With Love, From the Sea: Jake Tellkamp on Sea Hugger

Shell Cleave sits atop her surfboard in the waters off Laihana, Maui. She is joined by her husband, Bob, and daughter, Cassandra. The sun rises over the emerald spires of the Luakoi ridge. God rays stream through the clouds dancing off the electric blue water illuminating the small and gentle waves that have attracted the Cleave family to Hawaii for decades.

The scene is picturesque but not perfect for Shell. As the rest of the surfers in the lineup have theirs eyes trained on the horizon for approaching waves, her gaze is on the surface as she looks for plastic flotsam that she has dedicated her life to abolish. 

Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Michelle Cleave moved to Southern California at the age of six. She fell in love with the ocean on the shores of Seal Beach and Huntington Beach. Each summer, she would bodysurf with her siblings. Together, they would walk the sand looking for pieces of sea glass and sand dollars. Her love for beachcombing is how she gained the nickname “Shell.” Family beach outings became mini beach cleanups as her mother made them pick up trash from the beach before they left. She often refers to herself as a “picker upper.”


Portrait of Jake Tellkamp; photo courtesy the author.Portrait of Jake Tellkamp; photo courtesy the author.

Portrait of Jake Tellkamp; photo courtesy the author.

Shell Cleave has always had an eye for minute details. Her career as a Technical Writer trained her to see the mistakes that others overlooked. When she began to surf with her family in their home in Half Moon Bay, California, she saw what many did not. The sand was ladened with micro-plastic. Impossible to pick up by hand, micro-plastics are pieces less than 5-millimeters long that are a result of plastic pollution. 

Plastic lasts forever. A single plastic straw that finds its way to the ocean will take 250 years to decompose. Before it does, it breaks into micro-plastic particles that are dangerous for marine life, and in turn, humans as we consume fish in a cycle that sickens the planet. 

Shell couldn’t “unsee” the micro-plastics endangering her favorite beaches so, she closed her business and invested her life and savings into her nonprofit she called “Sea Hugger.”

There is no shortage of nonprofits that conduct beach cleanups in the state of California. But what makes Sea Hugger different is that they go after the plastic particles imbedded in the high-tide line using a Nurdel Trommel. Sea Hugger is the only nonprofit in the United States to use the U.K.-based technology. Shell’s Nurdle Trommel looks like a Bingo Ball Call. It is a simple, yet effective way to clean micro-plastics. The Trommel uses a sieve to capture the plastic and let finer sand particles fall through. 

Every month, Shell and her fellow Sea Huggers head to a beach in Half Moon Bay to clean. Their findings are usually the same culprits; plastic beach toys, cigarette butts, chip bags, Styrofoam, discarded fishing nets, and balloons are found on each outing.  She knows that beach cleanups offer a grassroots way for people to get involved in the fight to combat micro-plastics, but that true solution relies in behavior change and policy. 

This year, Shell rolled out a line of reusable water bottles, bamboo utensils, and coffee cups to help provide a solution to the pollution. A BBC report stated that in 2011, 2.5 billion coffee cups were thrown away every year with that number having increased since the reports publishing. Only a quarter of a percent of those cups were recycled due to the “mixture of paper and plastic in their inner lining to make them both heat and leak proof.” 


A quick lecture on ocean conservation to the bright eyed and bushy tailed; photo courtesy of Cass Cleave.A quick lecture on ocean conservation to the bright eyed and bushy tailed; photo courtesy of Cass Cleave.

A quick lecture on ocean conservation to the bright eyed and bushy tailed; photo courtesy of Cass Cleave.

On Sea Hugger’s Instagram page, they offer consumers plastic-free alternatives and lifestyle tips to help them live a healthier and ocean-minded lifestyle. Recently, they have partnered with Patagonia, HAY! Straws, Goods Holding Company, RIPE Skin Care, The Giving Brush, and Ecoffeecup. Together, they promote products and practices that are reusable, biodegradable, and good for the planet. 

Recently, Shell met with Congressmen Eric Swawell’s staff, to educate him on plastic reduction and advocate for Federal legislation. For World Ocean’s Day, Shell went to Sacramento to show her support of SB-54, the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act. 

Sustainability is at the core of everything she does. However, Shell and Sea Hugger do not rely on despairing images and facts to persuade the public to be environmentally conscious. Instead, she focuses on empowering people by showing them what they can do personally to help. Instead of showing a photo of a whale bloated with plastic, she chooses to show her following that they can be part of the solution. 

Sea Hugger is a family affair. Shell’s daughter, Cassandra, is the creative director creating graphics and taking photographs for social media. Her daughter, Autumn, is a pollution prevention specialist in San Francisco and sits on Sea Hugger’s Board of Directors. Her eldest daughter, Amber, made Shell a grandmother six years ago. Her son Gio, inspired Shell to pen a children’s book entitled, The Littlest Sea Hugger.

Sea Hugger speaks with schools and youth organizations to create life-long conservationists. Shell often asks the kids “what are we protecting the environment from?” When she tells them “from ourselves,” the kids get it. Breaking the chain of convenience and getting adults to change their habits are difficult, but Shell has found that kids are more receptive and willing to break the cycle of plastic use. 

While her plate is full, Shell is a devoted to her family, friends, and community. Sea Hugger continues to grow in her leadership. An online campaign she created asking for tobacco companies to make a biodegradable cigarette filter received over 155,000 signatures. Her dream of creating communities centered in sustainability is beginning to take off with thriving Sea Hugger groups in San Diego and Oahu – and she plans to have more in other areas.

Her approach is to support the problem on a local and global level. Sea Hugger financially supports Litter4Tokens in South Africa; a non-profit that incentivizes cleaning up rubbish in exchange for daily essentials. Love Planet in Guerrero Mexico is also a Sea Hugger beneficiary. They have privatized recycling to create a revenue stream for locals and to remove plastic from their beaches. 

// Read the full guide to the Outdoors here. Story by Jake Tellkamp; photography courtesy of Cass Cleave.


With Love, From the Sea: Jake Tellkamp on Sea Hugger
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