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As a Marine combat engineer, Ray Aivazian fought insurgents, built fortifications and blew things up, often reshaping and scorching the battlefield environments.
But things changed when he was assigned to Hawaii and began spending more time exploring nature.
He discovered a passion for the environment while spearfishing as he got a close-up view of the impact of pollution on beloved reefs.
“My favorite dive spots where you would see abundance of fish — uhu, you’d see tako, you’d see goat fish — are just dry now,” he said. “Like there’s no fish in those areas.”
Aivazian has since left the Marines and devoted his life to a new mission — protecting Hawaii’s beaches and ocean environments.
Today he’s the chair of the Oahu chapter of the Surfider Foundation and runs his own educational organization Seed.World where he teaches students about tiny plastic particles known as microplastics.
He’s also been working with a team of scientists using devices he invented to learn more about the prevalence of plastic on Hawaii’s beaches.
“The change from the military to the environmental side came about because of me wanting to have a deeper change within myself,” he explained as he sat in his living room in Kailua.
Born and raised in Southern California, Aivazian always loved the ocean. When he enlisted in the Marines in 2009, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton near the beaches where he grew up.
In 2011 he deployed to Afghanistan in Helmand province’s Sangin district, one of the most violent places in the war-torn nation.
Aivazian stressed that he wasn’t involved in the heaviest fighting but recalled random shots hitting Marine positions and glowing tracers slicing through the nighttime air.
Aivazian and fellow Marines set explosives and sometimes cut down trees to construct obstacles. His unit mostly did route clearance operations, detonating roadside bombs to keep roads open for convoys.
“My job in the military wasn’t anything close to being environmentally friendly,” he said.
His also was one of the few units authorized to use flamethrowers to burn opium poppy crops that warlords and insurgents in the region use to finance their operations.
He didn’t think much about the environmental impact. “That was never on my mind,” he admits.
During his off time he got into nature — mountain biking, diving and spearfishing. Along the way he made friends with civilians and became more at home in the islands.
He also grew increasingly troubled by the destruction of habitats he witnessed. He began studying pollution and climate change, while watching coral reefs wither in real time.
“Just seeing them deteriorate over time and lose their vibrancy and the color and the life that comes with that ecosystem made me realize we’re really screwing things up — that it’s dying,” he said.
He began thinking differently about the military’s impact. “I always knew that we were a polluter,” he said. But he had a job to do.
He loved the Marines. But he wanted to start a new chapter in his life and started attending Windward Community College.
“My job in the military wasn’t anything close to being environmentally friendly.” — Ray Aivazian
Initially, he wanted to pursue engineering and build on his Marine training. But his concerns about the ocean’s health ignited a passion for the environment.
“I realized I can do more and I wanted to do more. So then I switched into global environmental science,” he said.
He admitted it was hard to transition from Marine to student. He realized that his combat experience meant little to his classmates. He made friends but missed the camaraderie of the military.
He felt there was a void in his life he couldn’t explain. In the Marines he had been a seasoned leader, someone his comrades looked up to and trusted to fix problems. He felt useful.
“I didn’t realize that’s what it was,” he explained. “I just felt like there was something missing and realized it once I started doing tutoring, and doing other things at the school,” he said.
He joined the student body council, debate club and sustainability club before becoming involved with the Surfrider Foundation.
During beach cleanups he became fixated on microplastics. Tapping into his engineering background, he invented a way to remove them.
The simple contraption consists of a wheelbarrow, a fountain pump, an aquarium filter and a car battery.
“It just uses buoyancy,” Aivazian explained. “I wanted something people could use now. So I created a model, out of parts anyone could purchase at a hardware store, it was just really simple.”
Enter Jennifer Lynch, co-director of Hawaii Pacific University’s Center for Marine Debris Research. She had been struggling to find a cost-efficient way to count plastic particles on Hawaii’s beaches.
Lynch learned of Aivazian’s invention from a student who followed him on social media and immediately knew it would help.
After a demonstration, she added the former Marine to her team.
“Now we have the ability to go anywhere on Oahu because it’s so portable,” Lynch said.
One problem was that the device also pulled plants and other organic matter from the sand, slowing the process of separating the plastic. Aivazian built a new device that does it faster.
Lynch believes Aivazian’s combat experience gives him a unique perspective on solving environmental problems. “When you’re in the trenches, you just have to invent something to like MacGyver yourself out,” she said.
Aivazian hasn’t patented anything he’s made, and in fact puts up instructions online for free to help people replicate it. “He’s laid back and doesn’t care about the credit,” said Lynch.
“My vision would be to have the system kind of in different places around the world,” said Aivazian. “So that way, we can have a better understanding of how much of this material is accumulating in different places.”
Lynch believes that when the data is finally analyzed that Hawaii’s beaches are likely to have the highest concentration of microplastics of any other recorded area on earth. “Through Ray’s work and our lab we’re getting closer to having that definitive answer,” she said.
Aivazian’s passion for protecting Hawaii’s beaches has sometimes put him at odds with the military. “I’m definitely still proud and honored to have been a Marine,” he said. “But there are certain things that are not right and that need to be made right.”
The Surfrider Foundation has joined activists in Ewa Beach calling on the Marines to put together an environmental impact statement of a proposed retaining wall to protect the Puuloa Range from coastal erosion.
State officials and Ewa Beach residents have warned that while the retaining wall would protect the range in the short term it would actually hasten the erosion of the beach itself.
Military officials say they haven’t made a final decision on building the wall.
While Aivazian has butted heads with the military in Ewa, he has also worked with the Marine Corps Base Hawaii’s environmental team studying microplastics there. He admits that he’s spread himself thin and hasn’t followed up on studies there but hopes to resume soon.
Aivazian said he believes the military has the capacity to change how it operates to ensure it protects the environment. However, he worries that in the broader sense, human society isn’t changing fast enough in the fight to save the ocean.
“We only have so much time,” he said.
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