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It’s a crisp morning in Stockholm. The thermometer reads minus 4c but it’s expected to rise to just above zero. Fredrik Johansson is standing beside the Hammarby Canal briefing a group of 25 people dressed in diving suits and heavy jackets. “The water is six metres deep so there shouldn’t be any problems but always stay attached to your rope. Don’t ever let go of your rope.”

It’s a speech that the military diver-turned-social-worker has given repeatedly over the past four years as founder of Rena Mälaren. The name, “Clean Lake Mälar”, refers to the freshwater lake that surrounds the 30,000 islands, rocks and skerries of the Stockholm archipelago. He and a team of divers and on-shore volunteers complete this mission every Sunday.

Johansson asks new recruits to raise a hand – monocle’s is one of four that goes up – and he addresses us with a smile. “We have two goals: to get as much trash out of the water as we can and to make people aware of how we’ve been treating this planet.” The group eagerly splits up and gets to work.

There are 10 divers, each accompanied by one or two assistants handling the guide ropes. “I’ll dive down, using the rope so I don’t get lost and then hook it to the trash I find,” says restaurateur and 25-year dive veteran David Berggren, who has two oxygen tanks strapped to his back. “I’ll then come back up, give a thumbs up to the person on the other end and they’ll start pulling the rubbish in.” He steps off the canal’s wall, disappearing beneath the murky surface. Air bubbles, the rope and a small “dive flag” are the only signs that someone is below the surface. Ferries glide past, as do small chunks of ice.

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Volunteer Oskar Kihlborg

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Our writer diving in

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 Abandoned e-scooter

A couple out for a walk stop to ask rope bearer Tobias Lundqvist about the most interesting thing Rena Mälaren has found in the water. “There was a photo album with naked pictures of a couple, which had clearly been thrown in the water so that no one would find it,” he says with a grin. “When we pulled it out, the images were still intact. This shows the way that people see the water – it’s so dark that once you throw something in, it’s out of sight, out of mind.”

I’m roped in to help haul out a tyre that diver Anna Sjöman has found. This involves me donning a neoprene hood and wetsuit then holding a rope and jumping off a wall. Visibility in the frigid water is poor and I can’t see the bottom (or even my own bottom). Sjöman tells me what I’m missing: “All that’s down there is litter breaking up barren patches of sand.” But things are nowhere near as dire as they were a few years ago. “I’m noticing a difference in the harbour’s seabed,” says Sjöman. “Near the city hall, for instance, where we dive and clean regularly, it used to be dead. Thanks to our ongoing work, we’re noticing seaweed sprouting and fish coming back.”

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Bikes and tyres are among the most frequent finds

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Post-dive hot dog

Three hours later, 13 e-scooters, eight bikes, seven car tyres, five radiators, a balcony balustrade, a parking metre and 160kg of lead batteries have been fished out of the water. These items are added to the 174 tonnes of rubbish that have been picked up over the past four years, piled up on the lakeside for collection by the city council. 

When we finish for the day, a barbecue – not retrieved from the depths – is fired up. “We have hot dogs after every dive,” says Johansson. “No one gets paid, so it’s important to show my team some love.” And rightly so. Johansson’s helpers have certainly met both of his goals today. 

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