Diving for trash near Avila Beach: ‘You never know what you’re going to find’

Divers clean up trash at Harford Pier in Avila Beach

Central Coast Aquarium in Avila Beach hosts a Beneath the Surface cleanup at Harford Pier on Saturday, April 22, 2017. The event recruits volunteer divers to help clean up trash and debris under and around the pier.
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Central Coast Aquarium in Avila Beach hosts a Beneath the Surface cleanup at Harford Pier on Saturday, April 22, 2017. The event recruits volunteer divers to help clean up trash and debris under and around the pier.

Excited chatter filled the air as a group gathered around a scene Saturday morning in Avila Beach that one would likely have to see to believe.

A red octopus had squeezed its way out of the vent cap of a car battery that was dredged up by divers from the water around Harford Pier. Four of the slimy sea creatures had made their home in the discarded battery, and it was a reminder to the group of Central Coast Aquarium staff and volunteers who pitched in their time and efforts for the sixth annual Beneath the Surface cleanup that you never know what you’re going to find in the murky depths.

“Unfortunately, they’ll make some unpleasant things their home,” aquarium manager Taylor Starkie said.

Three octopuses made it out of the battery alive; a fourth was later found dead.

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This small octopus was put back in the ocean. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

Starkie has seen her fair share of unfortunate wildlife and trash pairings in the years she’s helped organize the cleanup, one of the many Earth Day-related events held locally and across the nation Saturday. She recalled a time when a clam was found trapped inside a bottle it had entered when it was just a larva.

Starkie was one of about 50 people on hand for the aquarium’s pier cleanup, during which divers pulled trash from the water, occasionally bringing sea-dwelling denizens with them.

Emily Sampson, the aquarium’s director of husbandry, said the team encountered all manner of invertebrates, including anemones, barnacles, clams, crabs, mussels, snails, sponges and worms.

“I was hoping for some sea stars today,” she told another member of the cleanup.

Although some of the found animals were released back into the water, Sampson said the aquarium had permits allowing the collection of others, and they would find a new home in the Central Coast Aquarium just up the road.

Sampson said the annual cleanup had two benefits.

“We get to see our local sea life, and we get to help make our oceans a little cleaner,” she said. “And you never know what you’re going to find.”

Of course, it isn’t all exciting sea life.

Last year, the cleanup team pulled 900 pounds of garbage from the ocean, aquarium Executive Director Tara Kasarjian said. Although most of the sea debris was relatively benign, things like car batteries can carry toxic materials it was noted.

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Dianna Beck is having a tough time pulling off her wetsuit with help from her fiance, Chris Maisano, both of San luis Obispo. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

“We found a red Solo cup,” diver Dianna Beck said.

Beck and her fiance, Chris Maisano, said they also discovered a beer mug and “an enormous starfish.”

“I was surprised by how much glass (we found),” Beck said.

Another diver, John Hedgepeth, said the murky water meant divers mainly had to work by touch.

“It was very dark down there. I even had a flashlight,” he said.

Other findings Saturday morning in addition to the car battery included, several bottles, a calculator, fishing rod, two tires and a sledgehammer.

“Every year we’ve found a sledgehammer,” Starkie said.

There was more excitement when another octopus was found, this one inside a plastic pipe. Starkie explained that octopuses are capable of slipping into extremely narrow confines, and so every piece of garbage brought up must be carefully checked for occupation.

Kasarjian said she was grateful for Saturday’s turnout, which included an estimated 40 divers.

“It’s growing; the word gets out,” she said.

Although her job is primarily focused on education, Kasarjian said events like Saturday’s cleanup — or the cleanup planned at Avila Beach on April 29 — offered a chance to do something more. She said such events foster a community of ocean stewardship.

“We’re actually taking action and doing something, actually doing something for the betterment of the ocean,” she said.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7929, @andrewsheeler