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Making waves, cleaning beaches

Sam Judd is on a mission to clean up New Zealand’s beaches. Photo: Paul Estcourt
From the Galapagos to Great Barrier Island, Sustainable Coastlines co-founder Sam Judd is cleaning up beaches and waterways with help from surprising places

It was a shark bite that changed Sam Judd’s life.

An avid surfer, he was living in South America, fixing up surfboards and living the good life on San Cristóbal Island in the Galapagos.

In December 2007, he was out surfing when a tiger shark sunk its teeth into his upper right thigh. He was evacuated to Quito, and despite enormous pressure to fly home, he stayed. Judd says he knew that if he didn’t force himself to go back to the island and face the wave again, he might never get back on a board.

Prior to his brush with death, Judd had been part of a big beach clean-up that collected 1.6 tonnes of rubbish. After the accident, he was asked to help organise another trash pick-up, this time in the port city on San Cristóbal. A filmmaker offered to document the clean-up, and Judd decided he better start an organisation to help create some structure for the event.

“And so, we had a shot of tequila at 10 in the morning, and that’s where we started Sustainable Coastlines: in an insect-infested, half-finished house on San Cristóbal Island,” he says, laughing. “And then we picked up 7.5 tonnes of rubbish in half a day and it was the first time in the history of that island that every community group worked together.”

Penniless but motivated, Judd, who is a qualified lawyer, made his way back to New Zealand, hitchhiking on sailboats across the Pacific. During long layovers in Tahiti, Fiji and Cook Islands, he was struck by how much rubbish filled the beaches of otherwise pristine shorelines.

Back in New Zealand, he wasn’t ready to jump into a career as a lawyer, so he started working as a commercial freediver in Whangerei where he was soon confronted with the sobering amounts of pollution on the offshore islands. So he decided to take action. In April 2009, Sustainable Coastlines had its first official New Zealand debut; Judd formed a team to take on the rubbish of Aotea/Great Barrier Island.

He raised $45,000 in five weeks, and took a group of 700 people to the island where they picked up 2.8 tonnes of rubbish in just two days. Among the volunteers were students from a low-decile school in South Auckland.

“The kids desperately needed to be connected to nature,” Judd says. “For about a quarter of them, it was the first time they’d been to the beach. For almost all of them it was the first time they’d been on a boat. We didn’t realise how important that was, because you can’t motivate a kid to get out and look after the beach if they’ve never been there.”

The experience made Judd realise he needed to focus his efforts on communities that are most disconnected from nature. So, in addition to engaging with low-decile schools, Judd also began working with offenders.

In 2010, he went back to Great Barrier and picked up another 3.1 tonnes of rubbish with a group of volunteers. Then came the task of auditing the rubbish so they could report their findings, a job he thought he could get the Department of Corrections to help with.

“I rang them up and said, look, this is for educational resources, we’re a charity, we need some help.” He asked for 20 men, and they said yes.

“These people are not your normal environmentalists – these are the ones that we really need to connect with,” Judd says. “It’s easy to preach to the converted. At an [environmental] event, when I get up and talk, I’ll say, ‘you know what, I shouldn’t even really be here. None of you people drop rubbish. I’m sure you all know that you don’t wash your car next to the drains. This is not my target audience’.”

He continues to work with offenders and those on probation. In Whaingaroa Harbour, Raglan, with the help of 140 offenders, they collected 300 cubic metres of weeds. “We transformed an entire peninsula,” Judd says. “Their supervisors were saying they’ve never seen the guys work so hard.”

Judd has also developed vocational training programmes at two prisons: offenders from Auckland Prison are helping build an education centre for Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter, and Waikeria Prison in Waikato has constructed a nursery to produce native trees and plants for riparian restoration.

Judd is now hoping to work with three other prisons around New Zealand to grow native trees and plants to clean up waterways, and with Community Work offenders to restore four catchments in the North Island.

“Volunteers love planting trees, but they don’t love ripping out gorse and blackberry in the middle of winter in the rain,” Judd says. “So, working with your ultimate captive audience – it’s kind of good for that sort of stuff. They have an opportunity to do meaningful work, to do something that’s giving back to water quality.”

Working with prisoners has been an impactful experience for Judd; before each event, he leads an educational programme for the offenders. It gives him an opportunity to connect and relate to the men, which he does by telling his story of his shark bite in the Galapagos.

“I tell them that story because you can’t always choose when that shark’s gonna hit you. Bad shit happens. Sometimes you can’t control it; you get knocked down at home, or at work, or your mates, or by the cops, and you don’t always get to choose,” Judd says.

“But what you can choose is how you get back up on your feet again. And when you do that, that’s what makes you more resilient next time someone’s trying to knock you down. So I show them the photo, and tell them that after that, I said ‘screw this’, I can beat this place, and those sharks, and we’re going to clean up this beach.”

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