Question: Where can you find a bong, ladder, anchor, firefighter’s belt buckle and 200 pounds of bottles and cans?
Answer: Apparently, the bottom of Lake Sawyer.
Those items were just the highlights of a two-hour diving session to clean up the fourth largest natural lake in King County, located in northwest Black Diamond.
The group filled 14 big mesh onion bags with the debris, said Jim Hackiewicz, the master dive instructor who led a “Dive Against Debris” clean-up Saturday and has led several others like it across the Pacific Northwest.
Around a dozen divers combed through the cold water in search of trash from the merely gross – like muck-covered cell phones – to the hazardous, like discarded fishing lines and hooks and glass shards.
Aneta Marler, one of the divers, keeps a “dive knife” for just such occasions, sheathed against her knee. She’s gotten tangled before and had to chop her way out a couple times, Marler said.
The depths of Lake Sawyer are “peaceful, silty, and really dark,” Marler said, and divers use 40k to 50k lumen lights to pierce the murky depths.
The Dives Against Debris are organized and catalogued by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), which certifies recreational and technical divers. Tacoma / Boise-based diving business Salty Blue Dive Co. sponsored, hosted and helped organize the dive Saturday.
Salty Blue is the “brainchild” of Marler and Tylar Strong, who run the company out of Washington and Idaho. They launched it in January.
Strong is working his way toward becoming a dive instructor and wanted to put a dent in the level of junk at the bottom of Lake Sawyer
“We love this lake, we use this as one of our training grounds,” he said. “We just want to clean and do our part.”
Hackiewicz, a PADI instructor, has been diving since 1984 and leading the clean-up dives for close to a decade, primarily in parks and boat launches around the Columbia River. His dives have turned up a wedding ring, necklaces, and a fully loaded revolver.
Lake Sawyer was a prime location for the next one, since it didn’t pose the same risks that ocean tides or rushing rivers do. Past a “thermal layer” around 25 feet deep in the lake, things get ice cold, but a trusty dry suit is enough to handle the freeze.
“Lake Sawyer has become one of my favorite places to do classes, but unfortunately … everybody with a boat just chucks whatever they don’t want over the side,” Hackiewicz said. “It becomes a win for both the lake, the people around the lake, and for myself as an instructor to make the area a more beautiful place to teach.”
On Saturday, pairs of divers used mesh onion bags to collect the shards of glass, faded Solo Cups and other trash, then sorted them into plastic, aluminum and other groups of materials. Finally, they weighed and reported their haul to PADI, which helps scientists study where and what kinds of debris are in the lake.
They picked through a section of the lake close to the public boat launch, since Hackiewicz’s earlier scouting dives revealed that most of the trash was clustered near that area rather than the other side of the lake.
The stuff near people’s homes tends to be “fishing rods, tackle boxes, paddle board paddles” and other belongings which were probably dropped, rather than tossed into the water, Hackiewicz said.
Jason MacLurg, who lives on the lake, came to watch the divers make their descent.
“It’s neat, it shows community involvement and gives the divers a chance to do what they love to do,” he said.
Karen Landon, a diver from Tacoma, said she’s passionate about ocean conservation and has done beach cleanups in the Caribbean and locally before. Doing it underwater was the next logical step, and Lake Sawyer was a good place to start, she said.
“I’ve seen a lot of remnants of people partying on boats,” Landon said with a laugh. “Beer cans, keg cups, a few towels.”
Beyond the value of cleaning up, she said, it’s just cool to dive under the water.
“It’s the closest thing to being in outer space there is, I think,” she said. “You’re completely weightless, and you feel like you’re a sea creature. You get to see things that most people don’t ever get to see.”
Not all trash can be safely removed. Items filled with hazardous chemicals must be handled extremely delicately, and removing big items can disrupt sediment or destroy habitats which have grown over them.
For instance: A stack of two dozen tires, used as a refuge by fish, and a large picnic table, both of which Hackiewicz said he’s seen in dives at Lake Sawyer, will have to stay where they are for the foreseeable future.
Saturday’s expedition pulled out less than half of the rubbish in the area, Hackiewicz said, and with another day they could probably get the area “90 percent clean” on the boat launch side.
If you’re interested in the clean-up dives, PADI lists only a few pre-requisites and offers online tutorials to get started. Hackiewicz said he can write PADI certifications for divers after they’ve done a dive with him. Landon and four other divers were doing their certification dives that day, which will allow them to lead those clean-up dives themselves.
Hackiewicz acknowledges that in the grand scheme of things, the clean-up dives are only scraping off a fraction of a fraction of the trash in Earth’s waterways.
“Nothing we’re physically doing is really going to impact the environment,” he said. “What makes a difference in these Dive Against Debris programs is the media and the photographs, showing what we did to thousands of people who may not dive, but may chuck something (into the lake).”
Saturday’s dive certainly left an impression on MacLurg.
“These people didn’t throw their garbage in; other people did,” MacLurg said. “But they’re coming out and cleaning it up, and that’s really cool.”