The waters off Pebble Beach are supposed to be protected as one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the country. Now, the California Coastal Commission is very upset by what this high school student found.
Pebble Beach is where the rich and famous come to play golf. It sits directly on the California shoreline, just steps from some of the most environmentally sensitive waters on the West Coast. But look below the surface, and you'll find thousands of golf balls.
"Seeing the seafloor completely covered in trash was like a straight shot to the heart," said Alex Weber.
The Carmel coast has been part of her life since she could walk. Her dad took her diving for the first time at 15, and she was stunned by what she found.
"It was incredible how we would go out and dive and pick up 2,500 golf balls, and then two weeks later, we'd go out again and pick up another 2,500 to 3,000 golf balls," said Weber.
As Weber picked them up, she wondered, "Just how many golf balls are there?"
"The more we researched, the more we discovered it is a completely foreign topic - no one has ever looked at golf balls under the ocean," said Weber.
Alex teamed up with Stanford Marine Station researcher Matthew Savoca.
"She sent me an email saying that she had read some of the papers, scientific articles that came out of my Ph.D. work," said Savoca.
"I said, you know, why don't we put together a report and put together a scientific article of your own that actually states the scope of the problem, the intensity of the problem, and what we can do about the problem," said Savoca.
With Matthew overseeing her research, Alex went to work collecting golf balls in the ocean and on the beach near "three" coastal golf courses. Carefully sorting them by their condition.
"We start with something like this with a polyurethane shell, and the gloss, and as that breaks down it loses the gloss, it loses the paint, it loses the shell," said Weber.
Over time, the balls roll around on the ocean floor - and break into pieces.
"This rubber band that's within this golf ball - there's 275 yards of it - and it will continue to unravel and it will be tangled up in kelp and it's buoyant so it sits on the surface of the ocean," said Weber.
Alex found the balls have been deteriorating for decades. Pebble Beach has been a golf course since 1919.
One of my all-time favorite stories. That seal's swimming in what are supposed to be protected waters, and yes, those are golf balls. They pose environmental hazard, especially after breaking down. Meet teenager whose incredible study is getting results tonight, at 11. #ABC7now pic.twitter.com/x8AHr89B8F— Dan Noyes (@dannoyes) February 2, 2019
"It's not the problem that the golf balls are constantly being hit into the ocean and refilling these spots - it's that there is a 100 years of golf ball pollution out there, and that, that pollution is continuing to wear down," said Weber.
That waste could impact wildlife including fish, the California sea otter, an endangered species, sea lions and coastal birds who may eat tiny pieces of plastic.
"There is not a lot of study on the chemical compounds that are in golf balls and how that might affect organisms that are consuming this material, because again, until Alex had discovered this problem and looked into it in really great detail, no one had really studied this problem and its potential effects at all," said Savoca.
"That pollution is continuing to wear down and release micro-plastics into the ocean - and that pollution will continue to be a pollutant until it is taken out," said Weber.
After two years of work, Alex and Matthew just published their scientific paper.
They found more than 35,310 in the water right off the golf course. When Alex added those balls to ones collected in the same area by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Pebble Beach Corporation the total found went up to more than 50,681 golf balls.
Since Alex wrapped up her research, the Pebble Beach Corporation has been working to address the problem.
"Since then, I think that we've collected approximately 20,000 additional golf balls," said Pebble Beach spokesman Mark Stilwell.
The company says the action was taken because of what Alex found.
"The fact that there were so many accumulated right offshore, in certain locations, was certainly new to us. Because, unless somebody dove in that area, and brought it to our attention - we didn't know," said Stilwell.
Pebble Beach is now telling caddies and golfers to make sure their golf balls stay on the course and out of the ocean. They have also worked with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Monterey Aquarium to identify key areas to clean up.
"We now have a collection plan to go 18 times this year, to 11 separate locations, so almost, 200 separate dives, and pick up golf balls that are hit into the ocean," said Stilwell.
The Marine Sanctuary has agreed to work closely with the golf course to make sure the clean up is done right.
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent, Paul Michel, said, "We are going to be looking over their shoulder the whole time."
The sanctuary protects 276 miles of California's coast stretching from the Marin Headlands to Cambria.
"It's been very interesting to get to the bottom of the golf ball issue and we realize that there could be other areas on the coast that we need to take a look at," said Michel.
Alex will be heading to U.C. Santa Barbara soon to study Marine Ecology. She's excited to see her hard work turn into action. "Golf courses should be responsible for picking up these balls," said Weber.
It's a big job considering it has global implications. There are 32,000 golf courses around the world. Many of those courses, like Pebble Beach, sit right on coastlines.