Meet the environmentally conscious teens cleaning up the Pebble coastline

January 28, 2017

On a chilly morning in late December, a kayak pushed off from Carmel Beach, Calif., and cut through the choppy water, propelled by the furious paddling of its two occupants. In the front seat was Alex Weber, 16, a sea creature who has grown up free-diving for jade in Big Sur. She is an utterly fearless young woman who thinks nothing of jumping from a cliff and into a churning ocean. A once-distant wave was now upon the kayak. “This is going to be close,” Alex screamed as her craft scaled the glassy wall of water. After going nearly vertical, the kayak landed with a thud in the calm waters beyond the break. Her passenger may have been terrified, but Alex dissolved into laughter, as did her best friend and fellow Carmel High junior, Jack Johnston, who had been watching the spectacle from his kayak.

Alex and Jack tacked north, paddling parallel to the shore. Here was one of the planet’s great panoramas, encompassing the sugary sand of Carmel Beach, the emerald fairways of Pebble Beach Golf Links and the craggy outcropping of Point Lobos, covered in graceful cypress trees. The crystalline waters were alive with sea life: an otter snoozing atop a bed of kelp; migrating whales spouting like geysers; a five-foot leopard shark darting in the shadows. After 20 minutes the kayakers approached golf’s most photographed peninsula, Arrow Head Point, on which Pebble’s 6th, 7th and 8th holes are perched 60 feet above. The destination was a small beach that is roughly 150 yards in front of, and below, the 8th tee.

These waters and their inhabitants are federally protected as part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, but Alex and Jack have discovered a dirty little secret lurking beneath the surface: golf balls. Lots of them. For 98 years the hackers at Pebble Beach have been pumping balls into the Pacific, and all this time they’ve just been sitting there, waiting to be discovered by two idealistic teenagers. Since last May, Alex and Jack have pulled more than 9,000 balls out of this cove, including 1,900 in one marathon day that is a monument to their tenacity. These accidental activists have dedicated themselves not only to cleaning up the waters astride their hometown but also to bringing awareness to a global issue.

The scope of the problem was evident as soon as the two kayaks pulled onto the beach on this December day. Lying on the sand were seven balls. As Alex put on her snorkel and mask, a ball came tumbling over the cliff and nearly doinked her on the shoulder. Stepping into the shallow waters of the cove, dozens of balls—white, yellow and pink—darted in the currents. It was like an Easter egg hunt, if the eggs darted around and 55° water occasionally crashed on your head. In 15 minutes more than 100 balls were plucked from the sea. Some were as smooth as Ping-Pong balls, their dimples having eroded on the ocean floor. “For sure there can be a sense of futility,” Jack said, standing in waist-deep water. “Every time we’re here, we collect so many balls. Then we come back a week later, and it seems like there are just as many as before.” Indeed, the balls circulate with the tides, coming and going as they please.

Eventually the hunt moved to water that was seven or eight feet deep, with Alex and Jack free-diving to the sandy sea floor and filling mesh bags. They were joined by Alex’s dad, Mike, and four friends, including two adventurous girls who made the quarter-mile swim from the beach to the cove: Mikaela Miller, 12, and Rachael Sammet, 17. In less than three hours 442 balls were collected—from one spot in a vast ocean. On the other side of Arrow Head Point is a small bit of sand that Alex and Jack have nicknamed Pro V1 Beach because it has become a collection area for wayward Titleists (and a smattering of other brands) from Pebble’s 6th and 7th holes. The beach is on the edge of Stillwater Cove, which also absorbs errant shots from the 4th, 5th, 17th and 18th holes. Just up the coastline is Cypress Point, with its three glorious seaside holes, and a few bends farther down 17 Mile Drive is the Dunes Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, which boasts a par-3 that demands a substantial carry over the water. But this is hardly just a Pebble Beach issue. From Mauna Kea to Machrihanish, Teeth of the Dog to Turtle Bay, Old Head to Cape Kidnappers, an incalculable number of balls are polluting oceans around the world.

In the absence of any widespread study, the harm to marine life is mostly anecdotal. A golf ball was found in the stomach of a gray whale beached along the Washington coast. One was also discovered in the digestive tract of a dead albatross chick on Midway Atoll, an island in the Hawaiian chain. (Both animals had ingested numerous other plastic items.) Many of the balls that Alex and Jack have harvested are decades old, including those with a wound core, a technology that was phased out in the early 2000s. As the covers of these wound balls degrade, the core unspools into the ocean, releasing hundreds of feet of rubber string that looks exactly like sea grass (and, for that matter, Jack’s hair). Many fish and crustaceans eat sea grass, as do green sea turtles and manatees. Also of concern are the microplastics that are released as the balls are battered against the rocky sea floor. “Particles of plastic absorb a high concentration of toxins, and they are consumed by over 600 kinds of sea creatures and seabirds,” says Anna Cummins, cofounder of the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to the crisis of plastic pollution in the oceans. “As you go higher up the food chain, the plastics become more concentrated and more harmful. Pretty much every bite of seafood a human takes has microplastics in it; the only question is how much.”

According to Cummins, an estimated 269,000 metric tons of plastics are floating in the oceans around the world. Clearly golf balls are a tiny part of the problem, but the efforts of Alex and Jack have caught Cummins’s attention because they have created a fresh dialogue. “I’ve devoted my life to this issue, and golf balls in the ocean had never come up,” says Cummins, 43. “Sometimes it takes the innocence and fresh perspective of youth to see an old problem in a new way. I love that Jack and Alex are introducing this issue to an entirely new audience.”

When Alex first came upon the balls during a recreational dive with her father in September 2015, she had no idea these man-made pearls would consume her life. “There wasn’t this big master plan,” she says. “I just knew they didn’t belong in the ocean, and I wanted to get them out.” In the ensuing dives her father was a constant—Mike owns a chicken ranch that produces 150 million cage-free, organic and kosher eggs a year—but while various friends of Alex’s tagged along once or twice, only Jack kept coming back. It is grueling work that begins with hauling the kayaks down the steep sand hill at Carmel Beach, followed by the long paddle across the bay through strong winds and tides, and then hours of diving in frigid water that always leaves their lips blue, despite thick wet suits, hoods, gloves and booties. After all that, they have to schlep hundreds of balls and their gear back up the hill to their cars. The balls are stored in the Webers‘ garage, and some stink—a sulfuric, chemical smell that is a hint of the toxins they may be releasing into the sea. As the collection became more numerous (and malodorous), Alex and Jack were galvanized to take the fight public. “It became pretty obvious this issue was bigger than us, and we had to go to people who could help us change things,” Jack says.

So on YouTube they uploaded affecting underwater footage that showed mass quantities of balls moving with the currents. Then they made a spiffy Power Point presentation to officials at the Pebble Beach Co. and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency that oversees the 14 marine sanctuaries across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and the Gulf of Mexico. Alex and Jack are charming goofballs, but they feel awkward and stiff in front of reporters; still, they soldiered though a lot of local media stories because they knew it would raise awareness with stakeholders who might have been inclined to blow off a couple of kids. The result is a still-evolving collaboration among Pebble Beach Co., the Monterey Bay Aquarium and NOAA. The aquarium’s dive team has committed to monthly underwater cleanups, while Pebble Beach Co. is putting together a best-practices plan to address the issue long-term.

“We’re grateful that Jack and Alex have brought this to our attention,” says Mark Stilwell, a Pebble Beach Co. spokesperson. “They’re such impressive young people, and they’ve handled this in a very professional manner. The company always wants to be a good neighbor and a big part of that is environmental stewardship. We know others will look to what we do here, so we’re putting together a comprehensive cleanup plan that hopefully can be a model for other seaside courses.”

It will be up to NOAA to initiate dialogues with courses. “Our regulations prohibit discharge of any kind into the sanctuary,” says Scott Kathey, the emergency-response coordinator for the Monterey Bay Sanctuary. “The first thing we look for is cooperation from the responsible party. We expect that will be the case here, and that we won’t have to get into regulatory measures and fines. But at the end of the day, the law is a tool we have to initiate responsible action.”

All of this represents a spectacular victory for Alex and Jack, but they’re hardly satisfied: They have formed their own 501(c)(3), The Plastic Pick-up, which is dedicated to removing plastics from the ocean. Kathey leaves no doubt that responsibility for the cleanup ultimately lies with course owners, but we duffers are the ones who have sent the balls to their watery graves. Just as there are voluntary carbon taxes for those who feel guilty about their energy consumption, perhaps every golfer who hits a ball into the ocean should make a donation toward the cleanup. Alex and Jack offer such a portal at gofundme/foretheocean. The money they’re receiving will go toward the hefty tuition for their spring semester at the Island School, an experiential high school on Eleuthera, the Bahamas. They’ll study marine biology there, with an emphasis on conservation and sustainability.

They leave for school at the end of February. In the meantime they’re still making regular dives in the waters along Pebble Beach. They’re also trying to figure out what to do with their catch. They have wanted to keep all the balls together as powerful visual evidence of the scale of the problem, but 9,000 rocks take up a lot of space. A few dozen of the most pristine balls have been sold to golfers, but the vast majority are too degraded to be used again. There is talk of using the balls to make murals or some other form of public art. For now they remain in the Webers’ garage, from where they exert a curious gravitational pull. Recently Alex and Jack were picking through their collection, as they sometimes do. One ball was emblazoned with a smiley face, leading Jack to crack, “I doubt the fish were smiling.” Alex made note of the corporate logos and glib nicknames stamped on many of the balls. “I wish they would print their phone numbers instead,” she said, “so I could calls these guys up and say, ‘Hey, man, that was a crappy shot you hit. Now come retrieve your ball.'”

Alex and Jack laughed at that mental image, but the reverie didn’t last long. The next day they were back in the water, pulling more golf balls out of an ocean that is teeming with them.