Last year Eva got a call to capture a scientific expedition off the coast of Queensland in the enchanting Coral Sea. Two weeks collecting and categorising rubbish and a bunch of new friends later, here’s what she’d learnt.


We acknowledge that this adventure is located on the traditional Country of the Gunggandji-Mandingalbay Yidinji people who have occupied and cared for the lands, waters, and their inhabitants for thousands of years. We pay our respects to them as the Traditional Custodians and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.

How it All Started

In November 2022, I got a call up to film and photograph a two week boat trip in the Coral sea. Now if you’re thinking, ‘Wow how relaxing and glamorous’, think again.

The ocean voyage I embarked on was less cocktails and sunbaking, and more walking through soft sand, picking up rubbish while dodging seabird poop. Which, if I’m being honest, is way more on brand for me anyway.

The organisation Tangaroa Blue was sending out a team to clean, monitor and categorise marine debris washing up on remote islets and cays, and they needed someone to capture it all on camera (and lend a set of hands to the clean up when needed).


An aerial view of one of the many sand islands in the Coral Sea | @peter_varga0511


I only found out about the trip three weeks before it was due to leave, and as a gal who likes to plan and mentally prepare for things well in advance, it was mildly stressful. But THANK GOODNESS I decided to not listen to all the sneaky ‘what ifs’ in my brain and say yes. Here’s how it all went down.


Where even is the Coral Sea?

The first question everyone always asks is ‘Where is the coral sea, is that in WA?’ So let’s clarify.

The Coral Sea is a body of water off the Queensland Coast, on the eastern side of the Great Barrier Reef. Specifically, within that body of water is Australia’s largest marine park, and in there, the Diamond Islets and Lihou Reefs AKA our destination.


The yellow is where the Coral Sea is located


It’s super remote and beautiful and very few people actually get the experience of visiting. If you’re a mad keen sailor and get inspired to visir (like the scuba couple in their 70s we encountered sunbaking naked on their boat living the absolute dream), make sure you obtain a marine parks permit.

We left Mackay Marina at 4am and it took us a whopping 33 hour steam in the stunning boat Infamis to reach our first stop, South Diamond Islet.

On board we had one person from Parks Australia, two Tangaroa Blue staff, six Indigenous Rangers from the Gunggandji-Mandingalbay Yidinji Peoples Prescribed Body Corporate (GMYPPBC), five crew members, and me! 15 people in total, ready for adventure.

The Tangaroa Blue team

Why clean the Coral Sea anyway?

So if these islands are so remote, and almost no one goes there, why do we need to be cleaning them up? Well we humans may not be able to survive out there, but the birds and sealife sure can.

And the cleaner their islands are, the healthier they’ll be. Plus it’s important to look after nature for nature’s sake. Nature has inherent value that we should all care about, whether it’s directly benefiting us or not.


Rubbish on these remote islands impacts it’s unique birdlife


Cleaning the islands and monitoring what washes up is just part of the bigger picture of looking after the marine park. Tangaroa Blue are an Australian Marine Debris not for profit organisation, and as you can imagine, are pros when it comes to all things marine debris.

They run the Australian Marine Debris Initiative Database (AMDI) a huge database of marine debris collected in Australia.

When people participate in marine debris cleanups, they can count and categorise every single piece of rubbish found and log it onto this database.

Tangaroa Blue then uses this information to see what’s washing up and where, and campaigns to help stop marine debris at the source. Because if all we ever do is just clean the beach, that’s all we’ll be doing forever!

Ultimate goal: Eventually we don’t have to clean the beaches because we’ve stopped all the rubbish at the source.

Hooray! Turtles rejoice all over the world.

An Average Day in The Coral Sea

Sadly, we’re not living in that epic futuristic utopia yet so there was a crapload of work to be done. Most days started at 7am for brekki, back deck at 8am and then onto the tenders (little baby boats) to get us out to our first island of the day.

Once we reached the island, we did a quick scout to check for nesting birds and turtle tracks, on some islands we put up new Parks Australia signs, we did Ausmap surveys (sampling the high tide line looking for microplastics) and then set to work cleaning the beach.


A day’s work involved collecting, surveying, and categorising debris


Some islands were a few kilometres long and would take half a day to clean, while others were smaller and had less rubbish.

One was so small it was only 20 steps long and had zero bits of rubbish on it! Although I’m sure it would disappear completely at high tide.

About half the time I had my camera out, capturing it all, and the rest of the time I was getting amongst the cleanup. Some days we cleaned one island, and other days we cleaned three or four.

The sand was soft, the north Queensland heat was intense, and I came away with an interesting tan line from my sandals, but the islands were stunningly beautiful, the wildlife was incredible and it was so rewarding leaving it a cleaner place than what we found it. Definitely worth the blood, sweat, and occasional tear.


It’s very rewarding to leave a place cleaner than you found it


Once we got back on the boat, the rubbish we collected was weighed, then poured out onto a huge tarp and counted. We literally counted every single bottle cap and thong and piece of rope and hard plastic remnant.

That was categorised and recorded into the AMDI database, then all the rubbish went into colour coded bags destined for recycling, cash for containers or landfill.

We ended our days with an insanely epic dinner cooked up by chef Peter, maybe a cheeky beer or two, and a quiet moment to look for the green flash as the sun slipped below the horizon (I never saw it but I’ll keep believing it’s real).

The Cherries on Top

The picture I’ve painted for you above might seem kinda intense, and it was hard work for sure, but the incredible things we saw along the way were a thousand times worth it.

As a stage three ‘Bird Nerd’, the birdlife was the absolute cherry on top for me. But even if you’ve never thought twice about our feathered friends, you’d be impressed by the ones in the Coral Sea.


A Masked Booby, just one of the many unique birds of the Coral Sea


There were thousands upon thousands on some of the islets, nesting, feeding, sleeping, flying, pooping on my head. And if the sheer number of birds wasn’t impressive enough, I don’t think anyone could not be amazed by the absolute and pure gangly, hilarious, awkwardness of an adolescent booby, waddling up the beach.

There were tonnes of turtle tracks and we saw heaps cruising along the shoreline. We even helped rescue one who was stranded in the midday heat, exhausted from digging and hurling herself through soft sand.


One of the many turtles spotted

We helped give her a boost to the water’s edge and she gleefully took off into the water to swim another day.

Sharks and fish and eels were there in abundance, all visible through the INSANELY clear water. We went snorkelling a couple of times and it felt like floating in air because it was so warm and you could see so far.

All the islets and cays were so different, some rocky and shrubby, others like eerie moonscapes, and some picturesque little circles of sand.

Some were home to thousands of Hermit crabs who flocked to any protruding object the second it remained still in search of some shade or food. I was pulling them out of clean up bags and off my camera gear constantly. I’m telling you, if you got stuck out there I think they would drive you mad before lack of food and water did!


The Hermit crabs were everywhere!


As another bonus, luck of the draw had me in my own cabin with a magical little porthole window that I could open and peer out of. I woke up to many sunrises over the ocean and stared mesmerised at the bioluminescence as we steamed through the night.


A porthole window provided easy access to fresh ocean air


And of course meeting some fascinating, clever, hilarious, dedicated, and kind people from all walks of life was pretty special.

The Final Tally

So after two weeks at sea visiting and cleaning 22 islets and cays, we collected a grand total of 2.687 tonnes of marine debris from 25.782km of beach.


Sifting, sorting, and tallying rubbish


That equals 279 full bags and came in at 27,000 individual items, 90% of which were made from plastic. The top items we found were:

  • Hard plastic remnants (13,892)
  • Plastic lids/tops (4,232)
  • Plastic drink bottles (1,479)
  • Rope and net scraps (1,404)
  • Rubber thongs/soles (1,165).

After our raging success, we spent a somewhat wet and windy voyage back up to Cairns making the most of Peter’s cooking, playing cards games, watching movies, and reflecting on an epic trip.


The crew after a long two weeks


We arrived into port at about 4am, just in time to catch the sunrise before finally setting foot back on the mainland, with an extra 2.6 tonnes of rubbish, a few random tan lines, and some epic memories.

Lessons Learned

Here’s some of the biggest things I learned on the trip that might help you if you ever decide to embark on an extended voyage at sea.

  • Go in with an open mind. You’ll have plenty of down time to meet, engage, and learn from people you may have never met otherwise. Make the most of being stuck on a boat with them!
  • If someone is upsetting you, (kindly) bring it up with them straight away rather than letting it fester. Something that might not matter much over three days becomes way more of a thing over 14 days
  • Two weeks with no service can be stressful if you’re worried about family. Consider taking a sat phone and organising a check in time
  • Bring more than one book and maybe a hard drive of movies
  • Take sea sickness tablets BEFORE you get on the boat. Like, WELL, before. I’m one of the lucky ones who doesn’t get seasisck but I always take one anyway just in case. I’ve seen the results of not doing so and it’s not pretty (or comfortable, I imagine)
  • In saying that, go easy on the seasickness tablets. I took the maximum dose allowed and it made me feel woozy and gross for a day or two
  • Don’t use plastic if you can avoid it. No one intends for their plastic shoe or food wrapper or bottle lid to end up in the ocean, but they get there somehow. Help stop it at the source
  • The ocean is BIG. and we are small
  • If you get the chance to go to the Coral Sea, DO IT!