Extreme Beach Cleanup

Athletes, celebrities, jet skis, and a helicopter join forces to scour some of Maui’s most remote coastline

There is a sense of urgency in Campbell Farrell’s voice as he explains that conditions for the mission should be ideal in just a couple of days. He’s working the phone, recruiting a band of experienced watermen and women to help out on an expedition to Maui’s remote Kahakuloa coastline to clean up some of the island’s most difficult-to-access beaches. 

Big wave surfer Campbell Farrell, founder and Executive Director of Love the Sea, commands the cleanup crew from the helm of his jet ski. Photo by Dan Collins

Farrell, 50, is a Kiwi big-wave surfer and part of the crew that pioneered tow-in surfing at Peahi near Haʻikū, site of a rare, massive surf break known globally as “Jaws.” 

In 2017 he was invited to help organize a free concert in Honolulu to promote awareness of the growing problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, and from that event the nonprofit group Love the Sea was born. Coastal cleanups began the following year. As co-founder, Farrell serves as executive director and coordinates fundraising and cleanup efforts out of his home in Kuau. 

“We’ll only go if the conditions are right,” Farrell insists, before ending the call abruptly. He has a couple of dozen more phone calls to make and time is short.

Since the particular stretch of shoreline the group intends to clean is very rocky and exposed to the tradewinds—and the accompanying east swell—light winds and calm waters are necessary to safely get people onto the beach and, later, to extract them, along with the hundreds of pounds of garbage they anticipate collecting. 

The same currents and wind conditions that make these rocky beaches hard to get to also make them a natural filter, capturing all manner of flotsam and jetsam, much of it discarded commercial fishing gear. 

For these first few years, Farrell and his crew have been in a “deep cleaning” mode, hitting stretches of coastline that have never been cleaned before. “We’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting,” he asserts. “Hopefully, we’ll reach a maintenance phase where we can go back to those areas that we know are prone to gathering this debris.

“A hot spot is a hot spot because of the geography, like a bay that faces dead east, where the trade winds and currents are just hammering into it,” Farrell explains. “These hot spots are consistently trapping debris, so once we know where they are it’ll be easy to return to those same places.”

Not just anyone gets the call. Farrell hand-selects experienced watermen and women and dedicated conservationists to join the mission. His sons Sage, Lyon, and Jett, and daughter Phoenix often help out. Volunteers from Surfrider Maui, Parley for the Oceans, and the Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund regularly join in the effort. 

“A lot of these adrenaline ocean junkies, if you want to call them that, they don’t necessarily want to wake up on a Sunday morning and wander down the beach picking up lolly wrappers,” he says. “But they will jump on a jet ski and go ten miles down the coast and jump off and swim into rocks and pack bags and then swim them out and work like a team—like a Navy Seals special ops mission. It’s more exciting for them and they get to give back to the ocean and community that’s done so much for their careers.”

There is a chill in the air and a sense of anticipation as the crew gathers at Kahului Harbor’s boat ramp in the murky light of dawn. Farrell assembles the volunteers to discuss the plan for the day, emphasizing the importance of safety and sticking together out on the water. “Just take care out there,” he concludes. “I’m really hoping we’re going to have smooth seas and fair winds to help us get to shore easily.” 

There’s a flurry of activity as two boats and a fleet of jet skis loaded with people are launched and begin the 45-minute trip to the target area. At Farrell’s signal, the boats come to a stop and the jet skis begin to ferry crew members to the first of several rocky beaches. Further on, another team is deployed at the mouth of a cave that we can see is filled with debris. The process is repeated until all the cleanup volunteers have been assigned to a beach. 

The short swim to shore is challenging, as the swell wants to pick us up and toss us onto the steep, rocky shore. Clambering up the slippery boulders with giant collection bags in hand, we fan out like ants at a picnic, immediately going to work gathering and bagging the dozens of colorful floats, nets, cargo pallets, and car tires that have been deposited by the waves. A huge mass of heavy rope is buried in the sand beneath the rocks and it takes several minutes to free it. Then we tie off the bags and wait to be extracted.

A second crew, led by champion stand-up paddler and windsurfer Zane Schweitzer and his best friend, boat captain Kavica Kinimaka, launched from Mala Wharf in Lahaina and worked their way towards Kahakuloa from the West Side, past Honolua Bay, to reach northwest-facing beaches near the Nakalele blowhole. 

“It’s amazing how much trash we got,” recalls Schweitzer. “It was quite a team effort. The coastline is really rough there, so we used this giant inflatable stand up paddle board that I have so four of us at a time could get in over the rocks…and load up these big, industrial bags with debris.”

“We had to be mindful not to load them too heavy to the point we couldn’t move ’em,” he continues, “so we’d probably load about 300 pounds at a time and then shuttle it back to the boat. We did that dozens of times throughout the day.”

Kiteboarder and actor Ed Norton, Jr. hops on the back of a jet ski as he and his wife, producer Shauna Robertson, prepare to hit the beach. Photo by Dan Collins

The two crews meet just north of Puʻu Koaʻe (Kahakuloa Head), the giant half-dome-shaped rock where Kahekili II, the father of Kamehameha I, is said to have leapt into the water—some 200 feet below—to demonstrate his courage and prowess. 

By the time the skis return to pick us up, the swell has started to come up, making it difficult to swim the heavy, wet bags of junk from the shore out to the jet ski sleds. But we manage to load both boats up and lash the rest of the bags onto the backs of the skis for the ride home. Almost all of them, that is.

The last beach to be cleared of debris is in a tiny bay protected by a fringe reef with just one small opening through which the jet skis could pass. Farrell’s wish for calm seas had held for most of the morning, but now waves were lashing the shoreline, churning up rough waters that obscured the reef, making it hard to spot the channel. 

In the end, Farrell had to make a difficult call. It was determined that we would leave the bags of trash there, above the high water mark, and return for them another day. It would take another twenty minutes just to get the six volunteers off the rocks as set after set pounded the shoreline.

“It was total chaos. I wasn’t comfortable at all, going in or out through that channel area,” recalls reknowned waterman Brett Lickle, who was at the helm of his jet ski that morning. “Some of the bays, you can go straight in, do a big swooping turn, drop your guys and head out. This bay was too small. Once they’d gotten in there, that’s when they kind of realized how intense it was.”

He commends Farrell’s decision not to push too hard to get the last few bags off the beach under those conditions. And Lickle knows rough seas better than most. It was his inflatable Zodiac that proved it was possible to tow surfers into the monster break at Peahi, before Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama showed up with jet skis and made Jaws famous. 

Champion outrigger canoe paddler Kai Bartlett, captain of one of the escort boats, agrees with Lickle about the decision to abort the mission. “You can imagine the waves just funneling into that cove,” he said. “It didn’t make it easy for the skis to get in there with people. Everybody really had to just body surf into it,” he recalls. “It was pretty cool watching it though!”

Two months pass before Farrell is able to arrange a second mission to collect the bags of debris left behind. He’s been waiting on the availability of Don Shearer, master helicopter pilot—and the guy Farrell is counting on to airlift the remaining debris off the beach. Shearer and his wife, Donna, own Windward Aviation, whose bright yellow Hughes 369D copters are easily spotted airlifting cargo, putting out fires, assisting with search and rescue missions, and flying low over Peahi to film surfers when Jaws breaks big in the wintertime. 

Just in time to rendezvous with the helicopter, the flotilla once again launches. It’s a smaller crew this time, with just one boat and a half dozen jet skis. Sprecklesville philanthropist Ed Freedman—a major contributor to Love the Sea—has joined the crew and brought along his friend and fellow kiteboarder, actor Ed Norton, Jr., and Norton’s wife, film producer Shauna Robertson. 

The boat crew and the other volunteers on board afford Norton an astonishing degree of anonymity for a three-time Oscar nominee. The French film crew that has come along to document the cleanup efforts seem completely oblivious to the actor’s fame as he assumes the role of a crew member, hosing off the deck and helping to stow gear. 

Norton, Robertson, Freedman, and a few others are dispatched to the beach and begin to gather up the debris. Most is still in the bags, but some has been scattered across the rocks again. And in the two months since we were here last, even more has been washed up on the shore.

We hear the helicopter before we see it. Shearer suddenly appears in his trademark yellow chopper, flying low over the water, buzzing the boat. He drops his air hook down to be attached to the bags by the beach crew as he hovers overhead. One by one, he lifts the bags and ferries them to a flatbed truck waiting on the highway nearby. The job is quickly completed and the helicopter disappears behind the cliffs. It’s quiet for a moment. Then the yellow chopper bursts around the mouth of the bay, sounding its siren and tipping its rotor as it screams past, just overhead. We wave back and cheer as Shearer soars into the distance. 

Farrell supervises from the water as pilot Don Shearer airlifts bags of beach debris to a waiting truck. Photo by Dan Collins

Farrell assembles the floatilla into a “V” formation for a quick drone shot as we head back to the harbor. He understands that documenting the work is an important part of the equation. Media, he hopes, will help sway public opinion and change consumer habits.

After each mission, the debris collected is trucked to a baseyard where it is weighed and sorted with the help of Hannah Bernard and some of her people from the Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund, a longtime partner of Love the Sea. There, they separate the non-recyclable trash, like car tires, styrofoam, wood, and fiberglass from metal items that can be recycled. Some items deemed reusable are given away or saved for use in trash-to-art projects, which help spread awareness.

The plastic garbage, nets, and lines that remain are packed into a 40-foot shipping container which, when full, weighs about 40,000 pounds. It’s shipped to partners on Oahu with Parley for the Oceans, an international conservation group which also provides the giant collection bags. Longtime coastal conservationist Kahi Pacarro, Director of Parley Hawaiʻi, receives the container and directs the plastic to various recycling, reuse, and waste-to-energy programs. 

“I think it’s important that people like Campbell are doing what they’re doing,” says Lickle. “And I think more people need to just walk their own beaches. If you see a piece of trash, pick it up,” he pleads. “If every single person just picked up one piece of trash a day, it would just make such a huge difference.”

Back at the harbor, Norton and I discuss the challenge of reducing ocean plastic. “I’m the United Nations Ambassador for Biodiversity and I’ve been involved in conservation efforts for a long time,” Norton tells me. “This was a fun, local effort. We just happened to be along for the ride.”

“Things like ocean plastics obviously are a huge systemic problem,” he says, “and probably the biggest component of the problem is the plastics that stay in the ocean—things like the big gyres and stuff—because those are the ones that are breaking down into the microplastics and really entering the system.” 

“But I still think it’s meaningful for people to address the local component of it, you know, the beach plastics,” Norton continues. “If people rally together and hit their little pocket of it and do so with some regularity, at least you’re taking off the larger stuff before it gets broken down into smaller stuff, which is what causes bigger problems in terms of what’s entering the food chain.”

“This issue didn’t exist when I was a kid,” Farrell recalls. “There was no plastic plaguing our beaches like it is now. It’s all changed in the last 40 years. And plastic production is just increasing.” Today, he says, a typical half-day cleanup mission removes about 5,500 pounds of garbage from the coastline. 

He acknowledges that beach cleanups are only a small part of the solution. “It’s a drop in the bucket, but we’re taking care of our own backyard,” he says, “and if everybody does that around the world, at least we can put a dent in it.”

“We’re grabbing the large, low-hanging fruit,” Farrell admits. “We make videos and tell our story to build awareness of how big this problem is and how it’s continuing to grow.” 

“And honestly, I feel like Hawaiʻi has responded,” he says, pointing to a recently-enacted countywide ban on plastic take-out food containers as an example. “There’s no question that awareness has increased.” 

The real solution, he asserts, is stopping plastic at the source. And it’s not just a matter of politely asking the world’s manufacturers to stop what they’re doing. It takes economic pressure. 

“They’re making too much money to look up, you know? But the people who are buying their products can stop purchasing them. And that will send a message to the manufacturers for sure,” says Farrell. “Voting with your dollar is a way to act as a consumer.” In time, Farrell hopes increased awareness will lead to better consumer choices that will help stem the plastic tide. 

Dan Collins