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Diving with plastic pollution – an interview with Cherie Bridges

Posted by Alice Hunter - 28th February 2018

Underwater photographer Cherie Bridges has photographed plastic pollution around the world. We talked to her about her experiences swimming alongside plastic.

Tell us a bit about your job as an underwater photographer.

It all started at Falmouth University, where I first trained with underwater cameras. I vividly remember standing on a Cornish sea wall in torrential rain and wind, attempting to pull on a 7mm wetsuit in the dark and thinking to myself, “this is actually hell on earth.” My photographs were awful, I hated the cold and it all seemed impossible. Over time however, I learnt to love the discomfort – and the challenge of it drew me in. I became a hardier diver, and fell in love with the early mornings, rough boat rides and numb fingers. The ocean became this unbelievable mystery to me. Every dive is different, and I’m constantly learning new ways to take a photograph. It’s never easy, but it’s always worth it.

A piece of discarded bin bag drifts down from a large blanket of litter at the surface  © Cherie Bridges

Have you seen a change in the amount of plastic pollution in recent years?

I’ve never been on a dive and not encountered plastic. The first time I realised the full scale of the issue however, was in Egypt last year. After diving on the same pristine reef for two weeks, a large accumulation of plastic hit the coastline and devastated an area we had been photographing for over 40 hours. I remember pulling myself onto the jetty alongside numerous bags full of the plastic litter we had collected, and sitting in silence as the remains of dead birds and fish floated at my feet. There was this overwhelming sense of helplessness – and I didn’t quite know how to make people realise what they were destroying. After that dive, I began sending my photographs to as many publications as possible. I thought that maybe if people could just see what was happening, maybe then they would care as much as I did.

Have you seen any impacts of plastic pollution on wildlife?

I recently encountered a pod of spinner dolphins in the water. One particular dolphin was incredibly playful and curious, and came within centimetres of us. I remember watching the pod swim away, and seeing at least three flukes entangled in plastic bags. I was furious. I’ve seen numerous fish such as mackerel and grey mullets feeding on plastic bags, and damsel fish floating on the surface after getting infections from the pollution. I’ve opened up mussels and clams and found microplastics inside. The list could go on really. The tragedy of it all, is that once the plastic is inside an animal, it will inevitably work its way up the food chain and go on to harm several other species.

A reef off the coast of Wadi el Gamal national park  © Cherie Bridges

What’s it like to be confronted with plastic pollution when you’re diving?

At first, it was unfathomable to me. I would stare at a plastic bag on the seabed and wonder why on earth it was there, 30 meters below the surface. It was almost like walking into my living room and finding that someone had strewn a bag of litter across the floor. There have been times where we have abandoned dives to clean up the litter in the water, as it was hard to see the wildlife for plastic pollution. On the worst days, we would spend hours cleaning a reef, and still feel like we had barely scratched the surface of what was there. Watching these places rapidly deteriorate is heart-breaking for me. It really is a crucial point in time for us as a planet to dramatically change the way we consume.

A diver swims through plastic pollution in Egypt  © Cherie Bridges

What’s the most common type of plastic packaging you encounter?

Plastic bags, packets and bottles, without a doubt. On the beach? Bottle lids, straws and cigarette lighters. I’d love to see supermarkets eradicate plastic food packaging in the near future, as it’s hard to avoid buying plastic when you’re shopping. I believe we’ll get there soon. The good news is that the future is completely in our hands. The bad news is that we no longer have the luxury of time. The water that we drink – the air that we breathe – our very existence depends on the ocean. If there was ever a time for people to stand up for something, it would probably be now.

If you want to take action against ocean plastic pollution, join our campaign calling on supermarkets to ditch throwaway plastic packaging.

Article Tagged as: Featured, Oceans, Plastics