Rami Ayoub was awestruck by the coral reef he discovered just past the shoreline in Mahahual, Mexico.
"Huge globes of it - all different shapes and sizes and colors, filled with all kinds of fish. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen," says the Chattanooga native, who had been snorkeling the shallow waters in 2019.
But it wasn't just the reef that left Ayoub breathless that day.
Along the beach and in the ocean, he also found vast amounts of garbage.
"It broke my heart to see such a pristine marine environment choked with plastic. I just kept grabbing these plastic bags and sticking them into my wetsuit," Ayoub says. "Then, I see this bag stuck in some coral about 20 feet down and I made it my mission to dive down and get it."
In 2018, Ayoub began spending his winters south of the border, trading a steady paycheck as a landscaper for a nomadic life in pursuit of kayaking, climbing and caving. In 2019, he had yet to add free-diving to his resume of extreme sports - and without having learned to regulate his breath during open-ocean dives, his mission that day in Mahahual became perilous.
The bag, it turned out, was deeper than he'd anticipated and it was heavy with sand.
"My lungs were burning. My head felt like it was going to explode. I was deeper in the ocean than I'd ever been," he says.
After multiple failed attempts, finally, Ayoub snagged the bag and fought his way to the surface.
"I felt like a hero," he says. "I felt like I had a new purpose in life, and that was to leave this place better than I found it. That's when all of this started."
Last winter, while in Mexico, Ayoub launched an online fundraiser to help raise awareness of plastic pollution, while also raising a few bucks for his travel expenses.
In a post on Facebook, he made a pledge: For every $10 sent to him via Cash App or Venmo, he would remove a trash bag's worth of garbage from an ocean or forest and post a photo, dedicating it to the donor.
So far, he says about 20 people have sent him money and he estimates he's removed at least 50 bags of trash. His plan is to begin investing his own money in order to organize cleanups on a larger scale.
"There is magic that happens when you go to a place and make it a little better," he says. "I've found what feels good and what I can do to save the world."
Here, in his own words, Ayoub shares his passion for conservation and for Mexico.
> Many years ago, when I got into the outdoors, one thing that really bummed me out was seeing trash all over the place. When you go rock climbing, you don't want to see cans and bottles and plastic bags. When you're kayaking, it breaks your heart to see trash floating in the river.
> One of my favorite climbing spots was Bee Rock in Cookeville (Tennessee). One day we went there and there was a bike that someone had thrown off the top of the cliff. There were countless beer bottles smashed right where we belay at the bottom.
> It started out as a weekend thing - to go out with friends and clean up the places we love.
> As an adventurer, sometimes you just want to take, take, take; you just want to run the river, eat a burger and enjoy. But if you were to just pick up one piece of trash every time you have an adventure, it will change everything.
> I met a guy named Alejandro Rodriguez who came to the U.S. to work and was interested in kayaking. I taught him to roll and showed him down a few rivers. He showed me videos of his hometown of Guadalajara - this really beautiful city filled with trees and friendly people. So that planted a seed of Mexico in my brain.
> I've always been an adventure addict, and when you tempt me with a place that's full of waterfalls, rivers, mountains, beaches and fun people, that's my paradise.
> When I got to Mexico, I could not believe the culture. I was enthralled with the music, the food, the abundance of adventure. I had never seen such a wealth of outdoor activities.
> Tennessee will always be my home, but Mexico is my adventure playground.
> (To save money in Mexico,) I use a combination of camping in a tent and staying at backpacker hostels. I'm also a skilled spear fisher and can climb coconut trees with a rope. This saves a lot of money and is a fun, free activity. Most of my saving money comes from picking things to do that are free - like snorkeling or climbing volcanoes.
> That day on the remote beach (in Mahahual, Mexico), I couldn't believe my eyes. The entire beach was filled with plastic, but inside the ocean was the best coral reef I'd ever seen.
> That was a turning point for me. I started picking up more trash than ever before, taking pictures of it and posting it on the internet. It inspired a ton of people. They were congratulating me and encouraging me to keep going. That's when it hit me: I had found my meaning.
> One time I found a shoe floating near a coral reef. I went to collect it and inside was a fish living happily.
> Recently I've drawn up plans to scale up the ocean cleanup project by investing my own money, my truck and hopefully (buying) a boat in the future .... [The project] will be called "Ocean Warrior," and teams of volunteers will be dispatched to clean up beaches and save wildlife.
> Maybe one person can't change the entire world, but one person can inspire others, and that growth becomes exponential. That's the magic. That's the change. That's what inspires me to keep going.