An Eco Expedition at Sea: Fishing for Plastic

Updated: Oct 20

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 eco 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 to the bone in the heavy rain showers, we headed to the local pub to dry out 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. Oh... and we given a run-through on how many times was appropriate to pump the toilet when flushing... it was a workout to say the least! 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 sleeping in such close quarters with my new room mate Caroline... who I'd only just met a couple of hours earlier.


Day 1: Ship Ahoy

Porridge was on the menu for breakfast daily, which was the perfect fuel to begin each day.


Before setting sail we had plans to meet Janie and Ross, environmental conservationists active 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 and sorting 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 had 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!


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


Day 2: Catch of the Day

We set sail for Eilean Dubh Mor, an uninhabited island otherwise known as Black Island. Once ashore our group conducted a thorough litter pick on the island.

The amount of plastic pollution was considerable taking into account that the island remained largely untouched by humans. Picking up litter can be strangely satisfying though, and again we found lots of fishing lines and boxes, polystyrene, ropes, random pieces of hard and soft plastics, shoes, plastic bottles, cans, oil drums... all sorts. Our beach clean up data was noted down in detail, and reported back to the Environmental Conservationists. This aided their efforts in tackling the cause of plastic pollution at source. That day's haul of beach litter was huge, and I wondered how we would ever fit it all onto the boat for recycling back on land... but how could we leave it behind? We couldn't.

Our 'catch of the day' had to be the discarded 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 our Skipper Oliver and was always super tasty and nutritious. It's quite a skill cooking for a 8 crew members in a kitchen so small! That evening's entertainment was also thanks to Oliver, as he demonstrated how a hydrophone worked. By dropping the line of the hydrophone overboard into water we were able to listen to the sound of any marinelife 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 : Sea Swim

One of the highlights of the week was starting the day with a sea swim. Water on board was to be used sparingly, so a sea swim was very enticing... if only to freshen up! What could be better than swimming in the North Sea in September with those beautiful blue skies? At that moment... absolutely nothing. It was certainly bracing, but part of the fun was also being able to warm up back on board the boat with a hot breakfast and coffee afterwards :)

Lunch was always a team effort, as was washing up, clearing away and getting ship-shape ready to set sail. We had sandwiches or leftovers daily for lunch, plus we each had a huge stash of snacks that we'd managed to hoard before setting sail from Oban. I should mention 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

Knowing that there was a shop located on Colonsay, one of the islands, meant that we could make a quick stop and top up our luxury items. So after a quick detour to the local shop and distillery, we were fully stocked and ready to sail onwards to 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. Taking our turn at the helm over the course of the week, but the strong wind conditions were particularly great for ocean sailing that morning. It was really exhilarating once we were going at full speed... and once we had learnt that the sail boat wouldn't tip over! We were all hands to the deck when it was time to do the ropes too, so we were gaining a brilliant introduction to sailing throughout our week at sea.

Sea Shanty

It was surprising how well we all got on, confined to such a small space as strangers. The weather conditions can change quickly at sea, so once the winds dropped, our varied topics of conversation would keep us entertained, although at one point we had a bash at singing Sea Shanty songs! 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.


After a long day sailing we arrived at Crinnan harbour where we were able to have a REAL shower in wash facilities on land. It was an absoloute treat being able to wash our hair, and the thrill of simply pushing a button once to flush the toilet was all too much :) We celebrated our new found cleanliness with a trip to the pub, although having found our sea legs by this point... most of us were already swaying by just being back on dry land!


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 on board the boat, 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.


Hello Friend

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


Sailing conditions weren't great due to the lack of wind, but this meant the ocean was so calm it looked like a sheet of glass and unbelievably stunning. The views were something we could never tire of. We had set sail with an anchorage in mind, and I had assumed my usual position at the back of the boat on wildlife watch, hoping to catch a single glimpse of the marinelife that lurked beneath the surface.


On the distant horizon something caught my eye for a split second, it was so confusing that I thought I had imagined it. But upon a second glance, a whale fully breached clear out of the water (again)... 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.

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


It was dark before we knew it so we headed over to a nearby bay to anchor for the night. We referenced the charts on board and believed our sighting to be of 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 watching, remembered that during our brief sailing earlier we had lowered a plankton net into the water to do some samping for micro-plastics in the ocean.


Micro-plastics

We used a plankton net to capture a sample of sea water and test for the presence of micro-plastics in the North Sea, around the Scottish coastline. 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 sea swim in the morning and another beach clean up day 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. Several seals, porpoises, sea otters, a large shoal of (unidentified) jumping fish, Bioluminescence and of course our friend the whale.


What I Gained

  • A deepened connection to the ocean. It's such an incredibly fascinating and mysterious place, and there's an abundance of 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 and marinelife.

  • Seeing the amount of plastic 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 the UK coastline, 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 eco adventures!


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 an online community of over 10,000 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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