Fighting to protect the ocean is like beating into the wind. Calling on head and heart, a taste for the impossible, a grasp of the charts, knowing hands on the lines, eyes firmly set on the horizon. Fortunately Emily Penn – explorer, artist, ocean spokesperson – is at the helm of change.
The youngest ever RYA Yachtmaster of the Year, Emily has led crews across the ocean in search of plastic accumulation zones and steered big brands through vast cultural shifts. Her pursuit of solutions has taken her from remote Tongan islands to California, from Finisterre stores to the UN – via every ocean on the planet.
We talked tales of adventures and awakenings on the high seas, and how to face up to the plastic problem.
Tell us about your love for the ocean – where did it all begin?
I grew up sailing one-person dinghies so was in and out of, and on, the water from a young age. When I was 21 I had the opportunity to take a boat [the record-breaking biofuelled Earthrace] around the world from England to Australia. I went to meet the crew for a weekend in Brighton and didn’t go home for 923 days. And the claustrophobia-inducing cabin turned out to be the most open-minded space I could ever have imagined.
I started to understand the challenges our ocean is facing. I fell in love even more, particularly with the remote parts of our planet. I saw how important the ocean is for our survival. How much we as human beings really rely on it. For food, for oxygen in our air, for our water source, for temperature and weather. Everything. I think that's where my real love began, from deepening my knowledge of the sea. You only protect what you love, but you also only love what you know. Time spent in the ocean changes everything. Those magical encounters put us on the right track.
“I saw how important the ocean is for our survival. How much we as human beings really rely on it. For food, for oxygen in our air, for our water source, for temperature and weather. Everything.”
Is that part of the motivation behind your voyages with eXXpedition?
A big part of it is about getting people out there having these transformative experiences – seeing the amazing beauty of our planet: when you're at the helm, on board this powerful 72-foot racing yacht, in the middle of the night with this whole sky of stars above your head – surging through the ocean. Dolphins on the bow and an amazing sunrise - It's just one of the most mindblowing experiences. It's magic.
But, at the same time, it’s all about studying the plastic issue. We take samples and in every trawl we pull up we find hundreds of these microplastics. That experience is so important. Trying to understand the magnitude of these issues; how hard it is to reverse or clean them up. It puts us in that position where yes, we're feeling engaged and excited to protect the ocean – but we're also feeling knowledgeable and empowered in terms of how to go about it.
eXXpedition’s tagline is ‘making the unseen seen’. A lot of these issues, whether microplastics or chemical toxics, acidification, sea level rise, the coral degradation…so many of them are invisible to us. It's not until you put a fine net through the water that you realise just how much plastic is
there. When you look at the surface of the ocean with your eyes or by satellite from space, you can't see it.
Where will you be training your eyes and trawling your nets next?
We set sail from Hawaii on 23 June to Vancouver and Seattle (two legs, with 14 women on each leg). We'll be sailing through the middle of the North Pacific gyre, which is one of the five big plastic accumulation zones.
We're collaborating with over 10 scientific partners on different areas, looking at particles on the surface of the water, down on the sea bed and in the air, as well as chemicals in the water. But the focus is on the fact we have this incredible multidisciplinary group of women from different nationalities, all coming together to learn how to become better ambassadors on this issue by seeing it first-hand.
What’s the idea behind bringing together such a variety of skills and perspectives, both on the boat and in general?
It’s the only way to solve a problem. We're at the point now where scientists and philanthropists are not going to be able to fix it. We need all of us, each using our ‘superpower’ – the thing we all have, that's unique and brilliant, that can start making an impact on this issue.
eXXpedition takes product designers, policy makers, teachers and people working on different technologies. We take them to find more about what's going on, but also to have those incredible conversations about what the solutions look like. We need to innovate our way out of this problem, so we need lots of creative minds.
When you see great change happen, the coming together of people is often one of the first steps. We do that well on these voyages, bringing people together in that very unique setting. Sometimes the boat seems like a mini version of our planet. You set out into the ocean with finite resources. You've got to make them last until you get to the other end; you've got to think about where your waste goes. Everything's a lot easier if everybody gets along and works together. Being on a boat is good practice for those wider challenges we have in the world.
“We need all of us, each using our ‘superpower’ – the thing we all have, that's unique and brilliant, that can start making an impact on this issue.”
eXXpedition runs with an all-female crew – why’s that important to you?
When I was studying the plastic in these gyres – the accumulation zones where it all ends up – we started finding plastic in the stomachs of fish. It got me asking questions about the chemical implications on humans, being at the top of the food chain. Working with the UN Safe Planet Campaign, I had my blood tested for the toxic chemicals we were finding in the fish. In testing for 35 chemicals that are banned because of their toxicity, we found 29 of them inside my body. Things really changed for me then, off the back of this realisation that the environmental issues we think are happening somewhere else, affecting somebody else in the future, are impacting us already.
A lot of the chemicals are endocrine disrupters – chemicals that mimic our hormones and stop those important chemical messages from moving around our bodies. For girls those hormones are key. And the only way we can actually get rid of them is in passing them onto our children through childbirth and breastfeeding.
So, with the first expedition in 2014, I wanted to try and tackle this issue with an all women team. The issue has gained so much traction we've just carried on and done more research, and are now growing this community of amazing ambassadors.
What are the important stories to tell… What do people need to understand?
We've got great awareness on the issue at the moment, which is amazing – this is what we've wanted for a decade! But it's still very surface level. Next I think it’s important for people to understand that by the time plastic gets to the middle of the ocean it's so small, and it's in so many pieces. There are over five trillion fragments, floating on the surface of our ocean. When I took the samples myself, that's when I realised how impossible it is to go out there and try to pick up these fragments. It’s more about stopping the plastic at source, from getting into the ocean in the first place – and, even better, stopping using or making it.
That’s the next key bit of understanding I think. And beyond that, a better understanding of what we can do. We're at the point now where lots of people really care, and they really want to do something but it's unclear what we should do.
Do you have any answers for us?
There's no one right answer. There's no silver bullet that's just – 'Yes! all we need to do is this and we'll solve the problem.' The best thing you can do is to start doing something – and that's moving in the right direction.
We can all do so much better at using less single use plastic. If we can get those water bottles, drinking straws, plastic bags and coffee cups out of our lives, that's going to be a big help. Governments need to be legislating, but we're at the point now where I think the ball is in industry's court: to be innovating. There could definitely be incentives from government to help industry look at what those answers are – but it's then up to them.
There are exciting things happening in the world of circular economy – this idea to live in circles, the way nature does. Every bit of resource that gets used, turned into waste, will become a new resource. And there's interesting work to be done with the systems within society. How can we switch our lives from this one-way linear system to be better set up for recovery? There’s progress to be made on biodegradable materials too. There’s lots of work to do! We all have a different opportunity to create change. It's a case of working out what that is for you.
When are the moments that it all clicks into place for you?
After a voyage – when this amazing team of women have come back to land, and go on back into their lives, to do things. When you see them really creating change in their sphere of influence, and those shifts start happening, that's a really special moment. And seeing the work that we do, the scientific side, get published and get traction and start informing decisions, that's also really exciting. Most of all right now, this raised consciousness – it’s a testament to everyone who's been working on this issue for the last decade. In the last six months it’s gone mad. The conversations are there – we're heading the right way.
Learn more about the issue and our microplastics collection here.
Read more about Emily's eXXpedition using the following links: