Willem has dived in every continent and every ocean, but his heart belongs to the North Sea. Therefore he started dedicating his time to a Dutch non-profit organization called ‘Duik de Noordzee schoon’.
“When I started wreck diving in the North Sea, I realized there was a lot of work to be done, more than one pocket on my drysuit could handle.” Willem Heijdeman lives in the Netherlands and has been witnessing a negative change in the ocean the last few years. He decided he wanted to be part of the solution and now dedicates his time to a non-profit organization (Duik de Noordzee Schoon) that works towards a cleaner North Sea. They not only remove ghost nets (discarded fishing nets) and fishing lines, they also try to raise awareness by creating and publishing photos, articles and movies about the Noordzee. We had the chance to speak with this true Ocean Witness, so today Willem shares his story.
What’s your first memory of the ocean?
The first 10 years of my life we spent our holidays on the Dutch coast in a place called Renesse. During these holidays we spent a lot of time playing on the beach. While playing, we would find beautiful shells, jellyfish, crabs and cuttlebones. I was fascinated by all these strange and beautiful things. To me, they were all part of the mystery of the ocean. Also, when I was a little child my father used to take me for walks every Sunday afternoon. We always did two games: trying to find and name as many wildflowers and fill the bag as full as we could (he’d always let me win…) and we always ended with a full bag of waste.
What does the ocean mean to you today?
Being a diver gave me the opportunity to see the beauty that’s hidden underwater. When I started diving, I learned a lot about the ocean. As a diver you enter a world where you don’t really belong, you’re a guest. I had the privilege of seeing the most beautiful creatures of the sea up close and witness their unique strategies to live and survive. The oceans offer the most beautiful sceneries I have ever encountered.
However, the most beautiful sea in the world, to me is the North Sea. I’ve dived in every continent, in every ocean and none of them came close to the beauty of ‘our’ North Sea. It is so misused, yet so ruggedly fighting to stay alive. It is a sea worth fighting for.
“The North Sea so misused, yet so ruggedly fighting to stay alive. It is a sea worth fighting for.”
How has the ocean changed over the years according to you?
In the 20 years that I’ve been diving, the sea has changed considerably. Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed a decrease in biodiversity as well as an increase of the amount of plastic.
For example, when we arrived at the Aboukir shipwreck 20 years ago we were welcomed by walls of codfish. Nowadays, we have to look for them. They’re no longer out in the open. They’re usually hiding in different parts of the wreckage. The wrecks are filled with ghost nets and fishing lines. This is very dangerous, because the fish and shellfish can get caught in them. I’ve also seen a drop in the amount of fish and the number of different species. It makes me sad to see that biodiversity is decreasing.
And while I float around this world, like a bird in the sky “flying” over all this beautiful life, there’s always this grim reminder of the world above the waves. The amount of plastic is terrifying. On all my 2.000 dives, I’ve always come across bottles, cups, bags, fishing lines, fishing nets etc. The world down here, so beautifully capable of minding their own business, is harassed by careless people who seem to think that once beneath the waves, their waste does not exist anymore.
“Over the years we’ve removed over 32.000 kilos of fishing nets, almost 13.000 kilos of fishing lead and with the length of the fishing lines we removed we could go around the globe.”
What do you do to make a difference?
I decided I wanted to be part of the solution. No matter how small my contribution might be. So, like my father taught me, I pick up the waste. Whenever I would get out of the water, my pocket would be filled with plastic cups and fishing line. When I started wreck diving in the North Sea I realized there was a lot of work to be done, more than one pocket on my drysuit could handle. Every wreck I encountered was covered in ghost nets, lost or left by fisherman that were fishing close to the wrecks. That’s why I joined an organization called ‘Duik de Noordzee Schoon’ (roughly translated as Dive the North Sea Clean).
As board member and volunteer of this organization I am constantly working towards a cleaner North Sea. With the help of volunteers we remove ghost nets, fishing lines and lead from the wrecks in the North Sea. Over the years we’ve removed over 32.000 kilos of fishing nets, almost 13.000 kilos of fishing lead and with the length of the fishing lines we removed we could go around the globe.
We also try to raise awareness. We have excellent photographers and producers in our team, they shoot and collect impressive footage of the underwater world. With this footage we try to show non-divers the beautiful yet vulnerable underwater world. We hope to inspire them and make them realize the ocean deserves to be protected by us.
“Take no more than the ocean can produce and make sure important and biodiverse areas are protected.”
And what are good solutions for better conservation of our oceans globally, to your opinion?
I think it’s important to make sure the use of the sea is balanced. Take no more than the ocean can produce and make sure important and biodiverse areas are protected. We can only achieve this goal with all the stakeholders involved, therefore I think Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are the only realistic solution to preserve and protect marine life.
So let’s imagine that it’s 2030 now. What do you think the ocean looks like?
I’m afraid that the deterioration of the marine life will continue. I think it’s important to act now and try to reach and activate as many people as we can to prevent the oceans from completely disappearing.
“We hope to inspire them and make them realize the ocean deserves to be protected by us.”
“It may feel like your efforts are just a small drop in the ocean. But all our efforts combined make a big change.”
Thanks for sharing your story, you’re an Ocean Witness now. What do you want to say to other Ocean Witnesses?
Keep up the good work. Don’t be discouraged if the results are not as big as you’d like them to be. It may feel like your efforts are just a small drop in the ocean. But all our efforts combined make a big change. Every positive contribution, no matter how small, is a good one.
Willem lives in Hollandsche Rading, a small town, close to Utrecht (the Netherlands). He has been diving for 20 years and did almost 2000 dives. He dived in every continent and every ocean, but his heart belongs to the North Sea. Therefore he started dedicating his time to a Dutch non-profit organization called ‘Duik de Noordzee schoon’. With the help of volunteers they clean up the North Sea and make people aware of the problems our oceans are facing.