A Plastic Island Sailing Expedition

In September 2019 I was fortunate enough to join an all female crew on board a yacht, living and sailing around the Scottish Islands for one week. Our mission was to access remote beaches to pickup plastic pollution, and report our findings back to local conservationists in the Oban area. The expedition was run in partnership between Love Her Wild and Sail Britain.

A Wet and Windy Evening in September

To say weather conditions were wild on our arrival in Oban would be an understatement. Six women arrived at the local marina, and met for the first time as complete strangers having travelled from all over the UK. Completely soaked through to the bone we thought it only fitting that we dried out at the local pub over a quick 'getting to know each other' drink. There we awaited the arrival of our Skipper Oliver who had been speaking at the Charts Argyll and Isles Showcase that afternoon, and also Tanja who would be Oliver's assistant on board.

Once back on the boat we had a quick tour of our new home for the week, chose our sleeping quarters, and had dinner. It was perfect, all be it very cosy. Sleeping that first night on the boat proved to be challenging, due to not having yet acclimatised to the continual gentle swaying motion of the boat on the water... and also the involuntary rubbing up against my new room mate in close quarters... who I'd only just met a couple of hours earlier. Oh... and we also had an all important run through on how many times was appropriate to pump the toilet when flushing... it was a workout to say the least!

Day 1: Ship Ahoy

We had porridge for breakfast daily. Up until this point I had never really cared for porridge much, but by the end of the week I loved it.

Before setting sail we had plans to meet Janie and Ross that morning, who were active conservationists in the Oban area for Surfers Against Sewage and The Marine Conservation Society. We had a beach cleanup organised for us on the mainland, and so spent a good couple of hours picking up plastic from the beach and separating it into different materials for recycling. Janie and Ross were very knowledgeable and had made good connections locally enabling them to recycle most of the waste streams they collected on the beaches.

At a glance the small beach appeared to be clean, which is why it's really saddening to find the amount of litter we collected once we took a closer look. Much of it was marine litter, so abandoned fishing gear, ropes, a langoustine box, and interestingly the wrapping from a particular type of glove used to handle the fish. This was something that appeared on the beaches previously we were told. There was also a fair amount of land litter too, so plastic bottles, snack wrappers...

Lunch back at the boat followed, then some route planning, a very detailed safety briefing... and then we were ready to set sail. I remembered feeling really excited, we were off!

We had planned out a general route for our week's sailing, although I soon learnt this was very much likely to change due to wind speed and direction, and other distractions such as wildlife spotting or impromptu trips to the local whiskey distillery... and I don't even drink whiskey!

We were very lucky to spot some wildlife almost straight away. We saw seals lazing on the rocks as we headed out towards our first anchorage, which was just off the Isle of Mull.

Day 2: Catch of the Day

Porridge for breakfast, and then we set sail for Eilean Dubh Mor, an uninhabited island otherwise known as Black Island. This was exciting for two reasons, one being it was the first time we got to board the tiny grey dinghy to take us to land. Secondly our group spread out and conducted a thorough clean up on the island.

The amount of pollution was unbelievable especially considering the island remained largely untouched by humans. Again we picked up lots of fishing lines and boxes, polystyrene, ropes, random pieces of hard and soft plastics, shoes, plastic bottles, cans, oil drums... all sorts. Everything we collected had to be noted down in detail, and reported back to the Conservationists. This helped their efforts in tackling the cause of pollution at source. Our haul of plastic pollution from the island was huge, and I wondered how we would ever fit it all onto the boat... but how could we leave it behind? We couldn't.

Our catch of the day though had to be the Curly Wurly wrapper which was still intact, and with a Best Before date of 1994. Unbelievably a little further around the island we also picked up a drinks can, which was The Official Sponsor of the 1994 Word Cup. Some 25 years old and the can had never even been opened.

Dinner each night was cooked by Oliver and was always super tasty. It amazed me how he managed to whip up a variety of nutritious meals for 8 each night in a kitchen the size of a small elevator. That evening's entertainment was also thanks to Oliver, as he demonstrated to us how a hydrophone worked. By dropping the line of the hydrophone overboard into water we were able to listen to the sound of any sealife in the vicinity of our boat. We could clearly hear the sound of pistol shrimps loudly snapping their one large claw. Pistol shrimps have one small pincer and an oversized snapper. They use their snapper to fire out lethal bubble bullets at their enemies.

Day 3 :

One of the highlights of the week was starting the day with a sea swim on this particular morning. Water on board was to be used sparingly, so a dip in the sea was very enticing... if only to freshen up! What could be better than plunging from the yacht straight in to the North Sea in September? At that precise moment... absolutely nothing. It was certainly bracing, but once in the water we enjoyed a really nice swim, followed by porridge and coffee... lots of coffee :)

Lunch on board was always a team effort, as was washing up, clearing away and getting ship-shape ready to set sail. We had cheese salad sandwiches daily for lunch, as we were following a vegetarian diet. Although for myself who doesn't eat cheese, I usually had a 'left-overs from the night before' and salad sandwich. Despite the lack of variety for lunch, we found all the food really tasty at sea. Plus we each had a huge stash of snacks that we'd managed to hoard before setting sail from Oban. I should mention here that any waste we generated ourselves on board the boat, was all sorted and held until we returned to the mainland for recycling.

Supply Run

What we hadn't stocked up on though was alcohol, but Oliver knew of a stop-off we could make at Colonsay (if we wanted). So a quick detour was made and both the local shop and distillery on the island were extremely pleased we'd stopped by that day! Fully stocked and ready to sail onwards, we headed towards our next anchorage in a bay just off the island of Oronsay.

Day 4:

Heading for Crinnan, we had a really long day of sailing ahead of us, passing by the islands of Jura and Isla. We had all taken our turn at the helm over the course of the week, and wind conditions were great that morning. It was really exhilarating when we were sailing at full speed... once we had learnt that the boat wouldn't tip over. At least that's what Oliver told us! We had all taken a turn at doing the ropes too, so we were gaining a brilliant introduction to sailing throughout our week at sea. The winds dropped though, and then so did our speed...

Sea Shanty

It was surprising how well we all got on, confined to such a small space as strangers. The slower pace though meant we'd spend the day talking non-stop rubbish to each other. At one point we were singing Sea Shanty songs too. Luckily David Grey's 'Sail Away' stepped up as the backdrop to our week's adventure instead. I realise this may sound a little cliche, but whenever I hear that song now, the same feeling of utter calmness and freedom I felt on the boat washes over me. Besides it was a much better option than Beth's suggestion of Rick Astley. I am convinced Beth is Rick's biggest fan.

The long journey was worth it though, as when we arrived at Crinnan harbour we were able to have a REAL shower in wash facilities on land. It felt lovely to wash our hair, and the thrill of simply being able to push a button once to flush the toilet was all too much. We celebrated our new found cleanliness with a trip to the pub, which felt so very civilised. Being able to sit comfortably around a table with a little extra space around us was refreshing. It was surprising how little we drank, and yet we felt quite tipsy. We collectively put that down to all the sea air.

After a great night ashore, our taxi back to the boat awaited, in the form of the tiny grey dinghy which had now sprung a leak. The threat of sinking in complete darkness on our commute back to the boat only made the journey all the more thrilling. We would have used torches, however Oliver preferred to rely his finely-tuned night vision to see his way forward... needless to say we made it back in one piece. My phone however did not having been broken on land, so at this point I would like to credit my crew mates for all their photos.

Day 5

This turned out to be the day we had been hoping for all week, but we didn't know it yet.

In the morning over breakfast we tried out the hydrophone again and listened to the sound of the shellfish chattering on the sea bed below. Afterwards we went ashore and did a beach clean-up along the harbour coastline. It's surprising how little exercise you have when confined to a small space, so we took the opportunity to hike up to the top of the hill and stretch our legs. It was a great walk and the views were totally worth it, sprawling out over the ocean and the islands for miles.

Another thing I loved about this trip was that there was never any urgency to be anywhere in a hurry. It was early evening before we set sail on that particular day, and this timing set us up perfectly for what was to happen next...

Hello Friend

Sailing conditions were far from perfect due to the lack of wind. The ocean was so calm it looked like a sheet of glass, it was unbelievably stunning. The views were something we could never tire of. We had set off on route with an anchorage in mind, and so I assumed my usual position at the back of the boat on wildlife watch, hoping to catch a single glimpse of the wildlife that lurked beneath the surface.

To the very far right something caught my eye for a split second, it was so confusing that I almost thought I had been hallucinating. But upon a second glance, a whale fully breached clear out of the water in the distance... at which point I let out a huge yell! Screams of excitement from the crew followed, and then we quickly changed direction hoping to catch a another sighting of this incredible creature again.

I would never have expected what happened next... We were truly spoilt to what must have been an hour of watching this beautiful creature put on the most incredible display. Surfacing for a few minutes before diving deep below, and inbetween waiting silently on the completely calm waters watching to see if he would resurface. We were so captivated by the whale that meanwhile the most incredible sunset was breaking through in the background, yet we hadn't even noticed. On reflection that night feels like a absolute dream, but one I'll never forget and feel very privileged to have experienced.

It was dark before we realised how much time had passed in all the excitement, so we headed over to a nearby bay to anchor for the night. We referenced Oliver's charts on board and believed our sighting to be a Minkie Whale.

The stars were shining particularly bright that night, which in itself was the perfect entertainment on any evening. We enjoyed a lovely dinner, and after much excited chatter about our whale sighting, remembered that during our brief sailing earlier we had lowered a plankton net into the water.


The plankton net had been used to capture a sample of sea water and test for the presence of micro-plastics. That evening we placed a specimen of water under the microscope and took a sneaky peak into the crazy world of plankton... wow!!! Plankton are organisms that exist in large bodies of water, and they are an essential food source of food for many species of fish and whales.

It was hard to believe the amount of life contained within such a small sample, so much activity, so many different species. We observed threads of unnatural man-made materials in amongst the plankton and algae, which we identified these to be fibres shed from polyester clothing during washing. We also observed other slides and found obvious fragments of unnatural materials which appeared to be broken down tiny pieces of plastic. The creatures appeared to try and eat everything in sight, so it was easy to see how micro-plastics could enter the food chain even at this level.

Day 6

Starting out with a brief swim in the morning and another plastic pickup on a nearby island.

This was our last day at sea and very much a day of reflection, as we set sail back to Oban. Making the most of those breath-taking views for very the last time. Conversations between our crew now focused on keeping in touch, and what might be our next adventure...

Throughout the course of the week we had seen many species of birds, although the diving Gannets were the most impressive to watch. Lots of seals, porpoises, sea otters, a large shoal of (unidentified) jumping fish, Bioluminescence and of course our friend the whale.

A meal in Oban was the perfect ending to our week away, and good chance to say our goodbyes before heading home early the next morning.

What I Gained

  • A deepened connection to the ocean. It's such an incredibly fascinating and mysterious place, and there's so much life in there that we are yet to learn about. I thoroughly enjoyed living and sleeping on the water and being so close to nature. It's important that I find the time to visit the ocean regularly despite living inland.

  • New friends for life. Each and everyone of us on that boat brought something unique to our experience at sea. Oliver was the perfect host too, and provided us with some fascinating insights into the ocean.

  • Seeing the amount of pollution washed up in such remote places only served as a reminder to continue to reduce single-use plastic in daily life, and seek to recycle as much as possible. Avoid buying products wrapped in unnecessary plastic, and in doing so stop creating a demand for more and more of these products to be made. The problems go way beyond using a reusable water bottle or coffee cup, there is so much more each and everyone of us can be doing to help combat this global crisis.

  • An unforgettable experience observing sea life in their natural habitat around UK shores, and the importance to do everything we can to protect the ocean as their habitat. It proved we don't need to go far to discover nature at it's best.

  • A thirst for more adventure!

Sail Britain inspires positive change for the ocean through sailing, research and the creative arts. Providing education and a first-hand experience at sea to people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Visit the Sail Britain website for more information and to view their upcoming itinerary.

Love Her Wild is a growing community of over 8,000 women who all share a passion for adventure and the outdoors. Organising expeditions both worldwide and UK-based, and using their private Facebook group as platform to connect and support women in their own adventures.

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