Senior Page: Underwater Garbage Doesn't Stand A Chance Against These Ladies

By: Debra Lawless

Members of Old Ladies Against Underwater Garbage help haul debris from a pond. COURTESY PHOTO

People sometimes tell Susan Baur that she ought to amend the name of the group she founded in 2018: Old Ladies Against Underwater Garbage (OLAUG) by dropping the “old.”

Baur, 82, disagrees.

“When you’re old is a time to be passionate and a time for adventure,” she said during a telephone interview last week. OLAUG has a minimum age requirement of 64.

Baur, a retired clinical psychologist who divides her time between Chatham and North Falmouth, started swimming in Chatham’s freshwater ponds, particularly Goose, White and Schoolhouse, in 2003. Each summer Baur took 60 or more swims, and began studying turtles. That is how she came to write four illustrated “Turtle Sisters” books for children.

Baur fell in love with what she saw in the freshwater ponds – she calls them the “last corner of natural beauty on Cape Cod” and just about the only places that remain “the way the ice sheet left them 10,000 years ago.” In the ponds, she perceives “elements of beauty” such as “shafts of sunlight” piercing the water. “It is a beautiful world.” 

As well as beauty, Baur also noticed quite a lot of trash in the watery realm. In 2018 she organized a cleanup of Goose Pond with two other swimmers and a kayaker who acted as “garbage collector.” The trio brought up loads of cans, dog toys, golf balls, sunglasses and even a cell phone.

The group formalized itself in 2020, writing up some bylaws. The group has about seven members, including a retired Boston University professor, a college administrator and a gym manager. Two recruits are coming on this fall.

Cape Cod has 996 ponds, Baur says, but not all are swimmable. For example, the group won’t clean a pond that is full of water lilies. They begin work on June 1 and run to the end of September or even into mid-October, cleaning about six ponds each year from Falmouth to Chatham.

And what have they found? In one pond, five tires. In another a big futon, with zippers. When they brought that up and draped it over the end of the kayak, they almost swamped the kayak. Old bottles. A garden gnome. An outdoor grill. A fender. Aluminum siding. A Disney air mattress. Once Baur found what she thought was the back of a skull, but it was a deflated soccer ball.

You can’t help but speculate on how some of these items got into the ponds. A washing machine? Really?

At some ponds it appears to be a custom to toss back a nip of alcohol and then refill the small bottle with water, cap it, and chuck it into the pond.

The women clean the perimeters of a pond, out to a depth of nine feet. After all, the trash has been tossed in from beaches, docks, boats. They wear bathing suits, perhaps neoprene socks or water shoes, and one tight neoprene glove. They also wear masks and dry snorkels. Eventually, in the fall, they don wet suits. When they spot some trash, they dive down for it. They never wear flippers, as they cannot roil up the mud on the bottom of the pond.

To join OLAUG, you must be able to swim a half mile in 30 minutes. You have to be able to dive eight or nine feet. And you must be female.

The work is not without dangers. It’s always possible to get cut by some of the garbage. Tires, for instance, have sharp edges. Baur also frets that a diver will be hit in the head by the kayak. And then there are the snapping turtles, in a way what got her passionate about this underwater world in the first place.

“We love them,” Baur says. Nevertheless, she goes first into the water and looks for snappers. “We make enough noise so they sort of shrink away.”

There are leeches in some of the ponds, but for these to attach themselves the swimmer would have to stand still in the mud. The goal is for the swimmers never to touch the bottom of the ponds.

When the women get out of the water after 90 minutes, they are “so pumped,” Baur says. They drink glass after glass of water and also eat cookies.

People who live around the pond or who are a part of the pond’s neighborhood association cluster around the women and thank them. “They think we’ve done a good job,” Baur says. “It’s amazing how our excitement translates into good will.” OLAUG now coordinates with various neighborhood groups that offer assistance such as disposing of the trash. Even better, some areas have taken more initiative in keeping their ponds clean.

Next year Baur plans a public session on OLAUG; she’d like to create regional chapters.

Meanwhile these “old ladies” are enjoying a magical adventure. “We’re all 12 years old again,” Baur says. “I love it. It really is like having a neighborhood gang.

“The adventure brings us together. We never know what we’re going to find.”

Others are enjoying the group’s adventures, too. OLAUG has been featured on NPR, CBS News and other outlets. For more information, visit