Lanzarote, on the horizon for hours as a question mark – cloud or land? – came into focus as an extended sprawl of volcanic hills. A fantastically arid landscape, all browns and tans like the dried pelt of a brindled creature, a stark contrast to the lush greens of the Azores. Clusters of white buildings ran in lines like barnacles on a low-tide rock. We moored on the almost finished new marina at Arrecife, motoring slowly in to sit with the eclectic lines of yachts and square modern buildings, past a container ship the size of a small city and an industrial landscape; cranes and containers and sheds interspersed with palm trees and low white buildings and ancient fishing vessels.
From Falmouth, we’ve travelled 2200 nautical miles, most of it low-impact, under sail, powered by the wind. We never did see great islands of plastic trash. Had you been dozing when the occasional bottle or bag or discarded net or chunk of polystyrene floated by, you might yet think the ocean pristine. What we did see, hundreds of miles and completely out of sight of land for days, was almost more frightening. Tiny bits and pieces of plastic, blue and yellow amongst the plankton, scooped day after day from the waves in our brief, 20 minute trawl. Invisible from even a relatively small vessel but all too visible in a jar at arm’s length. Microplastics – defined as anything 5mm or less – are insidious. We found them so easily, so far out, as well as on every beach we’ve visited. If we caught these multi-coloured invaders after only 20 minutes, how much must there be down there? Microplastics, ingestible by a huge variety of marine creatures, have surely infiltrated the ocean.
If you stretch out 46m of rope, on a jetty, say, you can summarise the history of earth. Each metre will represent a hundred million years. On this scale, industrialised ways of life, so often taken as immutable and inevitable, appear about 0.003mm from the end. We are fantastically recent, yet extraordinarily impactful, both for good and ill. On Sea Dragon, we’ve debated the deeper roots of our multiple negative impacts; how it is that we humans, individually tiny (and don’t we know it on the sea) have such immense collective impacts. Such as changing the atmospheric chemistry of the planet and the pH of the ocean, for example. On these final days, though, we’ve refocused on plastic and, above all, on solutions – or at least positive responses. And there have been some inspiring case studies and proposals. Plastic Free July, started by Rebecca Prince-Ruiz in Australia and now with an active engagement in 69 countries. Studio Swine and Ocean Friendly Design Forum, aiming in different ways to re-envisage ‘waste’ and design plastic pollution out of the ocean. The Sea Musketeers, engaging young people in adventure and sustainability. Linking ocean plastic with public health as a powerful change-lever. On-going scientific research and a host of outreach and communication projects; film, photography, articles and more. We debated how we can support each other going forward with these and other projects, to maximise their reach and impact.
Most of us have gone away with personal commitments too of course – the on-going attempt to live a bit more sustainably and, in this case, with a lot fewer plastic products. As Anita Roddick once put it, ‘if you think you are too small to make a difference, you’ve never spent a night with a mosquito’. As a community of people with a shared and hugely powerful experience, a small community for whom the issue of plastics in the ocean can never, ever be a purely abstract issue again, we might, with luck and a fair wind, be even more effective. Certainly we landed with a vivid sense of wanting to work on solutions. To throw our weight into tackling the horrible issue of ocean plastic pollution. To find ways of mentally shifting from over-exploiters of nature to fellow members of ecological communities; and then ways of turning this much-needed thought-warrior work into real, practical action. To find ways on land to perpetuate our privileged insights from the sea that low impact life can be alluring, gorgeous, exciting, equitable, fun. And then we swayed off Sea Dragon and back into the world of houses and traffic and shops and bars to drink a beer or two in celebration of arrival; a toast to our transient community on the waves, to moonlight in the rigging, to flying fish and storm petrel, to new collaborations and friendships and to the aspiration to live as citizens of all the ecological communities to which we belong. Earthbound and marine. To the plankton! Por el momento, adios……….