California Teen Finds Thousands of Golf Balls Releasing Microplastics into Ocean

A harbor seal investigates sunken golf balls in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

A harbor seal investigates sunken golf balls in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Alex Weber / Marine Pollution Bulletin

A teenager in Northern California has collected more than 50,000 golf balls — weighing some 2.5 tons — from the bottom of the ocean over the past two years. Now, working with scientists at the Stanford University, Alex Weber has co-published a new paper in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin on the dangerous microplastics and toxins being released into the ocean as the golf balls degrade.

Weber first discovered the golf balls two years ago while diving in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, in a small cove off the world-renowned Pebble Beach golf course near Carmel, California. “You couldn’t see the sand,” Weber, now 18 years old, told NPR News. “It was completely white… It felt like a shot to the heart.”

The balls were coming from five golf courses, two right on the coast and three located up the Carmel River. For months, Weber, her father, and her friend Jack Johnston collected as many of the balls as they could, storing them in Weber’s garage. Eventually, the teen contacted Stanford scientist Matt Savoca, who researches marine plastic waste, and the two decided to collaborate to study the environmental impacts of golf balls in the ocean.

Golf balls are coated in a thin polyurethane shell, which is broken down over time by seawater, surf, and the rocky ocean floor, releasing microplastics that are consumed by marine animals. Balls also typically contain toxic zinc compounds.

“If you were playing golf on this beautiful golf course and looked out and saw the entire surface of the ocean covered in golf balls, people would be outraged,” Weber told Vice News last year. “But because these golf balls are on the bottom of the ocean and you can’t see them, we just don’t know about it.”