Chasing gold
and garbage

Rower Martin Helseth (25) uses most of his time to prepare for the upcoming summer Olympics. However, when he has some time to spare, he is happy to spend it freediving, picking up plastic in the ocean.

Text: Andrea Kunz Skrede. Photo: Anna Torst Saatvedt

A children scooter is being lifted up from the water underneath Ormsund bridge close to Ormsøya in Oslo. Two freedivers from Spearos Oslofjord freediving club have picked it up from the bottom, and attached it to the end of the rope. One of them is the olympic participant Martin Helseth.

  Did you find all of this down there in the water?! Two passer-by look shocked at the amount of trash the divers have gathered on the bridge. It consists mainly of bikes and scooters. Some bear signs of having been in the water for a while, others look like they are in perfect order. 


_MG_2779Wheels in the water: Most of the trash the divers picked up, was bikes and scooters.



Martin almost learned how to swim before he could walk. His parents introduced him to the ocean back home in Ålesund when he was only two weeks old, and it has been a fair amount of hours spent in the water ever since. 

  It’s the place where i find peace, and it is where I compete. A big part of my life has to do with the sea, ocean and water, Martin tells us. 

That he would fall for a water sport, was therefore not a big surprise. When Martin was ten, he saw the norwegian legend rower Olav Tufte get his first Olympic gold medal. He immediately knew he wanted to try the same. The fact that the sport implied being fairly good in everything – strength, coordination, endurance – fascinated him. Slowly he turned away from playing football, and spent more and more time in the water. 

  I have always looked to Olav Tufte, and compared myself to him. He has been my hero all along. 


_MG_2549Ready: Martin sometimes feel like a fish on land, and really apreciates it when i he can put his wetsuit on.


Before the Olympics in 2016, all the rowers who wanted to try to qualify themselves had to move to Oslo. Martin, who started at the Norwegian School of Economics in Bergen right after high school, had to make one of his biggest decisions yet – his studies got sidelined, and he chose to aim for qualification in Oslo. 

  Sadly it didn’t go as I hoped. I had two rounds where I nearly qualified, but that year I didn’t reach up, he says about the letdown. 

Participating in the Olympic games has been Martin’s childhood dream ever since he started rowing. He had to continue working towards his goal. This year his team is finally qualified, and if everything goes by the plan, he will participate in his first ever Olympics this summer – together with his childhood hero.

Martin doesn’t hide the fact that the qualification makes him both excited and tense. The goal is to come home with a medal, and with that follows a pressure to perform.

  After all, this is what the last four years have been used for. To win the Olympics is my biggest dream, he says purposefully. 

“I think I have a good relation to the ocean – I can gather from it, but at the same time I help it a bit”

_MG_2632More and more: Martin is happy that him and his diverfriends eventually can get out quite big volumes of trash.



Both children and grown-ups stop at Ormsund bridge to observe what for some is regarded as an unusual clean-up process. Most of them are echoing each other, screaming «Good job!» to the divers.

Martin has been freediving for many years, but for the last four he has been much more active. Every time he is back home in Ålesund, he tries to get out in the water once a day. For him, diving and cleaning has become a natural combination.

  I normally go spearfishing while I’m in the water, because I find it being a nice and challenging hobby to fix food for my family. When I’ve got what I need, I use the rest of my time picking plastic or other things that I find, he says, and adds:

–  I think I have a good relation to the ocean – I can gather from it, but at the same time I help it a bit. 

Back home in Ålesund, Martin’s diving companion is the marine biologist and photographer Vasco Pinhol. Together they have started a photo and cleaning project: Every time they go out to pick plastic, they bring it to land and document where they find it. If they find huge amounts, they publish the coordinates so others can help them get it up.

  It is fun to know that we eventually can get out quite big volumes of trash. Our challenge has been though that if we pick too much, we have to pay to turn it in, Martin explains. 

The two friends have therefore applied for help at the Norwegian Environment Agency, in the attempt to make an arrangement.

  I am sure we will find a good solution, he says optimistically. 

Martin believes that spreading the message of what is hiding underneath the surface of the ocean is an important step towards making people aware of it, and thereby making them do something about it. However, he is sure that we are incapable of solving plastic pollution without political action.

  We have to make it the producers responsibility. Having good ways to recycle plastic would’ve been a good place to start. 

Martin thinks that the way it is now, it is hard to get motivated to actually sort and recycle.

  We hear so many different things about where it ends up, and it results in everyone wondering whether or not it is worth it. Furthermore, the things we pick up is just a very small amount seen in a worldwide context, he says, but underlines the fact that individuals can still do a lot. 

  What is already there needs to be picked up! If we could pick up more trash than what we throw out, we would have started a very good process. 

_MG_2802Peace: Freediving is also very much about relaxing and recreation, Martin tells us.



With the Olympics in sight, Martin does not have time for much else than preparing for the competition. For a man from Ålesund who prefers being in the water, one can only imagine how it must feel for him to be more and more locked to the places his trainings are scheduled, which most of the time is Oslo. 

  I feel a bit like a fish on land, he answers almost before the question is completed. 

  I often just want to get out and go to Ålesund, or any other place I can dive. 

There is not much time left for studies, either. Martin is slowly reaching a degree in economics, taking one exam per semester. Since he is continuously getting more fascinated by the marine life, he is also not sure if economics is still the right way to go.

  Right now I’m thinking that it would be much more fun to be a marine biologist, for example. I am very interested in life in the water, and I am learning more and more. 

Martin is not too worried about the future. When asking him if he is a stressed person, he simply shakes his head and lets out a little laugh.

  I think most people would describe me as pretty calm. It’s a very suitable trait in rowing, which requires a lot of patience, because you’re normally not at your best before you reach the age of 30. It’s all about taking small steps the entire way. 

Martin hasn’t given much thought to where he will be in, say, ten years.

  I’m probably at the end of my rowing career, at least. Other than that, i really don’t have a clue. I’ll just take it as it comes. It is a pretty comfortable attitude towards life, he says laughingly. 

But there is one thing he is very sure of considering the future.

  I will not grow old here in Oslo. 

“If we could pick up more trash than what we throw out, we would have started a very good process”


_MG_2692-2No life lost: For the divers, it was important to get all the living creatures that followed the trash up on the bridge back into the water.



  Maybe you can help us get the crayfish and shrimps back into the water? The freedivers asks us when they have gotten out of the water and back on the bridge. The items they have collected have become the homes of several small ocean creatures, and the divers don’t want them to end up as victims of the cleanup. 

Martin is smiling. He says this will make it to the list of great adventures he has had in the water. He is looking forward to experience and explore even more.

  I think the lust for continuous exploration lies in human nature. The ocean is mysterious, and there are so many parts of it that have not yet been explored. It holds a lot of secrets we still have left to discover, and i think a lot of good things will come from that.