We got the incredible opportunity to interview Elke, one of the volunteer divers at Healthy Seas, the amazing organization cleaning up the oceans from the lost fishing nets we are using as the body material for our collection once they are regenerated into the premium sustainable yarn ECONYL® .
Discover more about this inspirational woman - a doctor and a veterinarian - who is setting an example risking her life in sometimes dangerous expeditions and saving marine animals.
- Elke, tell us who you are.
I was born in Austria and grew up on a small farm close to Salzburg.From early childhood my life was woven into a life full of respect for nature and life. My mother taught me about the circle of life and how we can protect our environment. Our animals were our friends and I decided to become a veterinarian to help animals in need. Later I also studied medicine and became a doctor. I now work as a general practitioner, part time veterinarian and part time diving physician. I am a diver for Ghost Diving and Healthy Seas
- What are your passions in life?
Diving (I dive since 1986), cycling, hiking, reading, friends, travel, gardening.
- How did you learn about the Healthy Seas initiative?
I came into contact with Healthy Seas through Ghost Diving, an organisation of volunteer technical divers specialized in the removal of lost fishing gear and other marine debris.
Healthy Seas has been co-founded by Aquafil (producer of ECONYL® yarn) and Ghost Diving (formerly known as Ghost Fishing) to give the exclusive and unique opportunity to those volunteer divers who cooperate with us that their recovered nets will be part of a beautiful storyline, a journey from waste to wear. Dutch divers were already running ghost net removals at the North Sea for several years in the past (since 2009) but we didn’t know what to do with the nets, so until 2013 the nets were sent to landfills or incinerators at their own costs. We were really happy and grateful when Healthy Seas was established and thanks to their support not only our diving projects were financed but also the nets were taken care of.
- What motivated you to join them?
The people who run Healthy Seas are as passionate about the environment as I am myself.
- Do you need any specific background or training to become a volunteer diver?
I followed technical dive training through several courses with GUE, in my opinion the best diving agency in the world. These many years of intensive training and my 33 years of diving experience is a great foundation to be able to do the sometimes demanding and dangerous work under water. Ghost Diving itself trains volunteers which is a fantastic opportunity to actively help to make a change.
- Tell us about a typical rescue diving expedition.
Waste fishing nets often are found on shipwrecks, which form breeding places for sea life, especially in areas where there is intensive human activity, such as fisheries. The localized nature of nets creates ecological problems for ecosystems and species, but allows focused recovery actions. The killing of marine animals by waste fishing nets illustrates to the wider public very well the problem caused by dumping litter in the sea.
A regular North Sea dive in our own country (the Netherlands) starts at dawn. We carry out 2 dives a day exactly at slack water (changing tides). The interval between slack water is 6 hours. We dive with a team of 6 – 12 divers who are all trained and operating the same way so we can respond fast to any issue that may arise underwater. We can collect within 1 day, 2 dives approximately 300kgs of nets.
As much as possible we try to release animals entangled in the nets underwater (crabs, fish, lobster, etc.) if the time allows and the entanglement is not so serious. Otherwise, we lift the nets and release the animals on the board of the boat.
- Can it be dangerous?
The work divers do is difficult and dangerous, there is a risk that they can get entangled in the nets themselves as well, just like the animals. Some types of fishing nets, for example gillnet can be hardly visible underwater. We often dive in conditions of bad visibility, for example in the North Sea, so for safety reasons it is important to work with highly skilled technical divers only.
- How often do you go on expedition?
I personally go diving every weekend, in summertime mainly in the North Sea in the Netherlands where we clean the wrecks from fishing gear and garbage. I go on international diving expeditions around 6-12 times a year, due to Corona unfortunately our first trips this year were cancelled. I am looking forward to start the diving expeditions again soon.
- What is the most incredible experience you've had while diving with Healthy Seas?
The moments where I can feel the team spirit, when we function smoothly as one group, full of passion and hope, saving animals, bringing awareness to the people about our environment are intense.
On one of the last dives I and Pim Jonker saved a fish entangled in lines and nets and our photographer Cor Kuyvenhoven caught the moment on camera (picture see below.) Whenever I look at this picture I am proud about what we are doing. Every little change we can make is important for our future.
- Mention some weird items you have found trapped in fishing nets.
There is not one item you can NOT imagine nor being entangled I am afraid.
In terms of animals, the most unexpected ones were jellyfish, scorpionfish, starfish, octopus.
In terms of items the most crazy things we found were a bell of a sunken fishing vessel in the North Sea and a WWII deep sea mine (active) at the Adriatic Sea. We recovered the net and the left the mine there 😊
- How do you feel when you are at the bottom of the oceans?
I feel calm. Peaceful and thankful. I realize how small we people are and how much responsibility we have for our beautiful environment.
- When you dive today, do you see any difference in the ocean from when you were diving years ago?
25 years ago I dived the first time at the great barrier reef in Australia. I was amazed by the colors and all the incredible life. Nowadays we can literally see the difference everywhere of coral bleaching and the death of the sea life. It is not the same anymore.
- Since Healthy Seas is also involved in prevention and education, do you participate in any of those?
As a photographer it is many times my job during the diving projects to document the pollution as well as the team’s efforts, in order to raise awareness and educate the public.
With the divers we often join school programs where we take our diving equipment. The children always find it super nice to learn about our work in a fun and interactive way and they can also try breath from our regulator.
It is important to have a good contact and dialogue with the fishermen, since prevention is more efficient on a long term than cure. The fishermen can also help us to give locations of ghost nets which they either lost or can encounter while fishing with their active nets.
- If you were a turtle, what would you tell us human beings?
Please stop looking away. Start to make a change now. Not only for my offspring but also for yours. Start to make a change today, even in the little things.
- Do you know the further use/reconversion of those fishing nets you are rescuing?
I am aware and amazed that today we have the technology to make new products using no new raw materials. I realize every day that if we do not change the way we consume and do not aggressively recycle and save our resources now if will be too late. We have to start recycling and protection of the environment NOW.
- Elke, what can we - as a citizen - do to help your cause?
Help us raise awarenes on social media! Make a change today in your own personal life. For example take the bike to work once a week. Eat less meat and fish. Talk to our kids about the environment, recycling, how we have to start caring. Be a role model to not litter, pick up the can laying in the fields and dump it in a bin. Stop buying plastic bottles. Help organizations who fight for a clean world. One of our biggest problems is that we as volunteers are not paid for what we do. We need sponsors (literally every single euro helps) to cover the cost of awareness training, diving expeditions etc.
- What does Sustainable Fashion mean to you?
Fashion is known to be one of the most polluting industries. Sustainability is about making sure we fill our present (real) needs by not compromising the needs of future generations. It is imperative that we all make a conscious effort to live sustainably and that definitely includes what we choose to wear.
- Are you an eco-conscious shopper?
I try to only buy clothes and accessories made from recycled materials or second hand items.
- Do you think that Healthy Seas will have a momentum after the Covid context?
The unprecedented global health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic made one thing clear: Our health is inextricably connected to the health of the Planet. Healthy Seas might be better known for its diving projects that unfortunately needed to pause during the lockdowns but it is an organisation that advocates for environmental protection and sustainability and now, more than ever, it is important to address these issues.
On the picture: Elke Riedl, volunteer diver and Veronika Mikos, Director at Healthy seas during a cleaning up initiative in Croatia (June 2020) in collaboration with Ghost Diving and Ghost Diving Adriatic. The team of 14 divers recovered 1 ton of gill nets that span approximately 1 kilometer.