Citizen scientist, Kathlyn Tan Sharks4kids Presentation
Kathlyn Tan introducing children to the world of sharks with the help of Sharks4Kids. Photo courtesy of Kathlyn Tan

We meet Kathlyn Tan, scuba diver, freediver, conservationist, and Project AWARE ambassador. She co-founded Coastal Natives in Singapore, a community dedicated to ocean education and conservation through public events, classroom presentations, and film screenings. She is also a citizen scientist working closely on recording and collecting marine debris.

What is a Citizen Scientist? 

Citizen science is a collaboration between volunteers and scientists to help advance research in a specific area. Scientists can’t be everywhere and this is where the community – or citizen scientists – can help fill the gap and contribute to science-based research! 

Being a citizen scientist often involves data collection, which can sometimes be quite rigorous depending on the program. This means it is important that we follow coordinators’ instructions to help maintain high-quality data and contribute to accurate findings.

A crab covered by a piece of marine litter in the Philippines.
A crab hiding under a piece of marine litter in Anilao, Philippines. Photo courtesy of Kathlyn Tan

How can the work of a Citizen Scientist impact the scientific and general community?

There are a variety of citizen science programs available for us divers to contribute to. From programs that look at reporting shark sightings and identifying manta ray individuals; to reporting fish populations and monitoring coral health; to removing and reporting marine debris. 

By sharing what you see with the scientific community, you can help scientists collect valuable data for research, and ultimately, help contribute to protecting ecosystems that we all depend on to survive. This just makes every dive even more meaningful in my opinion!

Read More: Q&A with a Marine Science Teacher

How did you become a Citizen Scientist?

I spent my youth near the beach in Sydney, Australia, but only started diving a little over 10 years ago. As I’m sure many Down to Scuba readers can relate to, the ocean is my happy place… my second home that I wish was my first! Returning to the same dive sites over the years, it is heartbreaking to see once thriving underwater cities, turn to rubble. 

While watching Blue The Film one day, I had the realization that I, too, should be doing more to protect what I love. I reached out to the conservation organization, Project AWARE, and learnt about the wonderful work that they do for ocean protection. Their flagship citizen science program is called Dive Against Debris and is the world’s largest database for litter found on the seafloor. Unlike land debris, scuba divers are the only ones who can help with underwater debris. One dive, one action, really can make a difference!

Citizen Scientist, Kathlyn Tan PADI Project AWARE Asia Dive Expo 2019
Citizen Scientist, Kathlyn with Project AWARE team members at Asia Dive Expo 2019. Photo courtesy of Kathlyn Tan

What is the aim of recording marine litter?

According to a major study by the Pew Trusts, 11 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean each year, and that number could triple by 2040 if nothing changes. Via the Dive Against Debris survey guide, Project AWARE educates divers about marine debris, and how to conduct marine debris surveys safely and accurately. In addition to removing marine debris from the ocean, the survey involves reporting data on types, quantities, and locations of materials collected. 

While plastic is just one type of material we find on the seafloor, aggregated data contributed by citizen scientists from all around the world shows that in 2019, Plastics made up 63% of global debris items, followed by Metals (17%) and Glass & Ceramics (7%).

Clean up dive in Singapore - Citizen scientists are recording and sorting out this marine litter
Divers and volunteers from ‘Our Singapore Reefs’ sorting marine debris after a dive clean up. According to Dive Against Debris survey data (2018), plastic bottles of less than 2L is the most commonly recovered item from Singapore waters. Photo courtesy of Kathlyn Tan

By tens of thousands of divers coming together to provide a better picture of what is happening below the waves, we are building concrete evidence of the scale of the global marine debris crisis, which will help provide more context for policymakers and conservation actions around the world. And you can help contribute to this effort too.

What can the average diver (or non-diver) do to reduce our marine litter impact on the ocean?

If I had to pick two things for the average diver (or non-diver) to do to reduce our impact on the ocean, I would say cutting off waste at the source and helping to clean up what we can. 

The contribution to marine litter is taking place on a global scale (and has been for decades) but as individuals, we can still do our part to slow down the scourge of marine litter.

We can consume mindfully by using only what we need and choosing more environmentally friendly options when possible; and we can use less single-use items – plastics especially – which can take up to 450 years to break down in the ocean. Our throwaway culture can certainly be seen on our dives!

Find out what this Maritime Archaeologist finds underwater!

Divers Underwater Collecting Rubbish
Divers on their safety stop with some trash collected during a dive. Photo courtesy of Kathlyn Tan

I would also encourage readers to participate in (or even initiate) beach, river, or ocean cleanups. Not only will you be helping to reduce stress on the ocean and marine life, but it is also a wake-up call and real motivation to see our impacts on the environment. It is also a great opportunity to meet like-minded friends who care about the same things you do.

Not to mention, it feels so good when you finally send that last bag of trash you have collected off for proper disposal!

Read Part 2 of Kathlyn Tan’s Interview to learn more about Coastal Natives and how to get involved!

Emma was initially terrified of the deep ocean but dived right into scuba diving years ago and hasn't looked back since! After completing her PADI DiveMaster certification and with a Bachelor of Communications (Media) background in film-making, Emma started her scuba career as an Underwater Videographer before becoming a full-time PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer. She taught and certified hundreds of PADI scuba divers as Open Water Divers, Rescue Divers, Deep Specialty Divers, Dive Masters and more, and then managed several Dive Centres. Her favourite fish (which is also tattooed on her arm) is the Barracuda!