Roddenberry Dive Team Boldly Goes Into the L.A. River, Creates Art


If Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew ever lands on an ocean planet somewhere in our universe, they would have no problem navigating through its aqueous depths. The underwater world, if Earth is any indication, would not be much different from the cosmic expanse of space -- that is according to someone who knows a thing or two about both worlds: Eugene "Rod" Roddenberry, son of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and an avid scuba diver who founded the Roddenberry Dive Team in 2009.

When Roddenberry began diving in 1993, he didn't care much for the universe that his father had created. But soon it became obvious to him that the world of Star Trek and space travel went hand in hand with scuba diving and exploring our oceans. He founded the Dive Team with the aim to not only explore the unknown worlds underwater, but also to expose science fiction fans to the real beauty of our planet -- as filtered through the vast Star Trek universe.

This week at the Blue Ocean Film Festival in Monterey, Roddenberry unveiled the centerpiece of the RDT Art Project, an initiative designed to bring awareness to the dangers of polluting our waters. Done in collaboration with artist and movie SFX specialist Greg Aronowitz, the result was an environmental sculpture made entirely of trash and debris picked out from the L.A. River (which they had done in partnership with Friends of the L.A. River) and other waterways across California.

In a phone call this week from Monterey, Rod Roddenberry and Greg Aronowitz discussed the project and how Trekkies may play an important role in protecting our environment.

What is the Roddenberry Dive Team? What does it have to do with Star Trek?

Rod: What we do on the rudimentary level is we say we're a science fiction scuba diving club. But we're certainly much more than that, just like Star Trek is much more than science fiction. Star Trek has sort of a philosophy to it -- this idea that in the future we're all gonna work together for the greater good; we'll no longer fear difference and change, but we'll thirst for it, we'll crave it. And scuba diving is very similar. People who get in the water, whether they're snorkelers or divers -- or anyone who appreciates our natural resources -- they learn to appreciate it and they start to be more open to the diversity of our planet. We're trying to meld those two worlds and bring that to Star Trek fans, who in many ways -- I think inherently, being Star Trak fans -- have that appreciation for difference.

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So there's a parallel between ocean and space?

Rod: Absolutely.

Greg: There's a whole alien world underneath the surface of the water, so it really does apply. There are things down there that you never think you'd see. So for those with an imagination it's literally a whole new world.

Rod: Not to be too corny about it, but the whole Star Trek tagline of exploring strange new worlds, seeking out alien life, and boldly going where so few have gone before -- it's a perfect parallel.

What's the main goal of the Dive Team? Does it teach about the environment to those otherwise would not be interested?

Rod: It's a slightly different spin on any other dive groups out there. We want to expose science fiction fans to the real beauty of our planet, or as Greg said, the real alien world that exists on our planet. It's very planetary in terms of preserving our resources on earth. We wanna have fun with it, connect it with Star Trek, talk about aliens. We even sell Star Trek dry suits and wet suits. But once we get them with the hook, we hope that they'll see the beauty of our planet. At each event that we do, we try to bring someone who's either a marine biologist or oceanographer, someone who can provide information and perspective on our resources. And they'll hopefully come away with a new point of view.

Detail from George & Gracie sculpture | Courtesy of Rod Roddenberry
Detail from George & Gracie sculpture | Courtesy of Rod Roddenberry

How did the RDT Art Project come about?

Greg: I had actualy done a couple of pieces for Surf Rider Foundation where I took endangered marine life and created suits of armor for them. And Rod...

Rod: I was blown away by that!

Greg: He said we should do something for the Dive Team. He has an initiative with the Dive Team called Trashy Diver where he encourages not only the divers of the Roddenberry Dive Team, but all divers throughout the world to collect trash from the oceans and waterways that they utilize. We decided that we would take that trash, and try to make a piece of art out of it.

Were you involved with the L.A. River before this project?

Greg: No, actually that's one of the beauties of the project for me is that I learned so much. I've lived in L.A. for more than half my life, and the L.A. River was always a piece of fascination because it usually doesn't even look like a river -- it's just this dry concrete bed, and then it would rain one or two days and suddenly it's this raging waterway. So I never really understood how it worked. Pretty much the majority of my knowledge of the river came from Grease or Terminator 2 up until this project, where we really got to go down and explore with FoLAR and learn how it worked.

What was the river experience like?

Greg: We found tons and tons of trash down in the riverbed. When the water finally comes down, the trash goes down all these other outlets... You can actually walk across [parts of it] -- there are these islands of trash that are bigger than most people's properties.

Rod: It's unbelievable how much trash makes it into the California waterways and into our ocean. Without these organizations we'd be polluting the ocean beyond belief. It's shocking how many hundreds if not thousands of tons of trash and waste is pulled out. The statistics are just staggering.

Greg: And the trash styles are very specific, especially as I started getting into designing the art piece and figuring out what I would utilize. You don't really look at trash and categorize it when you are just a normal person -- it's all just garbage. But as I started digging in you can see that water bottles were the number one issue. And we found tons of pill bottles -- and balls. Tennis balls, soccer balls, we're talking about thousands of balls, like you can probably fill a stadium with the amount of balls that are just bouncing around down in the L.A. River.

Rod: I was shocked to learn how much Styrofoam is still in use. It seems to be the most buoyant, so that was literally the snow on top of all the other trash. It was really staggering how much Styrofoam is still in use.

And there are lots of plastic bags right?

Greg: Out in the deeper oceans we didn't see as many, most likely because they sink. But down in the L.A. riverbed -- there were thousands. What happens is when the water comes in it floods the river and it gets up to -- I'm not even sure what the heights are -- but definitely higher than our heads. So all of the bags get trapped in the trees and the ivy and bushes that grow down there. All these bags tied onto branches, all kind of hanging there -- looked like some kind of weird voodoo scene from a movie. But we're talking about the L.A. River. It was pretty haunting.

Trash in the L.A. River | Photo by Justin Cram
Trash in the L.A. River | Photo by Justin Cram

What was the process of creating this sculpture?

Greg: It was very open ended. For a while we were of two different states of mind. I thought that because it was the Roddenberry Dive Team, we should reach out to the Star Trek fans and maybe do the Enterprise or something like that. And Rod really wanted to do a marine animal to kind of show where the trash came from and connect that right away. We came to the compromise that we would do George and Gracie, which were the whales from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. So it's the perfect wedding.

Rod: It's a very important piece. A lot of people have looked at this, and they feel that it's not legitimate at first because they think the frame was just purchased metal and they were bent to make these animals. But once you tell them that more than 95% of this art piece is trash taken from California waterways, including the frame, that's when it really dawns on them.

Greg: We made the frame from metal that we found -- shopping carts and baby carriages, random pipes, boat railing, shower curtain rods...

Is this a one-time project, or will it happen again? Unfortunately there will always be trash in the river...

Greg: The most important thing is to get the message out there, and if that means that I have the ability and the option and the honor to create more art, which then can go to other places and reach more eyeballs, then we'll definitely do that. It means that the piece is doing its job. But obviously as you said there will always be trash in the L.A. River, there will always be trash in all the waterways throughout the world, and one sculpture is not gonna change that. But the more we can do, the better.

Will space ever get contaminated with trash from earth?

Greg: I think there already is, unfortunately.

Rod: I believe NASA keeps tabs on the number of floating projectiles that damage our crafts that are up there. Hopefully we'll evolve to a point and our technologies will get to a point where waste products or items that we no longer use, 100% of it will be able to be recycled and repurposed. We need to make sure that the policies don't get buried -- the ones that are trying to make our planet a better place. We all have to realize how important it is not just underwater, but above -- how important it is to preserve our resources.

Greg Aronowitz (L) and Rod Roddenberry (R) with George and Gracie | Courtesy of Rod Roddenberry
Greg Aronowitz (L) and Rod Roddenberry (R) with George and Gracie | Courtesy of Rod Roddenberry

George & Gracie sculpture is currently on display at the Blue Oceans Film Festival in Monterey. It will ultimately tour aquariums, galleries, and environmental exhibitions. Visit the Roddenberry Dive Team website for news and updates.


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