Waterways the world over are facing multiple hazards from all angles. Ocean acidification is blanking out swaths of sea flora and fauna, disrupting already fragile environments. Human neglect and apathy – haphazardly discarding trash and sweeping it under the rug – are choking vital ecosystems necessary for a healthy planet. Answering the call from two fronts are volunteer projects Save the Leatherback Operation (S.O.L.O.) and Project Komodo©.
By John Tapley; images courtesy Larry McKenna
S.O.L.O.’s dedication to protecting delicate leatherback sea turtles and their fragile environments took root in 2003 when photographer Dr. Larry McKenna learned of the creatures’ plight: its species was on the brink of extinction. These animals are equally monstrous in size as they are majestic in appearance with males exceeding 16 feet in length and weighing in at over 3,000 pounds – originating from a small egg about three inches long.
“They’re an amazing throwback to the Jurassic period,” says McKenna. “Should you have the good fortune to interact with one, you have touched a real dinosaur.”
McKenna became enamored by the leatherback sea turtles with their primordial appeal and mammoth stature and decided to capture them on film. Alongside a cadre of scuba explorers, McKenna ventured to a remote beach in Eastern Indonesia; and after a few travel setbacks, witnessed female turtles nesting at night. This was an eye-opening event for McKenna, and by next morning, he was approached by the village chief who asked him if anything could be done to save and safeguard the critically endangered species.
“They told us that in the older days the nesting beach was filled with so many turtles you couldn’t see the sand; but now there were just a few coming out. I told him I was there to take pictures, but I would go back and do some research – I figured it would be an adventure for me (I love adventures). There wasn’t even a photograph shown in the data – the Internet, anywhere – at that time.
“We did the research on our own through volunteering and had no guidebook to take us. We experimented and found a way to reverse extinction. We put our findings to work; and now, that many years later, the hatchlings have come out and they’re now big enough to lay eggs. It’s been a regeneration of the population.”
McKenna established S.O.L.O. as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and primarily managed its daily operations. Today, four directors govern the operation, including McKenna, his wife Bonnie, Dr. Mike Miller and Pam Miller.
Having succeeded in this vital mission, McKenna and company set their sights on a different, though related, goal: safeguarding the world’s oceans from trash. Like the catalyst that activated S.O.L.O., this new venture started small and grew exponentially.
“We took on the trash tossers in the ocean, which is happening worldwide: in some places, the trash is so thick you can’t see the water. We started taking on different areas in the country and set up a research station in the Philippine islands. We did some healthy work cleaning up the waters; and then somebody alerted me. Did I know what a gyre was?
“I never heard the word. There was a chuckle, and they said I had better find out. I found some data on the Internet, and it was a stunning shock: it revealed that over 50 to 55 years, people from all over had been routinely tossing their trash, garbage, and runoff into the streets, rivers, and creeks. Somehow it all worked its way into waterways and wound up in the ocean. The prevalent belief was that we threw it in the ocean and didn’t need to see it because we couldn’t; I was part of that population.
“We did some more research, and thanks to the help of NASA satellites, we got a handle on what this was. A gyre is the effect of ocean currents picking up the junk until it reaches a location where the currents come down to practically zero – aided by an enormous mound of trash that has been tossed away.
“There are now five of these gyres in our oceans. The nearest one to America is the Great Pacific Gyre: its eastern-most part has an area mass of approximately the size of Alaska: 6,750,001,595,000,000 cubic feet. This mass collection of our throwaways is about 50 feet deep. It’s heading towards the west coast of America and Canada. Only one intrepid Dutchman is using his own money to tackle the problem and we wish him well. As of now, there is no effort of size and quantity to solve this issue. “
McKenna reached out to S.O.L.O. directors to tackle the ever-growing global threat of gyres and presented an idea forged from his knowledge of airplane and helicopter design, his background as a sea captain, and his passion for the aquatic world. This culminated in his latest initiative, Project Komodo©: a feat of engineering designed to collect and recycle ocean trash, and ultimately, stamp out gyres. Named after the voracious Komodo dragon, which consumes every bit of material from its prey, the project hopes to leave not even a speck of debris behind.
McKenna elaborates on Project Komodo©:
“It’s going to be more expensive than S.O.L.O. because of what we have to do: put together workable equipment on a ship, freighter or barges, to go into the Pacific well beyond the 200-mile limit and start to process this mass of trash. We’ve designed flexible scoops that can go down 50 or 60 feet, drag the stuff onto the sink, let it sun dry, then put it through a combustion process with a recyclable steam engine, which powers the turbine. It’s free regeneration as long as the engine is working; we intend to leave no carbon footprint. Plastics from this mess will be separated from wood and paper, bailed up, and sent to the States to be recycled.
“Funds permitting, we’ll rent a building and bulkhead at the Houston ship channel and will assemble a prototype, transfer it to a barge, and take it into the ocean to get it working the right way. Again, subject to funding, we will equip a rented freighter, and after putting this stuff together, it will determine the size of what we need in the ocean: that it can do the job and is safe enough in case storms come by. Subject to the prototype working and more funds available, we’ll look at maybe six ships.”
While Project Komodo© is a work in progress, McKenna and his allies are sharing the importance of good ocean stewardship through presentations and seminars around the country. He stresses educating adolescents in order to establish a better future.
“The first step is to educate our people to stop throwing trash on the street. It’s so very important. Like the speeches I’ve given on leatherback turtles, I’ve educated school kids from grades four to 10 about going home and telling mom and dad to stop throwing that stuff in the street. I can demonstrate that education works, and we need volunteers to go around and do the same. I’m hoping to get corporate America to join in and have this spread through the country. If we can put the trash in a bin, this will help everything.
“A white Styrofoam cup takes centuries to decay. Dolphins and porpoises put their snouts into a plastic bag, and they can’t get it off their nose, and therefore can’t eat; big turtles like leatherbacks will think a piece of plastic or a net is a jellyfish (their primary food supply) and will die and wash up on shore. Off the west coast of Florida, staghorn corals protect against ocean surges, and those reefs, before your eyes, are being killed every day; and the reef protection has been destroyed. The staghorn can be repopulated, but it takes an effort, volunteers, associated money to reseed the beds… and if someone like us doesn’t jump in with support, those reefs aren’t going to regenerate, and the next big storm will probably damage [the coast] ten-fold.
“What else are we doing to our environment? We’re ruining the nest we were born in, and that’s the key message: we’ve got to stop doing that. We’re all a part of this. Everyone that’s breathing air is the cause of this pollution that’s coming at us. It didn’t disappear; it’s out there waiting to get its revenge.”
In a recent partnership, McKenna has received support from Lonestar College near his residence, Kingwood, Texas. The college’s graphic design department has assembled a team of five students who are eager to help promote ocean protection and stewardship via the production of motivational and marketing materials, including a pamphlet, PowerPoint presentation, and website.
NOAA and McKenna predict the Pacific gyre could end up on the West Coast within seven to eight years. He shares a warning:
“To people who live out there: as the gyre approaches, don’t go out and buy a new bikini because you won’t be able to use the beaches. The beaches will be fouled to such a degree a backhoe won’t clean it up. If it comes ashore, it won’t just be west coast residents, it’ll be the entire country impacted in so many ways. We – all of us – did it to ourselves and are still doing it.”
“A solution won’t happen overnight but once we get everything working and given a decent chance at weather and other ocean conditions… you can’t put your head in the sand because those things are out there,” he continues. “It’s going to be like building blocks, and we may need to put two or three ships to neutralize the Greater Pacific Gyre.”
Looking forward to a healthier, vibrant ocean, Larry McKenna and his fellows are seeking volunteers and financial contributions to make Project Komodo© a reality.
“We’re open to partnerships and workable associations. We aren’t going to do this alone. We’re pushing it because we know the severity of the issue and what has to be done,” he says. “Hopefully other people will bring more talent to us and help us put the money together. None of our organizers will take a dime in pay. We do this because we care.”
Standing stalwart against ocean degradation – the diminishment of all life on Planet Earth – are Larry McKenna, his directors, Project Komodo©, and the many volunteers who devote their time and talents toward a common goal. Amidst overwhelming odds, they are answering the call and fostering a healthier planet.
For more details, including volunteer opportunities, visit S.O.L.O.’s website at www.saveourleatherbacks.org.