Interview with Scientist Alex Weber, 18, Who Recovered 39,602 Golf Balls from Pebble Beach

This article was originally published by the Monterey County Weekly.

Alex Weber returned to the surface from free-diving below the chilly waters of Carmel Bay with both good news and bad news for her father, Mike. The good news: She’d held her breath underwater for almost a minute-and-a-half, a personal record and a duration that would serve her well when spearfishing along the coast. The bad news: She discovered a trove of golf balls nestled in a small cove on the seafloor off Arrowhead Point.

A Carmel local, Weber had grown up on these beaches and fell in love with the ocean – boogie boarding every day after school and seeing her first dolphins, whales and sharks from shore. She had also done her fair share of picking up the trash that washed up, particularly when winter swells littered the beaches with tiny bits of plastic and other debris.

So when she encountered hundreds of golf balls sitting on the ocean floor, swaying with the current among the kelp forest, she “did what any normal person would do” – started picking them up. That first day in 2016, Weber cleaned up what she could manage – a few hundred golf balls in varying states of decomposition – and headed home from an experience that left her “shocked and disturbed, but also curious.”

Fast forward two years, and the 18-year-old Weber has published a peer-reviewed scientific paper on her experiences, quantifying both the amount – and source – of the golf balls hit into the waters of Carmel Bay each year. After hauling 39,602 golf balls out of the ocean and estimating that up to 186,000 golf balls are lost to the environment annually, Pebble Beach Company is starting to take notice and help with the cleanup.

Weekly: Why did you invest so much time in picking up golf balls?

I was raised to see the ocean as my backyard. I’d swim out and play with dolphins on the weekend, and spend time on the beach just looking at the water. Every memory from my childhood involved being in, on top of or around the ocean.

Why would I know about all of this trash just sitting there and not do something about it? It’s simple. I just wanted to clean up my backyard.

And now you’re a scientist!

The golf balls are in my garage – it’s overflowing with them – and they smell like a mix between rotting garbage and puke. So I started doing some research on these smells and found a scientist from Hopkins Marine Station, Matthew Savoca, who studies DMS, a chemical compound that causes marine plastic to smell (and which also causes different sea animals to perceive the plastics as food).

Dr. Savoca asked if I would consider writing a paper on what I found, and my initial response was no – I’m 16! And I’m in high school. But we couldn’t find any published literature on this problem.

The only way you can create change is by publishing research, so that’s why I went through the hassle. He’s become my research adviser [and, along with her father, co-authors on the paper], walking me through scientific literature and the world of publishing.

You talk about creating change.

Before this paper, there was zero peer-reviewed literature about golf balls in the ocean, river or any marine aquatic environment. There was nothing anyone could reference that says “Hey, Pebble Beach, all of these golf balls are becoming marine debris, and it’s awful.” Now, there’s a lot more pressure on them to take action.

What has Pebble Beach done to clean up all of these golf balls?

One of the things about my study is that it quantifies that the majority of the golf balls are in the marine environment, so the amount of plastic on land is fractional compared to what’s actually out there. So many of these golf balls make their way into the sea, and then they’re never seen again. Pebble Beach has plans to start cleaning up the marine environment. I’m hopeful.

What’s one message you might have for anyone who’s listening?

The first is that every action you do has an impact. We are all connected, so if you move one thing, the whole world is going to shake. The second is that if you find something you’re passionate about, there’s no reason not to pursue it. That’s how I feel about the ocean, and keeping it clean.