Surfers Find a Way and So Will Japan

A good wave is always worth the sacrifice. It’s a unanimous sentiment shared by surfers around the world. For surfers at Gamo Beach, Japan, though, it’s not pounding surf that yields a challenge.

Instead, a 200-meter-wide body of water requires them to paddle out to a barrier island, only to traverse another 100 meters of beach where remnants of houses, car parts, bottles and innumerable other tsunami debris items litter the sand. Still, they reach the waves.

Walls of water 10 feet tall formed this island, left this debris and destroyed—or at least severely damaged—everything in its path as it moved inland. Debris piles five stories tall are the only elevation visible on the coastal horizon.

The cleanup effort here is much further along than in the Tohoku region, but progress is relative considering the magnitude of destruction. I joined forces with 11 members of Cleanup Gamo and Jean Environmental Action Network to address this remaining debris in the best way we knew how: a beach cleanup.

I spent my entire time cleaning an area roughly 3 meters by 3 meters, and I amassed a list of items most people find scouring an entire beach. After an hour of grappling concrete and sorting through driftwood, I finally grasped the enormity of the task at hand.

In both Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures, I judged progress by the number of debris piles and the amount of land cleared of debris. But once the final truck tire or refrigerator has been removed, another cleanup needs to occur—a far more gargantuan one.

Toy found among tsunami debris at Gamo Beach

Credit: Nick Mallos

Millions and millions of smaller debris items sit in the infinite crevices created by fallen trees or broken concrete. The tumultuous waters that swept in entangled twigs, ropes, fishing line and an array of debris items that one could spend hours trying to disentangle.

When our cleanup ended, our efforts were reduced to a small pile of bags undoubtedly containing stories of Japanese lives. Some probably say our efforts were insignificant in the grand scheme of the recovery effort, but I respectfully disagree.

Much like the issue of ocean trash, these small, individual efforts, when measured collectively, have huge implications for the health of our ocean.

Cleanups will be needed here, as well as in Iwate, for a very long time. But just as surfers always find a way to reach the waves, so too will the people of Japan find a way to clean up and recover from this tragedy.

My Debris Counts

  • 3 ropes
  • 2 espresso cans
  • 2 flower pots
  • 12 plastic wrappers
  • 4” x 6” foam padding
  • 1 condom wrapper
  • 3 plastic bags
  • 9 miscellaneous plastic pieces
  • 4 glass bottles
  • 3 plastic lids
  • 4 plastic bottle caps
  • 3 plastic water bottles
  • 1 other plastic bottle
  • 1 toy Yoda
  • 5 balloon ribbons
  • 1 burlap rice sack
  • 1 tube of glue
  • 1 motorcycle helmet
  • 1 coffee cup
  • 5 lighters
  • 1 aerosol can
  • 1 noodle bowl
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