As a lifetime water woman, I decided it’s time to give back to the sea that gave me so much.

Volunteers pick up trash along the coastline in Santa Monica with Heal the Bay

Diana Feil / Heal the Bay

Volunteers pick up trash along the coastline in Santa Monica with Heal the Bay at one of their clean-up events

Recently, after a long day at the office and second glass of Chablis, I found myself feeling slightly buzzed and most definitely blessed. With the world opening up again, it seemed a great time to get back to giving back. Determined not to let my second wind go to waste, I typed into my search engine, “volunteer opportunities for tired people.” 

One very long Internet rabbit hole later, I landed on something that spoke to all my passions—the ocean, being outdoors, and cleaning up the planet: volunteering for a Saturday beach cleanup with Heal the Bay, whose mission is to protect the coastline, restore our waterways, and speak out for clean water policy across our watersheds. 

Having spent countless summers during my childhood bodyboarding at Will Rogers State Beach just outside Los Angeles and paddling my way through competitive rough water swims along the California coast, it seemed only right to pitch in to protect the oceans that truly shaped my love of the outdoors from a young age.

Heal the Bay's compostable buckets for collecting trash during the beach cleanup
Heal the Bay’s compostable buckets for collecting trash on the beach during a Saturday clean-up

Diana Feil / Heal the Bay

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So, early on Saturday morning, I headed out for one of the group’s monthly clean-ups in the Santa Monica Bay. It was a serene, dare I say cruise-y, drive along the marine-layered 10 Freeway to get there—a rare treat to see the area practically empty, without tourists. 

Despite being one of Southern California’s top attractions for travelers, Santa Monica Bay has three of the state’s most polluted beaches, according to Heal the Bay’s annual reports. As one of the volunteers explained during our safety briefing, most of the trash we’d be picking up arrives at the ocean via the city’s vast system of storm drains. This runoff flows through the system, accumulating trash, chemicals, bacteria, hard metals, and fertilizers, ultimately draining into the ocean. There’s a reason why my dad and so many other locals lovingly call this area where Venice meets Marina del Rey “where the debris meets the sea.”

It only took a few minutes into the pickup to get a clear picture of the underlying problem: plastic. While huge strides have been made in California legislation to limit use, by far the most pervasive pieces I found along our two-hour pick-up were small shards of plastic. They came in every color of the rainbow, some so small that they were difficult to sift out of the sand, a mosaic that small fish within the marine ecosystem often mistake for food, allowing micro-plastics to march their way up the food chain. The most profound piece I marked down on the scorecard, which Heal the Bay uses to document their reporting, was a green plastic turtle. Nature has one heck of a sense of humor. 

A plastic sea turtle found on a recent beach pickup
A plastic sea turtle found on a recent beach pickup with Heal the Bay

Krista Simmons

We cleaned up 133 lbs. of trash that day. On the return back to a Heal the Bay tent to log the clean-up, a pod of dolphins showed up and frolicked together in the bay, reminding us all of who we were cleaning up for. 

Though in some ways the work feels like a stopgap between the storm drains and the sea, it’s a worthy cause. Of course, the best way to curb this from happening in the first place is cutting back on plastic use altogether. (Check out our handy guide here.) But there are other ways to get involved with keeping our wild lands clean, and get that added boost of serotonin from doing good and being outdoors. 

Here are four opportunities for whatever form of nature you adore most—desert, mountain or sea. 

Heal the Bay 

This SoCal-based nonprofit hosts monthly cleanups, as well as an annual Coastal Cleanup Day, usually taking place in September. There are events organized throughout California, but you need to pre-register and events do fill up.

Surfrider Foundation

Another great organization for ocean lovers is this grassroots organization working to protect and preserve the world’s oceans by focusing on water quality, coastal ecosystems, beach access, and beach and surf-spot preservation. They also host cleanups regularly, and you can search their database of events via your ZIP code to find one close by.

Yosemite Facelift 

There’s nothing more infuriating when visiting a national park than seeing trash and graffiti. For those who want to pitch in and help those who have left a trace, this annual cleanup founded by avid climber and El Portal resident Ken Yager and the Yosemite Climbing Association is a great way to do so. Yager and volunteers have cleaned up over a million pounds of trash to date.

Mojave Desert Land Trust 

MDLT has conserved more than 100,000 acres of prime desert habitat,  weaving together national parks, national monuments, wilderness areas, and wildlife linkage corridors. They work with community members, desert dwellers, and conservation-minded volunteers in a variety of activities, from collecting refuse to community outreach and seed saving. Check out their volunteer opportunities here.

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