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Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

The Plastic Iceberg

Yesterday, for the first time in a year, our family nature club set forth on a mission... and triumphed. But our success was bittersweet.

Let me explain. NATURAmigos originally came into being in 2012 as Club NaturaNiños. Our inspiration was Richard Louv’s influential book “Last Child in the Woods”; our place of operations was the countryside of Cusco, Peru; and our members, though never numerous, were enthusiastic and adventurous. We were all about re-connecting children with nature. We wanted to provide opportunities for like-minded families to explore the wonders and pleasures of the outdoors, in the hope of fostering a deep and lifelong connection to the natural world. After all, today’s children will be nature’s future ambassadors. But only if we bring the two together. If we do not give them the chance to discover nature, our kids will not learn to love it, and they will not feel compelled to protect it as adults.

Last year, the two core families who set up the Club and who participated in almost every weekly excursion, moved to Lima. After lying dormant while we settled into new lives in Peru’s capital, Club NaturaNiños morphed into NATURAmigos (the words Club and niños were considered too babyish by certain key members) and we decided it was time to renew our acquaintance with the Peruvian countryside. A couple of months ago I heard about a national beach-cleaning campaign called Hazla por tu playa (“Do it for your beach”). What better way to kickstart NATURAmigos than to participate in a social movement to care for our ocean?

Hazla por tu playa is an initiative started five years ago by two Peruvian non-governmental organizations, Conservamos por Naturaleza and L.O.O.P (Life Out Of Plastic). It is a call to action – and our consciences - that has mobilised thousands of volunteers, on hundreds of beaches, to raise awareness about the impact of plastic contamination on wildlife and, ultimately, ourselves. Can you imagine, in Lima alone, 2.91 million plastic bags are used, on average a mere 12 minutes, every single day?

Thus it was that five families and one independent volunteer, Karina Espinoza, found themselves yesterday at 10am at the picturesque fishing port of Pucusana.

We split into four groups, two on land, and two on rented boats. The land groups would clean three small beaches, while the boat groups – including all eight kids (boys against girls) - were assigned the bay.

Armed with clipboards, pens, and data collection sheets, hands encased by gloves and clutching black bin bags, and with bare skin protected against a fierce sun, we set off to our respective locations. As main photographer, I darted between groups to document the action. Following are some key moments and personal impressions of our morning:

- I received a phone call from a complete stranger, a rather militant, authoritative lady, commending us on our willingness to help clean the area, and loudly proclaiming her outrage at the inaction of the local mayor.

- From a man who was renting umbrellas to beach goers, we received two large plastic bottles (!) of ice cold soft drinks, plus a sleeve of disposable plastic cups (!), as a thank you for our services. After two hours of labour under a white sun, these were greatly appreciated.

- Several local children began to trot to and fro with offerings of plastic scraps for our bin bags.

- When we started digging a car tyre from the sodden sand, a mother firmly told her grown-up son to help us, for goodness sake. He meekly did as he was told.

- One of the boat groups spotted a sea lion apparently trying to eat a plastic bag.

- The second boat group snagged a large plastic bag, only to realise it was a giant jellyfish. Small wonder, then, that many sea creatures, like turtles, make the opposite mistake, confusing plastic bags for jellyfish.

- Several parents in our group commented they hadn’t realised how bad the problem of ocean trash really was.

- One mother told me she was grateful for this opportunity to actually do something concrete about the problem rather than just complain.

- The kids had had the best time, they said, and asked when could we do this again?

By midday, we had collected a total of 110 kg of plastic and other rubbish (only 15 kg of which was recyclable), not including the 100 kg car tyre.

All this was transported in our car and disposed of in a town skip on leaving Pucusana. The tyre we were forced to leave on the sea front, in the hope that the municipality would take care of it.

I am proud of the five families, and of Karina, who gamely volunteered for the Pucusana clean-up and who rose to this challenge cheerfully and with dedication. As we drove to our homes yesterday afternoon, I think we all felt the warm, fuzzy glow of having done something worthwhile (though it might have been the sunburn). But I also suspect that, in our hearts, we were not a little troubled we had only managed to clean the tip of an iceberg, and that the iceberg would be bigger still the next day…

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