By Dawn Krebs
TREASURE COAST - More than a decade ago, he retired here to the Treasure Coast to relax and "feel the sand between his toes."
But his passion for the environment found Don Voss a second career, as well as national recognition when he received the Ocean Heroes Award in July.
"It is quite exciting," Mr. Voss said. "I was overwhelmed at the number of people who voted for me. Anytime you can get recognition for what you do, it's a big deal."
What Mr. Voss does is clean up marine debris in the Indian River Lagoon, a job he has been very busy at for 11 years.
The Ocean Heroes Award recognizes people who are dedicated to the protection of local waterways. It is awarded by Oceana, an international advocacy group working to protect the world's oceans. Mr. Voss received his award at a ceremony in Virginia.
"I moved to Fort Pierce 14 years ago to retire," he said. "I'd been a SCUBA diver since 1971, and I credit diving and snorkeling for saving my life."
A war injury he received in Vietnam had doctors thinking he would have increasing difficulty walking, but was able to heal by being almost weightless in the water for hours at a time.
But while he was in the water, he realized the need for cleanup in the waterways.
"My first cleanup dive was in the Sebastian Inlet," he said. "When I got out of the water that day I started Marine Cleanup Initiative."
Since that time, the underwater cleanup organization has brought in more than 300,000 pounds of trash out the Indian River Lagoon and the area waterways.
"The first official cleanup, we had six people and collected more than 6,300 pounds of debris," he said. "We've been doing it every year, and only skipped the year the hurricanes hit."
While in the early years, his small team brought up a variety of old debris, now he operates with a volunteer team of more than 400 people.
"This crew offers their free time, using their own equipment at their own expense, week after week," he said. "They do it to make our oceans and waterways better."
Even businesses help his cause. For example, Dive Odyssea in Fort Pierce has contributed by refilling the air tanks Mr. Voss' crew and volunteers for free.
Nowadays, he sees some things have changed, but others remain the same.
"The debris is less than in years past," he said. "And we've gotten past bringing up the old stuff."
But what he still encounters saddens him.
"Now, one-third of the debris is bottles and cans, which means people are deliberately littering," he said. "Another third is plastics from fishing lines and nets. The rest is varied: lawn chairs, batteries. This is people just being ignorant."
"Oceana is proud to shine a light on his hard work, knowing that his efforts are helping us achieve a healthy ocean," said Andrew Sharpless, the CEO of Oceana.
Looking ahead, Mr. Voss said he is going to use the recognition as a way to educate others.
"People need to understand that this is an ecosystem and everything affects the next thing," he said. "This is where we live and make our living. Put your trash in a bag and dispose of it properly, and be responsible. I want to be put out of a job."