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‘Old Ladies’ dive into Cape ponds seeking trash, emerge triumphant

People normally aren’t excited to find garbage on the bottom of a pond, but for an unusual group of underwater trash collectors on Cape Cod, there’s a certain exhilaration when the biggest discovery of the day suddenly appears 8 feet below the surface.

“We found the tire!” exclaims Diane Hammer, who sits in a kayak on Flax Pond in East Falmouth as three people emerge from a dive, treading water as they hold the tire in place at the surface.

“Okay, one, two, three,” they count off and then heave it onto the kayak’s bow.

“That’s a beautiful thing,” Hammer says. “Look at that.”

In just 90 minutes, this small team of swimmers can remove hundreds of pieces of trash. Again and again, they surface with fistfuls of beer cans, golf balls, fishing lures, and dog toys.

“I don't know what that is,” swimmer Robin Melavalin says. “Pouch for doggy bags? For poop bags?”

A fishing net, cinder block, dock part, and Red Sox hat are also part of the haul.

“Oh, that must have been from the ‘70s,” Melavalin says, holding up a beach ball. “Look at the designs on it.”

There are almost a thousand freshwater ponds on the Cape, and sadly, nothing is unique about the predicament of this pond with its mix of tree-lined beauty and submerged trash. But there is something unique about the people cleaning it up.

“This is the Old Ladies Against Underwater Garbage,” or OLAUG for short, explains retired psychologist Susan Baur. The youngest member of the group that Baur founded is 65; at 82, she’s the oldest.

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Layne Fennell
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Five members of Old Ladies Against Underwater Garbage form a can-can line, as they wait for their photo to be taken in front of the trash they found.

To qualify as a member of the group, Baur says, prospective members must prove a few things. First, they’re strong enough to swim for hours, making repeated eight- to nine-foot dives. And second, they’re actually an old lady.

“There was a guy who absolutely wanted to join. I said, ‘No,’” Baur says. “Often they’re men, very often they're not old at all, and they're quite miffed when they say, ‘But I could help. I’m stronger than you guys. I could do this.’ I said, ‘Yeah, there's nothing three women can't do.’”

It took a few years doing volunteer pond cleanups from May to November to perfect their system:

Two to three swimmers wearing snorkels and brightly colored swim caps work alongside a woman in a kayak.

“When you see the legs go up, that means they're diving for something,” 66-year-old Hammer says, studying the water from her small boat. “So I'm always looking to see when they go under.”

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Eve Zuckoff
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Diane Hammer's laundry basket-turned-trash receptacle fills up.

The trash they recover goes into a laundry basket wedged between her knees.

“You could see my white basket's not really white anymore. I don't use it for laundry though,” she says, “so that's good.”

They make the work fun, but sometimes, the women feel their age.

“See this glove?”

Baur holds up her hand. She’s wearing a scuba glove with the pinky and second finger sewn together by red thread.

“It's because as I get old, my little finger doesn't have the strength,” she says. “After about an hour, it begins to bend on my left side. So I sewed the damn thing together so that now I have a full stroke.”

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Eve Zuckoff
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Susan Bauer shows off her glove, designed to make swimming and garbage collecting easier.

Other women say their hands cramp sometimes, and their stamina isn’t what it once was. But these intense and productive swims serve as a reminder of all that they can do.

“Before I met Susan,” Hammer says, “I did feel like I was a little too old for this kind of thing, and now I don't feel that way at all.”

It’s a feeling that many of the women share.

“This fills a hole that I haven't had filled since I spent all my summers with nine cousins in Connecticut,” Baur says. “We're all 12 years old again and …. you don't know how to really do that until you're over 65 again.”

Once the kayaks are so overflowing with trash that they’re bobbing low in the water, the group heads toward shore. There, part of the fun is taking inventory.

“My favorite today is the size 10 sneaker,” Hammer says.

“I keep seeing that as a planter,” agrees 72-year-old swimmer Mary Grauerholz. “You know? Wouldn’t that look good with a fern, like, in a windowsill?”

They have, historically, kept a few things, like a teacup and a vinyl record. But today, standing on the beach, eating cookies, the women are deeply satisfied just admiring their garbage.

“I think middle age is often seen as the age of competence. It's when you do things… And then we're supposed to sort of stop,” Baur reflects. “But we are heroically adventurous. And I'm not leaving the age of competence, thank you very much. Not for a while.”

The next cleanup for the Old Ladies Against Underwater Garbage is scheduled at Sheep's Pond in Brewster on August 11. They can be reached at olaug.ma@gmail.com.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.