Volunteer-led Save Our Seas in Thailand is committed to making the seas in their country a safe place for all ocean creatures.

IMAGINE being dragged down the ocean with no way of fighting back. As you struggle to free yourself, you see many others like you being dragged down too. Everyone’s fighting to be free but not one succeeds.

Instead, the more you struggle, the more tangled you become. And when your energy runs out, so does your life. As you rot away on the ocean floor, the spectre that weighed you down goes off in search of new victims. Floating up to the surface, it waits patiently for its prey. It doesn’t take long for another unfortunate soul to be trapped — and the cycle continues.

It’s a horrifying scene and yet you’ll never hear any screams. There’s silence because the ones dying aren’t humans; they’re the ocean’s life forms. And those blood thirsty spectres? They’re the “ghost nets” — fishing nets that have been lost at sea. They’re the silent killers roaming the oceans slaughtering indiscriminately. Some are made so strong that they can continue killing for up to 600 years, unnoticed.


A 200kg-killing-machine on the ocean floor.

One man has made it his mission to rid the oceans of these deathly scourges. He’s akin to a living GI Joe of the sea and today, Scott Cassell, together with Save Our Sea, a volunteer-led team of divers from Thailand, are on the Essential Sea Mission, organised by Luminox, to recover ghost nets in the Gulf of Thailand. The American watch brand has been the biggest supporter of Cassell’s efforts since 2009.

“This is my 30th mission and I’ve only been doing it for a couple of years,” shares Cassell, who’s seated beside me after a fulfilling lunch at Renaissance Pattaya Resort & Spa, Thailand. This may not be his first mission overseas, but it’s his first in Thailand.

“I’ve heard that there are many ghost nets here, more than what I can find in Mexico where most of my missions have been taking place,” he confides, adding: “But sometimes, you never know. We’ll adapt in whatever way we can. If we don’t find any ghost nets here, we’ll be picking up trash because every little bit of help counts.” His statement is met by a vigorous nod by Andre Bernheim, chief executive officer and owner of Mondaine Watch Limited, who’s also with us today.


I’d rather they keep the job of a net maker alive by building nets that break down after two or three years than engineer a monstrosity that will last for 80 generations over. - Scott Cassell

PROTECTOR OF THE SEA

If you’re looking for a superhero, look no further than Cassell, says Bernheim before elaborating: “He’s risking and devoting his live to save the environment, especially the ocean and its inhabitants every day. But he’s a lonely fighter because he’s usually doing it by himself.”

The affable Cassell’s life and his body of work reads like a Hollywood movie script. He’s a military man, a combat medic, a sniper, and now, a protector of the ocean. Of these roles, his favourite, confides Cassell, is being a combat diver. “And you know what? Combat dive school is the hardest school in the military. It makes jump school look silly!” he quips.

This Californian native began diving from the age of 12, and by 15 years old, he had put on a hard hat to become America’s youngest underwater welder.

“I’ve always loved the ocean,” he reveals, eyes twinkling. “But it became such a rare occurrence to see the ocean when my family moved to the Old South. So, I’d dive in ponds, lakes, and rivers, and did a lot of learning chasing frogs and eels,” he recounts, chuckling.


Andre Bernheim believes that saving earth begins at home.

He took to protecting the seas when he was wounded during his last combat. “I was stabbed in the back and became partially paralysed in my left leg,” shares Cassell, before adding: “As I was recovering, I decided to get back in the field and began hunting poachers in Mexico.” His missions resulted in many of these poachers being arrested and, in turn, earned Cassell the nickname Sea Wolf.

He later changed his company’s name to Sea Wolves Unlimited and shifted his focus from combat work that protected people to protecting animals. Over the years, Cassell has championed many causes, from misunderstood sharks to clearing the ocean beds of harmful contaminants, and bringing to justice eco-terrorists and poachers.

In addition, he also founded and runs a non-profit and public benefit company for oceanic research and educational outreach known as Undersea Voyager Project. In support of Cassell’s efforts, Luminox created the new 3509.SC.SET in collaboration with the man himself where a portion of the proceeds from sales would go towards funding the project and its ocean explorations.

“My friend once said that the guy who stabbed me in the back has shaped my life and helped the oceans more than he ever thought he could,” says Cassell with a chuckle.


Some nets made these days will remain killing machines up to 600 years if not cleared.

GLOBAL INITIATIVES

The one-day dive mission has turned out to be a successful one as the team managed to clear about 200kgs worth of ghost nets from the ocean bed. But it’s only a small triumph — there are still a lot more out there. “We were only working on one small hill. Imagine how much more there is elsewhere,” says Bernheim.

The Gulf of Thailand is known to be a popular fishing area, with plenty of fishing villages along the coastline. However, it’s not only here where ghost nets have been reported to be found. Many other countries are also grappling with this bane, particularly in areas high with fishing activities.

Suffice to say, Cassell is not the only ocean warrior out there. In the Maldives, there’s the Olive Ridley Project whose aim is to save entangled Olive Ridley sea turtles, while up north doing good work in the Dutch North Sea is the Ghost Fishing Foundation comprising groups of local divers in the Netherlands. They’ve collaborated with many other European countries on countless projects to clear the oceans surrounding Europe from these floating silent killers.

The largest global initiative yet is the Global Ghost Gear Initiative launched in 2015. This international organisation bands together a diverse group of people to tackle the problem of ghost fishing gear on a global scale. Participants include people from the fishing industry, the private sectors, academia, government ministries, intergovernmental organisations and

non-profits.


There’s a silent predator lurking in the oceans and one man is determined to make it his mission to fight the enemy.

BANE OF THE OCEAN

“What I don’t understand is why people are dropping things into the ocean and not bothering to pick them up? The nets don’t come cheap,” says Bernheim, no doubt referring to the floating ghost nets they’d found today. “If I were to drop my watch into the ocean, I’m sure I’d dive in to retrieve it.”

The nets, says Cassell with a sigh, are made better and better every year. “I’d rather they keep the job of a net maker alive by building nets that break down after two or three years than engineer a monstrosity that will last for 80 generations over.”

The toughest part about his job, continues Cassell, is not being able to act on the bad guys because that would be considered an assault. Instead, all he can do is stay quietly filming their deeds and pray for the law to bring them to justice. “For someone who always stands in the way of bullies, that’s the hardest thing to ever do,” he says, sadness in his voice.

As silence descends on our group, we’re suddenly interrupted by the arrival of an usher who announces that the press conference is about to begin and that both men are required to take their seats. As we all make our way to the hall, Cassell turns to me and confides: “All my life I’ve protected people and animals. I’ll always be the one standing in the way of a bully beating up a little kid or killing a shark. I’ll always be the guy in the way and I think I’ll be that way for the rest of my life.”

Emphatically, he concludes: “No doubt it gets me beaten up a lot, but I’m never going to back down. And I’ll leave you with one promise — I’m too stupid to quit!”

Su-lyn@nst.com.my

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