A group of young Kiwis have this weekend taken their crusade to clean up beaches to Hawaii - just around the corner from the famous surf breaks of Oahu's North Shore.

They're part of this weekend's global effort to pick up some of the eight million tonnes of rubbish that is estimated to be dumped into oceans and waterways.

At the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge, on a trade winds-whipped day eight young Kiwis are picking up trash.

They've been selected by a New Zealand non-profit group, the Sea Cleaners, for a week-long stay in Hawaii, with the help of Hawaiian Airlines and the Hawaiian Tourism Organisation.

Charlie Thomas, 16, from Red Beach at the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge on Oahu. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Charlie Thomas, 16, from Red Beach at the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge on Oahu. Photo / Brett Phibbs

They've come at a good time. During the last fortnight Hawaii's coast has been taking a pounding from Hurricane Lane and a near-miss from Tropical Storm Olivia, throwing up swell - and rubbish - from all around the Pacific on to its beautiful beaches.

At the refuge, there are seals and birds, including New Zealand-bound godwits in spring.

The Kiwis are mainly school-age volunteers from the upper North Island and from a variety of backgrounds and what they've seen during the past few days has been an eye- opener.

The north-east tip of Hawaii can be a magnet for swell but also buoys, nets and traps from fishing boats right down to the tiny nurdles - tiny beads of plastic raw material. The debris washes up from anywhere from Alaska to Japan.

Charlie Thomas, 16, from Red Beach has been cleaning beaches for more than three years. With the other Sea Cleaners, she's been collecting up to 10 cubic metres a day from the otherwise pristine reserve. She's seen a Hawaiian monk seal in a nest of plastic but couldn't go near the animal.

''Coming here for the first time and not being able to leave with all of the plastic is one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever done, '' she said

''It's been such a raw and emotional experience.''

Over this week, the Sea Cleaners will do a series of clean-ups in conjunction with non-government organisations, schools and other community groups. They'll also conduct presentations at schools and will speak of the marine litter management issues New Zealand is experiencing and parallels with the clean-up push in Hawaii.


About an hour further south on the US state's most populous island, Hawaiian Airlines' director of community relations, Debbie Nakanelua-Richards is with the carrier's "Team Kokua" at Waimanalo Beach picking up trash.

The 200-plus team of volunteers are from different parts of the airline and are working with others from the Bank of Hawaii and the Sustainable Coastlines organisation.

The volunteers are in the airline's colours and this is one of the regular events it's involved in, to help communities and to build camaraderie.

The beach cleanup is special. There's a deep spiritual tie to the ocean - Hawaiians have been master navigators through the ages and its royals started surfing 1000 years ago.

Hawaiian Airlines' director of community relations, Debbie Nakanelua-Richards at Waimanalo Beach. Photo/Brett Phibbs.
Hawaiian Airlines' director of community relations, Debbie Nakanelua-Richards at Waimanalo Beach. Photo/Brett Phibbs.

''We're surrounded by ocean - its extremely powerful - it's a part of our existence here in these islands - it's healing, it's inspiring, it's reflective of the people who got here before,'' says Nakanelua-Richards, a former Miss Hawaii who's been with the airline for nearly 40 years.

''The ocean is really special to all island people.''

Waimanalo Beach is a tree-fringed 6km strip of white sand and looks pristine. But look more closely and you see insidious micro-plastics that have to be sieved from the sand.

''We have to eliminate those things from our lifestyle. Then one day, hopefully, we will go to the beach and enjoy it, not have to clean it up.''

It's what 1.5 million residents of the island state demand and there's also a commercial imperative to keep the beaches clean.

''We look at visitors and welcome them into our home. It's really important for them to come to a place that is not only really safe but is free of debris.''

Hawaii attracts 10 million tourists a year, drawn to the famous golden sand and crystal clear water surrounding the islands that sit in the tropics.

The east-facing shore or windward side of Hawaii is where much of the debris washes up. Co—founder and executive director of Sustainable Coastlines Kahi Paccaro says most of it comes from fishing boats out catching to sustain what he says is the Hawaii's insatiable appetite for poke - raw tuna.

He told the volunteers not to give up eating the staple but talk to fishers about the need to make sure gear and rubbish was not going over the side of their boats.

Paccaro, a surfer, describes the microplastics as being like ''plastic confetti'' - hard to spot unless its clinging to your feet.

On the snaky coastal drive between Team Kokua and the Sea Cleaners you pass Kualoa Ranch, Hollywood's "backlot of Hawaii," where movies and TV shows, including Hawaii Five-0, Lost, Kong: Skull Island and Jumanji have been filmed.

Sea Cleaners' leader Hayden Smith has a sea skipper's ticket (the group has a small fleet of four boats in the Auckland area) and was a pioneer of commercial marine litter collection concept in Auckland City since 2002.

He has over 15 years' experience on the water as a contractor to the Watercare Harbour Clean-Up Trust and has directed the co-ordination of over 130,000 volunteer hours.

Hayden Smith, Te-Ariki Waipouri-Rerekura and Charlie Thomas. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Hayden Smith, Te-Ariki Waipouri-Rerekura and Charlie Thomas. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Set up more than 15 years ago, Sea Cleaners have been scooping up rubbish from North Island waterways and beaches, removing 41 million different pieces of trash ranging from $20 notes to a bottle of mercury

He helped select those on the Hawaii mission; beside Charlie Thomas there are Ede Bird, from Michael Park School, Riley Hathaway from Matakana College, Cee Jay Maitai who went to Mangere College, Joe McLoughlin from Kelston Boy's High School, John Commissaris now at Otago University, Laith Hammond from Kings College, Te-Ariki Waipouri-Rerekura from the Far North.

Smith in 2009 also co-ordinated a personal expedition to the North Pacific Ocean to raise awareness of the vortex - The great Pacific Garbage patch - the North Pacific Gyre.

It's about 1100km north of Hawaii and stretches across the Pacific. It changed his life.

''We saw these convergence zones that stretch from horizon to horizon and inside there were debris fields, rivers of trash running right through them. We saw whales in calf swimming through these debris fields, there were nets and ropes and plastic fragments left right and centre,'' he says.

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''It's not solid that you can walk on, it's more like a fog strewn through our oceans - it stretches from the Americas to Japan and everywhere through that top space and even through the South Pacific as well.''

New Zealand's Consul General in Honolulu, Karena Lyons, is also involved in the Sea Cleaners project. She says it represents a rainbow between the two countries and a way of sharing this country's environmental values.

''Rubbish doesn't know political boundaries - it just washes up everywhere. There's nothing more tragic than seeing a beautiful pristine beach like this, be it in New Zealand, be it in Hawaii or be it in Palau covered in rubbish.''

Lyons wants to see the Sea Cleaners model rolled out in other island nations she has responsibility for, including Palau and the Marshall Islands.

''Bit by bit, beach by beach we'll clean up the Pacific.''

• The Herald travelled courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines and the Hawaiian Tourism Organisation