Over the last three weeks, I was part of the second expedition organized by By the Ocean we Unite to put a spotlight on marine plastic pollution. We sailed from Rotterdam to northern Scotland and up the Scottish coast all the way to Inverness and even Loch Ness. During this trip, we sailed the open sea, docked in small towns, cleaned beaches with local initiatives, and visited five to twelve year old schoolchildren to teach them about what our day to day littering is doing to marine life.
As we were sailing, we were visited by fulmars, gulls, and even a stowaway robin, as well as bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises, and seals. We saw the Scottish coastline from far offshore and up close as we hiked along the beaches of the North Sea. The shores were covered in blooming yellow gorse and a range of other spring flowers. However, there was one companion which joined us everywhere we went. No matter how far we were from urban areas, plastic had always gotten there before us.
No matter how far we were from urban areas, plastic had always gotten there before us.
Our first port of call was Peterhead. Just to the north of that town, there is the golf court which sits next to every village in this part of Scotland. A lovely hilly area, neatly trimmed for playing golf as only the British know how. Between this idyllic area and the sea lies a short beach which is used by locals to walk their dogs. As we got there to collect our first beach sand sample for the measurement of plastics, I was shocked by the amount of human debris littering the shoreline.
A vast pack of plastic waste mixed with rotting seaweed: buried shopping carts, every type of gear for fishermen, boots, gloves, trousers, nets, lines, and buoys, as well as bottles, sheets, bags, ropes, golf balls, and vast amounts of unidentifiable fragments. This enormous pack of plastics was constantly being washed out to sea and redeposited on the beach. As we were clambering across the slippery mass, it struck me that there was such a vast difference between the well groomed and closely managed golf court and the junk yard we were in, just fifty meters away; an example of how people are capable of mentally separating the part of their environment they care about and the part about which they don’t.
During the expedition, we met many motivated people who were helping clean the Scottish shores, from national organizations like Surfers against Sewage to local scout groups and an individual couple who we met on a beach near Banff and who always had a litter grabber and bag with them as they went for a walk. These people really showed me that we can contribute on all levels and even collecting the litter you encounter in your own neighbourhood has a real impact.
we can contribute on all levels and even collecting the litter you encounter in your own neighbourhood has a real impact.
On the crossing back to Rotterdam, we encountered some fair sailing winds. The trip so far had been rather calm, great for trawling for plastics, not so much for sailing. As we were were cruising under full sail and in bright sunshine, I spent some time on top of the wheelhouse looking at the rolling waves of the North Sea.
It hit me that as long as we remain on land, we never fully comprehend that the majority of the earth surface is covered by ocean. Being out at sea with nothing but waves in all directions really emphasises that the oceans are the dominant habitat on earth and how we treat them has consequences for all life, both marine and terrestrial. Being land animals ourselves, we tend to ignore what happens beneath the waves. We have been using the oceans as “away” for our garbage for decades, but there is no “away”. The earth is our only home and how we treat our ecosystems will come back to bite us as we are rapidly running out of space and resources.
how we treat our ecosystems will come back to bite us as we are rapidly running out of space and resources.
All people should spend a few days disconnected from social media and our daily worries and just experience the sea as the primary biotope on earth. From our actions at home to the middle of the ocean, there is a direct link between everyone of us and the Sea.
Or as Sir David Attenborough puts it: