Brian Coggan
Final Internship Report:

A Crash Course in Beach Clean-Ups

I began my internship with several different goals. First and foremost, I wanted to address the problem of debris pollution on the beaches of Angel Island State Park. Angel Island has been called a gem in the middle of San Francisco Bay because it has escaped the urbanization that has clogged most of the surrounding area. Angel Island has a rich cultural history, extending from its inhabitation by Miwok Native Americans through its use as an immigration station and finally with its military functions during WWII and the Cold War. But alongside these cultural details coexists an island that is ecologically rich, sublimely beautiful, and a source of solitude in an otherwise crowded region. In particular, I have developed a special attachment to the beaches of Angel Island by kayaking around its shores.

It sometimes seems the greatest of ironies that everything valuable in this world seems to be under constant attack. No place on our planet exists in isolation and Angel Island’s precious beaches are constantly infringed by the surrounding area. The incredible amounts of trash that wash onto these beaches serve as a reminder that their beauty is fragile and easily lost. To address this problem I wanted to organize a beach clean-up to remove the trash that has been accumulating on Angel Island’s shores for many years.

I recognized very early on that picking up the bottles and Styrofoam, old shoes and buckets, and balloons and balls that wash onto the beach hardly scratches the much larger problem of marine pollution or the even larger issue of how our culture treats the ocean. Nothing that can be accomplished in only a few hours on a beach could add up to anything significant in the larger scheme of things. I hoped, however, that by treating a surficial problem I could gain greater insight into deeper issues. I hoped that through helping clean a beach, participants could become aware of these larger issues and learn more about the intricacies of marine pollution.

But any compassion must begin with caring, and no one will fight for a beach they’ve never heard of. So my final goal is to simply share Angel Island’s beaches with people who have never seen them before. I hope that cleaning a beach can prove a satisfying activity on many different levels.

The first half of my internship was a frustrating ordeal involving calling various people and practically begging for support. Perhaps my first mistake was to try and organize my beach clean-up as an independent project rather than finding something to piggy-back on for sponsors, a support network, and advertising. Soon after starting my project I learned of the Coastal Clean-Up Day in September that would have been an ideal event to jump in with if only I did not have to be back in school by that date.

Still, the greatest source of my frustration was trying to contact people, leaving messages, and never getting anyone to call me back. This was a particular problem with the two most important contacts I had, Angel Island State Park itself and the Angel Island Association. The Association handles all of the volunteer activities in the park, but when contacted, they forwarded my emails to the park, which never returned emails or phone messages.

I struggled with these issues all summer and had made no headway by the time that I left for school. I almost abandoned the project at this point but I felt passionately about my cause and was determined to continue, with or without any other support. But I finally had a breakthrough when on a whim I called the Angel Island Association again and reached Casey Lee. Casey is not only the volunteer coordinator for the Angel Island Association but is also a ranger in the park. In just a few minutes she put me on the calendar for the weekend after Thanksgiving and solved some of the logistical problems of disposing of the trash and so on.

This success added some excitement for going home over Thanksgiving, but in the week that I was home before the event, I felt like I had relapsed into my pervious condition of never getting any of my calls returned. On numerous occasions I wondered if getting all that stuff accomplished over the phone with Casey had just been a dream. This created a problem because I was unsure of the support with the Park Service so I was uncomfortable with advertising the event. But I also knew that if I did not advertise the event no one would come and the whole thing would flop anyways. In the end, I decided to compromise by asking only family and friends to come so that we could have a fun day whether or not we could actually clean any beaches.

It turned out that everything fell into place the morning of the event. Although I never saw Casey, she put some trash bags out by the beach with a volunteer sign-up sheet and note explaining that she would pick up the trash later. Our small group of three was surprisingly efficient and we cleaned the entire beach in less time that I had expected. Most importantly, it turned out to be a fun and enjoyable event for all. My dad even suggested that we adopt the beach so that we could come back every year to clean it up.

Even when we were motoring back to the dock after the beach clean-up I found myself thinking about the future potential of beach clean-ups. I think that it would be really fun to organize a larger event that might coincide with Coastal Clean-Up Day with the goal of cleaning every beach on Angel Island. Considering that it only took three people several hours to clean one of the largest and dirtiest beaches on the whole island, I think that cleaning the whole island would take less participants than it would seem. Sometime in the middle of the afternoon there could be a big barbeque and picnic on the island to celebrate the beaches that were cleaned. I also think that it would also be valuable to get some high school teachers interested in bringing their classes to Angel Island for a field trip and beach clean-up as community service. I think that an activity like this would make an excellent addition to any science or environmental studies curriculum.

To address some of the problems of organizing a larger event like this I think that it would be important to delegate jobs to different people and make full use of preexisting organizations, like the Park Service, Angel Island Association, and the Coastal Commission.

Overall, I feel a renewed faith in an event like beach clean-ups. Even if it addresses very superficial aspects of larger environmental problems, I think that the simple and approachable nature of a beach clean-up makes it a valuable outreach tool to the community. A beach clean-up has the possibility of making people aware of issues that they would not otherwise care about.