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‘A reason to get up… and it’s free’: a volunteer holiday in the Whitsundays | Australia vacation

IIt is with mixed feelings that one visits a turtle sanctuary without any turtles. The better self delights in stories of those who have been nursed back from the abyss and set free in joyful, tearful ceremonies. But I admit I really wanted a selfie with a sea turtle.

I’m in the Whitsundays with an eccentric group of volunteers, but we don’t save sea turtles. For the first time in more than a year, there is nothing to save.

Instead, we tick bucket list items of a less glamorous, more literal nature.

First, we sort through piles of rubbish picked from the beaches of some of the region’s 74 islands. The rubbish is grouped in buckets with detailed lists attached. First, these buckets are categorized by wide usage: bottles; straps and caps; wreckage from boats smashed in cyclones; Fishing lures, rods and lines.

The buckets are then emptied individually onto a table and the contents sorted more precisely. Pieces of irrigation pipes are counted separately by plastic cutting blades. Power cables and sail ropes have their own values.

Sarah Wilson, a longtime local volunteer, sorts small piles on the floor: toothbrushes, lighters, clothespins, bottle caps, unidentifiable shards of plastic, combs.

“Who uses combs anymore anyway?” she asks.

Sorted plastic waste pulled from the beaches and waters of the Whitsundays by the Eco Barge volunteer team.
Sorted plastic waste pulled from the beaches and waters of the Whitsundays by the Eco Barge volunteer team. Photo: Joe Hinchliffe/The Guardian

Each item is listed and counted, just as the Eco Barge Clean Seas project volunteers have done for the past 13 years.

Later, most of the plastic is processed and reused, including by a company that makes body surfing hand planes.

The careful litter cataloging is being done so the project’s founder, Libby Edge, can share the raw data with organizations who are using it to tackle litter at its source and with researchers trying to understand the impact of plastics in the ocean and to reduce.

It’s a deeply personal quest that Edge, a former commercial skipper who grew up on a yacht, has poured her soul into since 2009. But she took hundreds of people with her on the journey.

“We’re dealing with a really dark subject,” says Edge. “But when you do it with a group of volunteers, it gives you hope for humanity.”

On this May day, Edge, Wilson, and volunteer coordinator Imogen Grace are joined by a gray nomad and two young women, both traveling across the country in vans.

The task invites you to joke. Do you know free campsites? Where’s the best coral? Should an unused condom be placed on the “sporting goods” or “leisure activities” list?

Eco Barge volunteers Emily Kirkman (left) and Jess McMillan (right).
Eco Barge volunteers Emily Kirkman (left) and Jess McMillan (right). Photo: Joe Hinchliffe/The Guardian

Jess McMillan, a 25-year-old anthropology and philosophy student from Wangaratta, tells us she’s nursing suspected broken ribs from a stack on her longboard.

Barb, the gray nomad who only wants to use her first name, likes to talk about deep underground military bases (dumbs) and children who are said to be held in underground tunnels by the millions.

Edge gently steers the conversation “over the earth” again.

A turtle swimming over coral in the Whitsundays.
A turtle swimming over coral in the Whitsundays. Photo: Reef Safari/supplied

As we sort through the bottles—glass from plastic, juice from water containers—I ask Grace the obvious. No, she has never found a message in one.

“Everyone asks that,” says Grace. “Everyone asks, ‘Have you found treasure? The answer is no. It’s all rubbish.”

This isn’t the kind of Whitsundays experience that’s likely to end up on the cover of a brochure.

However, there are many of these experiences to be had in this part of the world. The snow-white quartz sand of Whitehaven Beach swirls beneath the turquoise waters off Whitsunday Island. Coral gardens that dodged Cyclone Debbie in 2017 or have recovered over the past five years. The next day I visit her, our motorized catamaran, cutting through calm waters smooth with orange coral brood – a testament to the great resilience of the Great Barrier Reef.

The waters of the Whitsunday Islands are pristine, but climate change and development pose threats.
The waters of the Whitsunday Islands are pristine, but climate change and development pose threats. Photo: Included

But given the warming oceans, how long will coral retain its vibrant colors? Or more frequent and more intense hurricanes? Or chemical and sediment runoff from farms and coal mines?

“What if this is the best thing ever?” Wilson wonders.

It’s one of the reasons the Cannonvale Beach diver, when not working in Bunnings, spends so much time removing and sorting the rubbish from the Whitsundays.

While she can’t stabilize a heating climate, Wilson can try to get her to keep her garden clean and uphold its status as one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Longtime local Eco Barge volunteer Sarah Wilson.
Longtime local Eco Barge volunteer Sarah Wilson. Photo: Joe Hinchliffe/The Guardian

It can help prevent wildlife — tropical fish, migrating whales, dugongs, birds, and of course sea turtles — from ingesting and choking on plastic.

After we wrap up our interview and get back to sorting the garbage, Wilson is lost in her task.

Then she realizes another reason why she keeps volunteering time to help her friend Libby.

“For a while I struggled with the uncertainty of life,” she says.

“It gave me a reason to get up in the morning. And it’s free.”

  • You can register your interest in volunteering through the Eco Barge website. Volunteering also involves going out on the barge to collect rubbish and is therefore weather dependent.

  • The closest airport to Eco Barge’s headquarters is Proserpine, with several accommodation options in Airlie Beach, close to Tasman Holiday Parks with camping (from $50), cabins (from $119) and glamping (from $179) – although prices increase peak times are higher.

  • The author was a guest of Tourism Whitsundays and was taken to the islands on reefs with Red Cat Adventures.