Destin jetty, beaches cleaned up by former Special Forces soldiers, FWC personnel, volunteers

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DESTIN — The governments of Destin and Okaloosa County got some high-profile and expert help Thursday with their "Leave No Trace" initiative to keep trash and debris off their beaches.

As the sun climbed toward noon Thursday, divers with the nonprofit organization Force Blue and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) hit the water along Destin's east jetty to recover and remove trash and debris accumulated under the waterline. At the same time, volunteers moved along the surrounding beach to pick up items left behind by visitors to the sugar-white sands.

Force Blue, a nonprofit group comprising former U.S. military Special Forces troops and combat-trained divers, was working along with the FWC divers and the beach cleanup volunteers in partnership with PepsiCo's "Pepsi Stronger Together"-tailored grass-roots initiatives program as part of a series of marine conservation efforts in Florida coastal communities.

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A briefing for the divers in advance of their getting into the water — during which they were reminded not to get cut up on jagged rocks or debris that might be hidden from view and not to enter crevices that might appear to have enough room for them to maneuver — pointed out that their work was anything but routine.

In addition, the divers got a law enforcement briefing on how to handle any firearms they might run across while removing debris from the jetty.

Thursday's work was not as dangerous as many of the Force Blue divers had faced in their military careers, said the nonprofit's Steve "Gonzo" Gonzalez. "But there's always an element of risk," he said.      

What is today the "Leave No Trace" campaign in Okaloosa County and Destin traces its beginnings to around 2017, as both governments began to notice the amount of trash and debris being left behind on beaches stretching from Okaloosa Island to the eastern city limits of Destin.

A diver enters the water from a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boat Thursday afternoon as he and other volunteers prepare to do an underwater cleanup near the east jetty in Destin.

'The brand the people expect of Destin'

In 2019, the two governments recorded the collection of 1.3 million pounds of trash from those beaches. And last year, even with the coronavirus pandemic's adverse impact on tourism, 900,000 pounds of trash and debris were collected along the beaches in the two jurisdictions, according to Catherine Card, public information manager for the city of Destin.

"We want this to be the brand the people expect of Destin," Card said Thursday as she surveyed a long section of pristine beach near the east jetty. What the city doesn't want, Card continued, is for visitors to say, "Destin's a beautiful place, but it's not what we thought."

The message of the "Leave No Trace" campaign, the realization of which will certainly require cooperation from visitors, is a simple one, Card said.

"What you bring onto the beach, you take off the beach with you," she said.

Divers collect marine debris Thursday near the east jetty in Destin.

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She and other city officials hope that Destin's obvious commitment to the initiative — as demonstrated by Thursday's event with PepsiCo, ForceBlue, the FWC and volunteers — will serve notice that "we really mean it."

'Just giving back the goodwill'

Interestingly enough, one of the volunteers moving along the Destin beach near the east jetty with a long-handled grabber and a plastic bag was a visitor.

Bill Thomas, a firefighter visiting Destin with his family from Morgan City, North Carolina, broke away from them for a little while Thursday after learning about the cleanup initiative the day before.

Volunteer scuba divers load their gear onto a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boat Thursday afternoon in preparation for a clean up of the East Jetty area in Destin.

Thomas said participating in the cleanup was an opportunity for "exploring a little bit off the beaten path."

From 2019: Air Force divers clean bottom of Destin Harbor

Another volunteer made a nearly 70-mile trip west from the city of Lynn Haven to help clean up the beach. Tammy Saylor-Ramey, whose home sustained tens of thousands of dollars in damage in 2018's Hurricane Michael, said she was repaying the kindness of people from this area who helped her and her community recover from that storm.

"They took care of us in Michael, so I'm just giving back the goodwill," Saylor-Ramey said

She said she was also motivated to help because of her admiration for Force Blue's work to restore coral reefs.

'Word is getting out about Force Blue'

Gonzalez, a retired Navy SEAL who now works on special projects and events for Force Blue, said the nonprofit was happy "to be making a true contribution" to the local community through Thursday's event. He hoped that Force Blue's association with the high-profile PepsiCo "Pepsi Stronger Together" would help other communities and organizations realize what Force Blue could do for them.

"Word is getting out about Force Blue," he said, noting that in addition to its cleanup work and its reef restoration, Force Blue also is involved in sea turtle rescue initiatives.

PepsiCo is just as enthusiastic about its relationship with Force Blue as Force Blue is about its relationship with PepsiCo.

In case you missed it:PepsiCo hosts Pepsi Stronger Together's first beach cleanup in Destin, celebratory concert

Volunteer scuba divers leave the water at the east jetty in Destin on Thursday after completing an underwater cleanup of the area.

"Green space regeneration and just overall sustainability is so important; it's one of our key pillars at 'Pepsi Stronger Together'," Elisa Baker, Pepsi’s senior director of communications and community, told the Daily News in an interview prior to Thursday's jetty dive and beach cleanup. "What we're doing is working with Force Blue to identify those areas of environmental needs — and they're really the expert here, helping us and guiding us on where to go ... ."

Over the remainder of this summer, PepsiCo, Force Blue and the FWC will be involved in a number of other partnership events, which they're calling Coastal Conservation Ops.

On July 26, Coastal Conservation Ops will be at Jupiter Island for a shallow-water green sea turtle survey and rescue. On Aug. 23, the groups will be in Fort Lauderdale on a coral reef monitoring mission, and on Sept. 9 they will be in Tampa for a marine debris removal operation.