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‘A reason to get up…and it’s free’: Volunteer Vacations in the Whitsundays | Holidays in Australia

IIt is with mixed emotions that one visits a turtle rescue center without turtles. The Best of Self revels in the stories of those who have been brought back from the brink and set free in joyous and tearful ceremonies. But, I admit, I really wanted a selfie with a sea turtle.

I’m in the Whitsundays, with a bunch of quirky volunteers, but we’re not saving sea turtles. For the first time in over a year, there is no one to save.

Instead, we tick off bucket list items that are less glamorous and more literal in nature.

First, we sort mounds of rubbish torn from the beaches of some of the region’s 74 islands. Waste is grouped into buckets with detailed lists attached to them. Initially, these buckets are classified according to their wide use: bottles; flip flops and caps; debris from boats crushed by cyclones; lures, rods and fishing lines.

Then the buckets are emptied individually onto a table and the contents are sorted more precisely. The pieces of irrigation pipes are counted separately from the blades of plastic shears. Electrical cords and sail ropes have their own benchmarks.

Sarah Wilson, a longtime local volunteer, is on the floor sorting through small piles: toothbrushes, lighters, clothespins, bottle caps, unidentifiable plastic shards, combs.

“Who still uses combs? ” she asks.

Sorted plastic waste, pulled from the beaches and waters of the Whitsundays, by Eco Barge's team of volunteers.
Sorted plastic waste, pulled from the beaches and waters of the Whitsundays, by Eco Barge’s team of volunteers. Photograph: Joe Hinchliffe/The Guardian

Each object is listed and counted, as the volunteers of the Eco Barge Clean Seas project have been doing for 13 years.

Later, most of the plastic will be processed and reused, including by a company that makes bodysurfing handplanes.

The meticulous cataloging of waste is done so that project founder Libby Edge can provide the raw data to organizations that use it to tackle waste at its source, and to researchers trying to understand and reduce the impact of plastics in the ocean.

It’s a deeply personal quest that Edge, a former yacht-raised commercial skipper, has been invested in since 2009. But she’s accompanied hundreds of people on her journey.

“We’re dealing with a really grim problem,” Edge says. “But when you do it with a band of volunteers, it gives you hope in humanity.”

On this May day, Edge, Wilson and volunteer coordinator Imogen Grace are joined by a gray nomad and two young women, both of whom are traveling the country in vans.

The task lends itself to banter. Do you know any free campsites? Where is the best coral? Should an unused condom be placed on the “sporting goods” or “recreational activities” list?

Eco Barge volunteers Emily Kirkman (left) and Jess McMillan (right).
Eco Barge volunteers Emily Kirkman (left) and Jess McMillan (right). Photograph: Joe Hinchliffe/The Guardian

Jess McMillan, a 25-year-old anthropology and philosophy student from Wangaratta, tells us she’s nursing suspected broken ribs from a pile on her longboard.

Barb, the gray nomad who only wants to be called by her first name, is keen to talk about deep underground military bases (Dumbs) and children supposedly held by the millions in underground tunnels.

Edge gently brings the conversation “above ground.”

A turtle swimming above coral in the Whitsundays.
A turtle swimming above coral in the Whitsundays. Photo: Reef Safari/Supplied

As we sort through the bottles – glass from plastic, juice from water jugs – I ask Grace for the obvious. No, she never found a message there.

“Everyone asks that,” Grace said. “Everyone asks, ‘Did you find any treasure? The answer is no. It’s all just trash.

It’s not the kind of Whitsundays experience likely to end up on the cover of a brochure.

There are plenty of those experiences to be had in this part of the world, however. The snow-white silica sand of Whitehaven Beach swirled beneath the turquoise waters off Whitsunday Island. Coral gardens that dodged Hurricane Debbie in 2017 or recovered in the past five years. The next day I pay them a visit, our motor catamaran traversing calm waters blanketed in orange coral spawn – a testament to the magnificent resilience of the Great Barrier Reef.

The waters of the Whitsunday Islands are pristine, but climate change and development pose threats.
The waters of the Whitsunday Islands are pristine, but climate change and development pose threats. Photo: provided

But how long will corals retain their vibrant colors in the face of warming oceans? Or more frequent and intense cyclones? Or chemical and sediment runoff from farms and coal mines?

“What if this was the best it’s going to be, ever?” Wilson wonders.

It’s one of the reasons the Cannonvale Beach diver spends much of her time, when she’s not working at Bunnings, removing litter from the Whitsundays and sorting it.

While she can’t stabilize a hot climate, Wilson can try to get her to keep her garden tidy and preserve her status as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

Sarah Wilson, long-term local Eco Barge volunteer.
Sarah Wilson, long-term local Eco Barge volunteer. Photograph: Joe Hinchliffe/The Guardian

It can help prevent its wildlife – tropical fish, migrating whales, dugongs, birds and, of course, sea turtles – from ingesting and choking on plastic.

Once we’ve finished our interview and returned to sorting the waste, Wilson is absorbed in her task, lost in thought.

Then she realizes another reason why she continues to give freely of her time to help her friend Libby.

“For a while I struggled with the uncertainty of life,” she says.

“It gave me a reason to get up in the morning. And it’s free.

  • You can register your interest in volunteering through the Eco Barge website. Volunteering also includes going out on the barge to pick up trash and is therefore weather dependent.

  • The nearest airport to Eco Barge headquarters is Proserpine with several accommodation options at Airlie Beach, close to Tasman Holiday Parks which offers camping (from $50), cabins (from $119 ), glamping (from $179) – although prices are higher at peak times.

  • The author was a guest of Tourism Whitsundays and was taken to the islands on the reefs with Red Cat Adventures.

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