Golf Ball Sculpture Will Send Message About Ocean Pollution

May 23, 2019

Some ocean pollution, like plastic bags, can float on top of the water. Others, like golf balls, sink. So to raise awareness about this problem, a Santa Cruz artist is turning golf balls from the ocean’s floor into a sculpture. They were collected in the waters off Pebble Beach by a teen diver.

Alex Weber, 19, grew up with the Monterey Bay as her backyard. As a kid, she went boogie boarding after school. Now, she likes to freedive.

Weber regularly picks up trash along the beach and off the ocean floor.    

“I started this as a teenager just wanting to clean up the ocean because that felt right,” Weber says.

While freediving with her dad near Pebble Beach in 2016, she came across something out of place, golf balls carpeting the ocean floor.

Weber began collecting the balls, but she wanted to do more. So, she teamed up with Researcher Matthew Savoca of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station.

They published a paper in the Marine Pollution Bulletin this year. It focused on the number of balls ending up in the ocean. Between 2016 and 2018, they collected nearly 50,000. Most of the golf balls came from coastal golf courses in Pebble Beach. Others entered the ocean via the Carmel River, coming from golf courses in Carmel Valley.  

The paper also discussed the environmental impact of the golf balls, which are made of plastic. As they tumble in the surf, they leach chemicals into the water. They also break down into microplastics, which fish and other marine animals can mistake for food.

“Essentially these little tiny pieces of plastic are becoming little poison pills,” says Weber.

As they did their research, the Pebble Beach Company made changes. It began working with divers in 2017 to collect golf balls that end up in the ocean. This year, they’ll do nearly 200 dives. The company says employees also regularly pick up golf balls on the beach.

“Having something actually be done is really powerful and exciting for the future and hopefully other golf courses can kind of follow their lead and also jump on that,” Weber says.

That’s why Weber is now working with Santa Cruz artist and marine scientist Ethan Estess. He creates artwork about ocean stewardship. This summer, he’s using the hand-collected golf balls and turning them into a sculpture. And he’s building it on a flatbed trailer so the sculpture can travel around the country.

“This right here is our work in progress. It's a 26-foot trailer that has the beginnings of a giant wave sculpture being built onto it. We're welding it from steel and eventually we'll cover it in about 20,000 golf balls,” Estess says.  

Some of those golf balls are brown and cracked, showing signs of their decomposition in the ocean. Others look practically new. He’s piecing them together to make the shape of an ocean wave, as it's curling toward shore.

People will be able to stand inside the barreling wave and take selfies. Estess says the goal is to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the ocean.

“We're imagining if golf balls floated, everybody would know about the issue because the shore break at Pebble Beach, at Carmel would just be totally loaded with golf balls,” says Estess.

Estess hopes everyone who sees the sculpture walks away inspired to reduce their use of plastic.

“It really does come down to every individual to try and kick the habit of using these convenient plastics that really, you know, we use for 15 seconds and they last for 500 years. So we've got to do better,” Estess says.

Alex Weber says she’s stoked to communicate what she sees underwater through art.

“When I go diving I see the entire sea floor covered in this trash. And to be able to create some sort of sculpture that explains that to people and brings them down under the ocean with me without having to go down there, it’s gonna be really powerful,” Weber says.

The sculpture will be finished next month. They’re currently raising money through Go Fund Me so they can take it on tour. The sculpture’s first scheduled stop is in Dana Point this September for the Ohana Festival.

To follow Alex Weber’s work, check out her nonprofit The Plastic Pick-Up. And to follow Ethan Estess’ work, check out his nonprofit Counter Current.