Sounding an alarm for Scottish marine wildlife
In May 2021 I set off to stand up paddleboard around Scotland: a 1200km ocean voyage. I started my trip on the river Clyde, beginning at the SEC in Glasgow – the site of this year’s COP26 international climate talks. I wanted to explore the vital role our ocean plays in the climate and biodiversity crises, and how our personal connections to the sea can influence its protection.
What I learnt from paddleboarding around Scotland
The first couple of days of paddling down the Clyde through Glasgow, I was completely unaware of how impactful this trip would be for me personally.
The river Clyde connects Glasgow’s inhabitants to the sea. In fact, wherever we are on the globe we all have a connection to the ocean.
The ocean globally produces more than half the oxygen we breathe. A healthy ocean is essential for our health on our home planet. Our lives and the sea are inextricably linked. The ocean also plays a vitally important role in the climate crisis. It absorbs a quarter of our anthropogenic carbon emissions. The ocean ecosystems form hugely powerful carbon stores called blue carbon.
Plastic pollution and destructive fishing on Scotland’s coasts
One of the first things I noticed paddling down the river Clyde was the plastic floating directly out to sea. This is one of the most visually obvious issues our seas face.
However, our ocean and the plants, creatures and ecosystems within it, are threatened by human activity which is harder to visualise. Overfishing and destructive fishing practices, pollution and loss of biodiversity are threatening the ocean ecosystems.
Having made it down the river Clyde on a beautiful sunny evening, I paddled the 10 miles across to the Isle of Arran. Arran is home to Scotland’s first Marine Protected Area and No Take Zone. Under these protective measures, biodiversity is able to flourish. Rare and fragile flame shell beds provide habitat and nursery grounds to a myriad of species.
Underwater safe haven
My journey carried on up the West coast of Scotland.
The life underwater is often overlooked – ‘out of sight and out of mind’, as they say. Time to see it for myself. I stopped off at what had been promised to me as an impressive snorkeling spot. Looking out over the grey water it didn’t look like much, but the minute I put my face underwater I was blown away! Thousands of brittle stars (a type of starfish), incredible ornate seaweeds, anemones, crabs and fish everywhere I looked! I was absolutely amazed by the density and diversity of life there. It’s a fully functional ecosystem, and, because of its topographical position within the sea, protected from human activity.
The piece de resistance – maerl beds is Scotland’s equivalent of a coral reef. It grows at just 1 mm. a year and forms intricate, interlocking structures within which fish and other sea creatures can lay their eggs. Maerl is endangered in Scotland. This is a result of the seabed being systematically damaged by bottom-towed fishing gear, such as trawling nets and scallop dredgers. I felt so grateful to have seen this safe haven. Just imagine what the rest of our seas could look like if this level of fragile biodiversity was allowed to flourish, to support species, from worms to whales!
Meeting three killer whales
Further on up the West coast I paddled, past phenomenal scenery – where mountains and ocean interact. I was paddling between 20 and 30 miles a day, which took anything from 6 to 8 hours. It was exhausting, especially if there was any wind on the water, which makes paddling on a SUP very challenging. But I was rewarded by the wildlife which joined me. I met porpoises, and so many different bird species swooped by to investigate. I saw my first Minke Whale crossing over to the Isle of Mull.
The most memorable wildlife encounter happened on a very rainy, grey morning when I had very nearly not gone paddling. I was so tired I could barely find the energy to keep moving forward. Kneeling on my board, just North of Handa Island, willing myself to keep going for just another 2 miles to shore. I heard a blow behind me. Dolphins, I thought. I turned around to see 3 enormous black fins heading straight towards me at speed. Two were bigger than me, one slightly smaller. Orcas.
Without any control over my reaction, despite knowing they are no threat to humans in the wild, I began uncontrollably shaking as the two males with their 6-foot-tall fins did a lap of my board. The female swam right underneath me, turning on her side and looking directly up at me. For a fleeting moment I locked eyes with her. Then all three of them turned round and darted at speed in exactly the direction they had come, enveloped by the misty horizon like something out of a film. That is a moment I will never forget and that feel grateful every day to have experienced.
From epic coasts of Scotland to tangled marine animals
Continuing around the North Coast meant paddling around Cape Wrath – notorious for its massive tidal races and epic weather. I had to wait for several days for a storm to pass through before attempting this dangerous passage. Voyaging around this point made me feel incredibly small and vulnerable. I was hanging onto my board as swell reflected off the enormous cliffs creating what felt like mini volcanoes underneath my board. The entire North coast was nothing short of epic. Huge crossings between headlands, very few get-out points, and wildlife wherever I looked – Risso’s dolphins, white beaked dolphins and seabirds galore.
The seabirds were most numerous, however, on the East coast. Thousands of nesting birds – puffins, guillemots, razorbills, fulmar and gulls, swarmed on the water. They made incredible noise (and smells!) on the impressive cliffs, caves and rock stacks I paddled past and through.
The East Coast was also the most heart-wrenching section of the trip. One afternoon after a long day on the water we saw something floating a mile offshore. My heart sank as I realised what it was – a dead humpback whale calf. Less than a year old, with rope and lobster pots hanging off his tail, likely drowned after becoming entangled feeding close to the shore.
I adore whales, and seeing a humpback alive in the wild would be a dream come true. To see one, a juvenile no less, so powerful yet powerless against humans, was devastating. I felt quite depressed for a couple of weeks, which wasn’t helped by also finding a gannet, this time alive, with barbed hooks through its foot and tail. This animal I managed to free and release (I am a vet so have the training to do this – if you find an entangled marine animal please contact British Divers Marine Life Rescue, BDMLR). However, I saw several other gannets within its colony with bits of fishing gear wrapped around their legs or wings that I couldn’t help.
We protect what we love – getting connected to the ocean
Continuing South, I crossed the Firth of Forth to Bass Rock, the world’s largest colony of Northern Gannets – beautiful, huge, graceful animals.
We heard so many stories of people’s personal connection to the water, and how that sparked their interest in marine conservation. We all have a stake in the health of the ocean, but those with a personal connection to the ocean understandably seem to have a deeper resolve to see our seas healthy. That connection often seems to be driven by an appreciation of how it feels to be by or near the ocean and all her glorious inhabitants.
We need to reach the goal of protecting 30% of our seas by 2030. How can this be achieved? What can we do about the ocean crises we face globally?
I think the first step has to be connection.
While paddling, I have been fundraising for Seaful charity. I set up Seaful to help connect more people to our incredible ocean. People will protect what they love, but they can only love what they know.
Seaful aims to help inspire and educate people about the ocean. It also aims to facilitate in-person experiences of the sea to nurture those connections. Empowering people to spend time by the sea can help to improve their mental health and encourage stewardship of our blue spaces.
In our island nation, one in five children in the UK has never been to the sea! We want to change that, and our Vitamin Sea Project, launched this year, aims to do just that. We have also set up Vitamin Sea TV to to educate and inspire through the use of films.
The Mooncup and ocean adventures
I have been a #RealMooncupUser for several years now, and it has been nothing short of life-changing when it comes to ocean adventures.
Using a Mooncup® has been an incredibly freeing experience. It has allowed me to take on expeditions without needing to worry so much about getting my period, in the knowledge that I can leave my Mooncup in for longer while out on the sea. It has freed up so much head space and time from worrying about my period when on an adventure.
When I’m out on the ocean I regularly see single-use menstrual products, such as tampon applicators or pantyliners, floating on the surface or washed up onto beaches. Seeing period plastic in places I love has really brought it to life for me. I don’t want to be a part of the problem. Being able to move away from it by choosing a Mooncup helps me feel part of the solution to this massive issue I see facing our glorious ocean.
The most unexpected consequence of using a Mooncup, however, has been getting to know my own cycle better. I feel so much more connected to my body, and less intimidated by my period. I feel relieved to know I’m not harming my body with chemicals and plastic, and less worried at the prospect of coming on. I’m also able to prevent leakages while continuing with my active and adventurous lifestyle, and never run out of tampons in the middle of travelling!
It took me a few months to get used to using my Mooncup, but I’m so glad I stuck with it, and utilised some of the online resources to help me navigate using it safely and effectively. I feel proud and grateful to be part of the Mooncup Revolution!
What can you do to help protect our oceans?
- Learn as much as you can about the ocean and the merits and disadvantages of different fishing methods.
- Investigate campaigns such as the Our Seas campaign and the 30 x 30 campaign.
- Check out and support UK based charities tirelessly fighting for marine protection, such as Marine Conservation Society, Whale and Dolphin Conservation and get involved with local organisations.
- Make your voice heard – write to your MP or MSP and let them know what you would like to see change for our ocean. We must get ocean health higher up on the agenda for COP26, and that will come from public pressure.
And of course, you can make your own difference too! Solutions such as the Mooncup help to reduce the billions of single-use menstrual products flushed down the toilet each year, many of which are destined for our seas.
We were super proud to support Cal on her SUP trip around Scotland, re-connecting people with our oceans. Huge congratulations on finishing your trip!
Donate to Cal’s fundraiser here.
Find out more about Seaful charity here.
Switch to a plastic free period with the Mooncup. Find out more about Mooncup menstrual cup and buy yours here.
Read more on the Mooncup blog:
Top tips for sustainable, eco-friendly camping
How is the Mooncup environmentally-friendly?
Meet the teens activists fighting the war against plastic pollution
The pandemic is no excuse to give up our fight against plastic pollution
How to choose the best menstrual cup for you
10 bathroom swaps to reduce your plastic waste
What kind of person uses the Mooncup?