Slide background

News and Media

News and Media

This is Jeff. Click to enlarge!By ODA Volunteer and Advisory Board Member
Jeff Milisen



 Introduction by Founder and President Kurt Lieber:

When I was in Hawai’i for a cleanup we were doing at the Kona Harbor, ODA Volunteer and Advisory Board Member Jeff Milisen and I were reveling in all the people who were showing up for our events.  In addition to being a world class underwater photographer, Jeff is a very motivated guy, and he asked me what else he could do for ODA?  I said that we need help searching for sites with high concentrations of debris to remove. Little did I know how that short conversation would turn into an epic event.  Read Jeff’s summation of what transpired.

But before you dive into Jeff’s story about this first-of-its-kind cleanup, I want to give a quick shoutout to three talented guys who helped document this special day: Andy Feiferak and Chris Funada shot the amazing underwater photographs, and excellent drone footage by both Elias Roberts (from onshore and in town) and Tony White (from onboard the boat).

This was such a massive effort, we’ll have two more stories about this cleanup including more photographs from a different perspective and video footage. So please stay tuned!

Navigating into a Toxic “Mine Field”

Of the things that I’m bad at – underwater navigation – is probably my favorite. That’s because when it goes wrong, it turns into exploration. For example, when my friend Tony White of Blue Robotics wanted to test his home-built “dive-propulsion-vehicle,” I offered to take him to an unknown wreck that rests a half-mile offshore in Kailua Bay, which borders downtown Kona.

Drone shot of Body Glove boat at dockside in Kailua Harbor. Drone shot by Elias Roberts.

The ultimate goal was to assemble a 3-D photo mosaic of the wreck called "structure-from-motion" or SFM that uses duplicating points from hundreds or thousands of images to create a point cloud of the site of interest. The trouble began when I offered to navigate us out there from shore. We were off by ~5 degrees, which over the course of a half-mile is a lot. Instead of Blackbeard's treasure, we found ourselves over a reef composed largely of discarded tires. There were piles of them! We could’ve turned around and wasted our whole trip out. Instead, we took thousands of photos of the tire site and used those to create an SFM where we counted 84 tires. It was clear that we had stumbled into a problem in need of a whole community full of solutions. Enter ODA.

This photo shows a small portion of the debris field.

Derelict tires are a trifecta of problems. A not-so-fun fact is that tire wear particles from our cars make up 78% of the world’s microplastics and are made out of hundreds of chemicals that you wouldn't want to bathe in. In whole tires, these chemicals dissolve out (term: leachate) and create serious issues for the local marine life. One chemical included in tire manufacturing has been shown to kill between 40 and 90% of returning coho salmon in urban areas before they get a chance to spawn. And then there are the physical issues with tires. When a storm comes through, tires become rampaging projectiles that shatter coral structures. What's more, a tire laying flat is a trap for benthic (sea floor) invertebrates. The unfortunate invertebrates can't negotiate around the lip of the tire and make for happy shell collectors. Which means those snails die in there. These tires had to go!

Expedition Planning

ODA is composed of highly dedicated people that have removed tons of trash, but we’ve never attempted anything like this. These tires were big, deep, in a lively coral reef, and half a mile offshore. We were going to need a lot of help.

Drone photo of Body Globe boat leaving harbor
ODA crew on the Body Glove boat, discussing the dive.
Cool overhead drone shot of our crew heading to the dive site!

Fortunately, Kona is an ocean-centric community of motivated people whose network starts with ODA’s Hawai’i Island Coordinator Sarah Milisen. One of our Big Island dive boat partners Body Glove quickly offered their vessels, crew, and organized a series of preparatory work trips to get ahead of the work that the tires required. Likewise, Blue Ocean Mariculture didn’t hesitate to offer their LCM mk8 landing craft with crane and crew. Junk Authority donated a truck to haul all the debris. Big Island Scrap Metal contributed a discount on tire scrapping; Kohala Divers lent us some working regulators; and Kona Honu Divers gave us 14 tanks for our divers. The Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources sat down with us on a Saturday to talk coral growth and did not mince words that these tires were a problem! Everyone we spoke with offered whatever gear or logistics we needed. 

Dive One

That left us to work out the choreography of the day. The plan was to tie in at the site before 7am, splash divers immediately, and shoot 125-pound lift bags with tires to the surface. Snorkelers would then swim the tires to stage them on 4000-pound pillow bags at the Body Glove boat, sinking the smaller lift bags back down so the divers could send up more debris. Even knowing that we weren’t going to get every single tire, the task was still daunting, dangerous, and scheduling conflicts for critical components meant we had to be done by 11 am.

Giant tires waiting to be hauled out of the ocean

Volunteers this day were: Taylor Altshule, Adam Beckman, Michael Bell, Jeremie Betts, Maggie Brown, Juan Chacin, Erin Clement, Kay Cooper, Stephen Coughlin, Jacques Delorme, Mark DeMoss, Mark England, Andy Feiferak, Chris Funada, Camilo Giorgio-Macera, Maile Goss, Morgan Henfy, Mark Hurtado, Shaylee King, Tyler Korte, Joshua Lambus, Kelly Logigian, Leao Manso, Jeff Milisen, Sarah Milisen, Sage Nicholson, Calvin Otis, Cuyler Peck, Elias Roberts, Sascha Ronin, Mikena Shay, Shari Sickso, Alex Skidmore, Teyvin Spinney-Kuahula, Stephen Sulivan, Brian Sward, Erika Wallar, Tony White, Marjorie Zensen and Harmon. That’s 39 in all!  Did I miss anybody?

When the simple act of getting divers in the water became delayed, worry set in. The divers needed to prep lines, unbox lift bags, and auxiliary tanks needed to be fitted with regulators to fill all the lift bags. We had regulators; the tanks were on another boat. What we needed was efficiency, and by 7:30am, we were already running an hour late. I finally descended to get to work (and took an urchin to the knee immediately – ouch). While the divers were shooting tires up, the picks were taking longer than expected which meant the small lift bags weren’t being sent back to the divers.

Ocean Defender divers prepare tires to be removed from the ocean.

We only brought up a handful of tires on our first dive, but the crane picks lasted for the next hour afterwards! It was looking like weeks of coordination would result in barely enough tires to outfit my truck. Dive 2 loomed grimly, and then volunteer Juan Chacin’s cookies changed everything.

The Cookies That Saved the Ocean

While the rest of us talk about upcoming cleanups, Juan bakes. The result is always a diet-dousing, belly busting, cavity carving, mouth monstrosity that mixes pure sugar with fat and chocolate to create cellular rocket fuel. He mentioned that these ovensheet-sized cookies were “smaller than the last batch” (Juan’s words) as he happily shoveled them at us. Smiling dimly through our sugar-coma, we no longer worried about Dive 2, we were too busy digesting Juan’s oven-baked ATP. We would soon become a crew of Popeye’s, and our spinach came in the form of a giant cookie. 

As soon as the last crumbs went down, Body Glove showed up with our old lift bags and a few new, bigger ones – game on! Divers leaped overboard with a newfound zest and attacked the bigger piles. Instead of sending up one or two per lift, we were combining 5, 8, and even 11 tires at a time.

Tire and lift bags going up!

The lift bags struggled to rise under the weight, but the landing craft caught them, bringing the rubbery masses aboard.

Dive 2 ended quickly but was clearly much more productive.

Bigger lift bags help us send more toxic tires to the surface for removal.

We could see the growing mountain of tires in the hold of the landing craft peak over the tops of the gunwales. We knew we had a substantial number of tires, but we had no idea how substantial until we counted whilst offloading at the harbor.

Final Reconnaissance

Tony and I took a third tank down to document the makeover with a final SFM image. A few circular shapes could be seen under the reef. Those were staying, as they were too buried under the coral. The area with the densest tires was completely clear and ready for new coral to take hold. The final count was 61 tires with a combined weight of 4.5 tons and an average weight of 145 pounds apiece. Maybe we will locate the wreck some other time, or maybe we’ll explore somewhere else.

Barge with lift bags waiting for crane to haul out tires.

Huge Mahalos All Around

This was a massive undertaking involving incredible coordination of multiple players, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of our partners: 

I'd like to add my thanks to Kurt's and express my appreciation to Andy Feiferak and Chris Funada for the underwater photographs and both Elias Roberts and Tony White for the drone footage (from which we are first sharing still photos).

Mikena of Body Glove said it best: “I have chicken-skin.” This is what a community full of aloha looks like.

Thank you everyone.

If you want to ensure that amazingly dedicated and talented divers like Jeff Milisen can continue going out on boats to remove toxic debris from beautiful coastal waters like Kona please give as generously as you can! We need you to be part of our ocean cleanup team and we thank you!

Now, we invite you to read Part 2 of this amazing cleanup story and see more stunning photos as the debris rises to the surface!