Horsefair Quay. The second change was to expand our capacity for collecting large scrap items such as bulky shopping trolleys. The Environment Agency let us borrow a barge which they conveniently moored right next to where we were diving. Thirdly we wanted to change how the volunteers worked together as a team to make it more streamlined. This was achieved by the appointment of strong reliable leaders - Jemma for the shore party, Simon Garrad (an experienced sport diver) for the dive management and myself as Dive Lead. Lastly the divers changed the method by which we raised our debris; although the original lift-bag method worked, it took time and we hadn’t expected so many large items. So in response we agreed that our divers would instead attach grapnels or ropes and then use a lot of muscle (gratefully provided by Kingston University Students’ Union’s Mountaineering Club). This method though limited to the near shore side was dramatically faster and thus more efficient.

On the day we’re as ready as we can possibly be, but still not prepared for the vast amount of trolleys we found, decade’s worth it would seem… It turns out the area just North of Kingston Bridge was loaded with trolleys; every descent was met with metal bars in the limited visibility. We soon realised that what we were clearing was not a passive nuisance, but a potentially fatal hazard because should any person accidently fall from the river edge they would immediately be met with rusted, broken and sheered metal less than a metre from the surface.

Diving in that kind of environment is a testing experience - the only reliable sense is touch as sight is all but lost once you shift that first hunk of metal, because the sediment effectively makes you blind. Though it’s barely 3-5m deep it takes a lot not to panic and to stay focused on the task in hand, whilst the tangled mess of metal around you presents tangle and snag hazards.

After a long day and a generous lunch provided by KUSU we managed to completely clear a 30 metre area back to as near a natural state as was practical, with the remaining 20 metres cleared of the largest debris. The most notable being a Korean helmet, ship battery, 17.5 skateboards and 82 trolleys - a fourfold improvement on last year’s efforts.

Perhaps the most astounding thing the divers alone experienced was what it’s actually like down there as beneath a forest of horrifically mangled metal and leached chemicals, life is striving to survive. It’s not what you would call an attractive habitat, but for those of us that can appreciate it, it’s nothing more than fascinating. There’s a kind of solid coral like growth that builds on trolley metal, as well as crabs, eels, tiny fish, snails and different species of shellfish all along the river. Many people believe the Thames River to be dead and toxic, however our river clean is testament to how wrong that assumption is.

On all fronts the second river clean can be considered a resounding unequalled success, not just for the amount removed, but for the ripple we turned into a wave surging through the Kingston community, helping people realise that our river is a living, breathing aquatic environment and that it needs our care today, tomorrow and in the future.   

Check out the video of the second Thames River Clean.

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