Travel writer Conor Hubert, of Bean Abroad Travel Blog, joins a citizen science project investigating microplastic pollution in the Firth of Clyde.
Pink! Nestled in amongst the greens of the seaweed, the silvers of the tiny fish and the transparent globules of the baby jellyfish was a tiny ball of pink, hot bubble gum pink. A perfect sphere sat in a mottled natural blanket. But this was not a natural substance and had no right to be floating in the middle of the Firth of Clyde, five nautical miles off the coast of Arran.
A tiny, inconspicuous piece of plastic floating in the vastness of the sea, less than a millimetre in diameter but ensnared in a living ecosystem based around a drifting piece of seaweed. These are the microbeads that until recently were found in many common products found on our shelves.
It was the middle of the first day sailing with an interdisciplinary crew of artists, scientists and researchers on board Sail Britain’s yacht ‘Alcuin’, and unexpected good weather coupled with calm seas had led to an outburst of citizen science on board, led by a Surfers Against Sewage Regional Rep and a marine scientist from the University of Edinburgh.
Our primary trawl was a beautifully engineered microfilter net, lovingly stitched together using an antique sewing machine belonging to our skipper’s mother. Our back-up was considerably lower-tech and DIY, made from a reused plastic bottle and a pair of luminous green tights.
The plastic served the dual purposed of keeping the mouth of the trawl open and also keeping it floating at the surface whilst the rather fetching tights acted as fine mesh, filtering the top level of the waves like the baleen mechanisms found in whales. But it wasn’t krill we were searching for, or even fish, but another microscopic foe; plastic.
To somebody living in London a rural stretch of the Scottish coastline would not have seemed like a hotbed of plastic pollution but only a short 30-minute trawl revealed more than enough for us to inspect under the microscope. We had caught no major pieces of plastic, such as plastic bottles that would be easy to spot from the surface, macroplastics as they are known. Instead we had filled our mesh with tiny fragments, microplastics, imperceptibly small and cunningly ensconced in the seaweed so that they had to be groomed out.
Plastic enters the marine environment from many sources; as virgin pellets, nurdles, the raw feedstock for all plastic product generation, and as waste from rivers, fishing activities, and industry. Rather than biodegrading, plastic breaks down into ever smaller pieces, right down to the microplastics we were pulling up in the trawl nets. Plastic waste not only strangles marine life and is mistaken for prey, but it also bioaccumulates toxins in the water. These build up over time in apex predators and can severely affect the health of ecosystems.
Due to awareness efforts, notably by Sir David Attenborough and the Blue Planet II team, plastic pollution is becoming an issue of increasing concern but the facts still astound. It is estimated that there are more pieces of plastic in our oceans than there are stars in our galaxy, by a factor of 500. Also in the UK alone between 100 and 1000 tonnes of nurdles (estimates vary), representing 5 to 50 billion individual pellets, are lost into the environment each year, mainly into the sea.
Conscience pricked and curiosity sparked I had endeavoured to find out more about this incredibly mundane material, as useful as it was dangerous, that is choking our oceans.
This is where Sail Britain came into the picture. Having met Oliver, the founder, at a conference last year I was immediately struck by the passion and eloquence with which he spoke about the ocean, a love affair that has developed and matured in his own mind over the course of a lifetime.
“Sailing throws people together in a raw and very vital sort of way, and it forces people to work together. But it also tends to bring out the best in each other as you have to look after each other as a crew... Being out in nature is a great way to strip people back to the basics, there is no messing around out there.”
“You don’t have to get a long-haul flight in order to find adventure, it is something which is right here on our doorstep... Adventure is a state of mind as much as an activity.”
Born of a desire to reconnect people with the sea so that they may share his deep respect for it he gave up a steady job as an architect to put people in a boat on the sea and see what happened. The results were as varied as they were positive with each week having a loose theme based on who was sailing that week.
Our week focused on plastics research, the week after ours was a floating artists’ residence. Relationships with the ocean explored in different manners but ultimately leading to a similar experience. Seeing plastic polluting our oceans first hand and far out at sea was a profoundly moving wake-up call; we are all responsible.
“Sail Britain is becoming a melting pot of expertise, a think tank on a sailing boat, and seeing such enthusiasm for the cause of our oceans is very encouraging.”
A year ago I would not have thought I would be spending a week on board a boat actively participating in scientific experiments and engaging with the ocean in a way that I hadn’t for years. That small flash of pink amongst the browns and greens of the seaweed, so perfect under the microscope, was jarring. In one way beautiful, in another deeply saddening. A highlighter-coloured reminder of the tangible impact we are having on our world.
Re-establishing that connection with the ocean, however fleetingly, engenders a sense of guardianship and our shared duty to care for it. It is our privilege and our responsibility to look after our oceans so that we, and the creatures that call them home, can continue to enjoy them.
Words and Photographs by Conor Hubert