Volunteers on an Operation SPLASH boat enjoy a privilege granted to the organization’s dues-paying members: They get to pick up garbage.
Equipped with long-handled nets, or poles with hooks at one end, the crewmembers glide in a flat-bottomed skiff across waters that alternately sparkle blue-gray-green in sunlight or assume a mystical tone under haze. Salt-marsh fragrances freshen the air, moist breezes caress away the heat, and the green expanses of marsh grass on the wetland islets known as hammocks are host to darting black-and-white swallows, tall gray herons and stately white egrets, among many other bird species.
The determined cleanup of the shores is continuous. Six SPLASH boats run at least once daily from Freeport (home of SPLASH headquarters), Wantagh, Massapequa, East Rockaway, Lindenhurst, and Island Park.
Capt. Mike Bellovin, of Baldwin, is one of the SPLASH members trained to steer a boatload of volunteers along the shoreline. Bellovin’s scheduled patrol starts Monday afternoons at 4 p.m. from Guy Lombardo Marina. On a recent run, he steered the boat from the dock, while his wife, First Mate Elizabeth Bellovin, stood amidships, balancing easily with the deck’s motion. On the bow, Scott McInnes, of Freeport, rested against the handrail, net at the ready.
Captain Mike nosed the boat into the waters of Hudson Canal. Crewmembers scanned the shoreline for the glint of beverage cans or the ubiquitous plastic bottles snagged in the tall stems. From 100 feet away, they spied pieces of white, pink or blue Styrofoam lurking on the hammocks. As needed, they reached from the boat to imprison deflated balloons, soggy ribbons and floating objects ranging from a baseball cap to a cracked square bucket to a ping-pong ball.
Bellovin said the shores were cleaner than when he first started his runs a decade ago. “The plastic bag ban made a big difference,” he said. “Plastic bags were once the number two most frequently picked up item. Number one is plastic bottles.”
On the benches at the sides of the deck, Mark and Helene Mannas, a married couple from Merrick, chatted with their longtime friend, Helene Scheinberg, of Wantagh. The three are retired teachers who have volunteered with SPLASH for years.
“When we see garbage, we’re like 2-year-olds, we get so excited,” Scheinberg said.
The boat chugged through waters that Bellovin said were unusually calm. He steered toward a hammock dominated by an osprey nest composed partly of a white plastic sheet. Four ospreys soared upward from the nest, annoyed by the boat. The crew drew a collective breath when one osprey returned, hanging in the air and glaring at them before landing back on the nest.
Throughout the trip, the crew dragged wooden boards out of the waters and laid them in the stern. Scott McInnes said, “A floating board can hit a moving boat like a torpedo.” Removing boards is vital to harbor safety.
Along the shore of Barnum’s Channel, the crew slogged in their galoshes to reach between tall green stems for items to fill their white plastic buckets. They dumped their dubious treasures into a big trashcan on board, changed the big garbage bag and headed out again.
Cheers and whoops went up when McInnes hauled a used tire from the sand onto the deck. Meanwhile, the others lugged large chunks of dense blue Styrofoam from the shoreline. The chunks, like the wood, break off from docks. Their purpose is to keep a dock afloat. Like wood, they could disable a boat engine.
“We pick them up every time the boat comes out,” Bellovin said.
At last the run was finished. When Bellovin docked the boat, the crew had the satisfaction of carrying five full garbage bags, about 20 boards of varying sizes, a lost watering pump and the collapsed tire to the dumpsters a hundred feet from the shoreline of the marina.
For $20 per year for an individual and $25 per year for a family, volunteers can revel in the loveliness of the shores while alleviating the burden of trash that poisons the waters.
“We don’t mind picking up the garbage,” Helene Mannas said, “because the whole thing is so beautiful.”