Writer and photographer Mike Hembury spent a week on an Inner Hebridean sailing trip as part of Sail Britain’s multidisciplinary Coastline Project. He recalls this small group’s ecological encounters and shares poems and photographs they inspired in him.
2,510 words: estimated reading time 10 minutes
The West Coast of Scotland offers some of the most spectacular seascapes to be found anywhere in the British Isles. So I was particularly excited to be given the chance to join in with Sail Britain’s Coastline Project for a week in May. Part oceanographic research project, part artist’s residency, part hands-on experience for budding and seasoned sailors alike, the Coastline Project provides a unique way of coming to grips with some of the ecological issues facing Britain’s marine environment, in a manner that is interdisciplinary, unconventional and infused with an all-pervasive love of the sea.
Our focus for the week was to be plastic pollution, and our itinerary was to be counter-clockwise around Mull, taking in the Inner Hebrides islands of Coll, Lunga, Ulva and Staffa along the way, together with a host of hidden and sometimes nigh-on inaccessible anchorages.
My own personal focus on our little expedition was threefold: I had set myself the task of producing a poetic and photographic record of the journey, and was keen to receive some up-to-date and first-hand information on the current ecological plight of Britain’s Atlantic shores. On top of that, for some time now I had been looking out for an opportunity to improve my sailing skills in tidal waters, and the West Coast of Scotland was high on my list.
I joined up with the Alcuin — a Westerly Oceanranger 38 — on May 18th in the bustling port town of Oban, where I was greeted by our skipper, and Sail Britain’s director, Oliver Beardon, an easy-going and affable chap in his mid-thirties, who would probably not look out of place on a late 19th-century British polar expedition.
We’re the new crew
With our how-do-you-dos
And our good-to-meet-yous.
We’ve thrown ourselves together
Here in Oban.
— from Oban
After introductions to the rest of the crew — a postgraduate researcher in fluid dynamics from Cambridge, a married couple with a passion for sailing and the environment, and the wandering CEO of a bespoke mapmaking company — we left immediately for our first anchorage, on the western side of the Island of Kerrera, just out of sight of Oban harbour.
Rituals and realisation
Name me the weed
On the shores of Kerrera,
Bladder, spiral, channel
And the spongy stuff
Consistency of cooked spinach
But fluorescent green
As yet unnamed.
But I will get there.
— from Kerrera
Next morning we rendezvoused with Janie and Russ, two local plastic pollution activists. They guided us to a beach on Kerrera’s northern headland, and we began what would become a daily ritual: beach-cleaning. We combed the high-water line, extracting netting, stretches of rope and pieces of plastic packaging out from among the wracks slowly drying in the weak northern sun.
Further up the shore, tufts of blue plastic seemed to grow among the grass, remnants of seemingly ubiquitous plastic rope that had become embedded in the soil. After an hour or so, we gathered together to view and sift through our findings — buckets and buckets of detritus, in many different shapes and forms. Our guide Janie was heartened. Apparently this was a ‘good’ haul. Good, as in relatively small. By contrast, those of us who are new to the game were flabbergasted by the amount of non-biodegradable and totally unnecessary waste that we had just dug out of a seemingly pristine shoreline.
It’s a story that was repeated throughout our week with the Coastline Project: stunningly beautiful islands, inlets and lochs, all far away from the nearest human habitation, but not one of them unaffected by the careless wastefulness of the Anthropocene. The wild shorelines of Western Scotland are saturated in plastic, suffocating in a stream of waste that can only be cured by turning it off at the source.
A lot of the debris that we found could easily be traced to the local fishing industry, and more specifically, to fish farms. Such finds included thirty-foot pieces of bright blue tubing, and grey flotation containers as large as a fridge. But it was something else — a much smaller find — that started to bring fish farming into the focus of my attention during the course of the trip.
Perhaps subliminally at first, I had started to notice that there are unusual numbers of dead crabs on Scottish beaches. Having grown up on the Jurassic Coast in Southern England, I know that it’s common enough to find a dead crab or two, belly-up on the beach. But this wasn’t one or two. By the time we had arrived at the windswept and wonderful island of Ulva — the Wolf Island — the evidence was starting to pile up. Something seemed to be seriously wrong here.
Wolf Island sits and watches us
With a baleful gaze
You will be next.
You are on the path now
And that path is loss.
— from On Ulva
I had no explanation at the time, but I took pictures of what I found, pictures that prompted me, back on dry land, to do a little research into possible causes of crab fatalities.
One cause often cited is lack of oxygen in the water, due for example to algal blooms or sudden changes in temperature.
Other possible causes are the toxic effects of fish farming. Salmon farms, it seems, use chemicals such as teflubenzuron to combat the infestations of sea lice that literally eat the tightly-packed fish alive. Sea lice are crustaceans. The chemicals used to kill them do not differentiate between the various types of crustacean that live in the ocean, and are equally toxic to lobsters, shrimps and crabs.
The beach at Ulva, with the striking numbers of dead crabs, was the site of two now-defunct fish farms, with two more active farms still in operation nearby. More than enough evidence, in my mind, for poisoning to be a plausible cause of death.
Of course, I am not a marine biologist, so ultimately I can do little more than speculate on issues of crustacean fatalities and fish farm toxicity.
Yet this is precisely where multidisciplinary projects such as Sail Britain are turning into an invaluable resource for marine ecology. Although our crew was sadly not equipped to deal with my belated findings, I did pass the information on to Oliver, who promised to incorporate fish farming more closely into his ecological itinerary. And my hope is that a member of some future crew, or interested marine biologist, will feel inclined to pick up where my own photographic and poetic efforts fall short.
Even so, my own limited research into the subject has shown me that the fish farming industry is not only highly unsustainable, but also massively toxic to the marine environment within which it operates.
Our ship tilts and yaws
Ours is a spiralling
Downward path and
We are in the maelstrom now.
With a supreme effort
We can strain our sinews
Focus all the will we have
To break free, but
Is a pretty weak force now
In the greater scheme of things.
— from The Corrie Breàchain
Our week of sailing around Mull was, coincidentally, the week in which over 8 million farmed salmon were killed by algal blooms in Norway. This followed a similar incident in Loch Fyne earlier in the year, in which ‘hundreds of tonnes’ of dead fish had to be removed from farms.
The waste from fish farms coats the seabed with a poisonous sludge that extinguishes all life below it — one of the reasons perhaps why the Scottish government is now considering the approval of deep-sea ‘superfarms’, in the hope that the combination of depth and currents will help dilute the waste before it hits the bottom.
On the other hand, one might be forgiven for assuming a more cynical motive: Out of sight, out of mind, anyone?
Salmon farms are also vectors for disease, and are having a hugely negative impact on wild salmon populations. And of course there is another, even more problematic aspect to keeping thousands, or even millions of fish together in a confined space, and that is that they need to be fed. And what they need to be fed on, largely, is fishmeal. That is to say, in order for beautifully packaged, and tastefully marketed Scottish salmon to arrive on the average fish eater’s plate, huge numbers of ‘lesser’ species — i.e. those not fit for human consumption — need to be industrially hoovered out of the sea. It has been estimated that nearly one-fifth of global sea fish catch is currently being used to produce fishmeal and oil for fish farms. One species particularly affected in the waters around Britain is the sandeel — tiny slivers of silver that also happen to be the favourite food of all manner of seabirds.
Which brings me to Lunga, part of a small chain of islands known as the Treshnish Isles. We cast anchor before Lunga with one particular purpose in mind: to catch a close-up view of the puffins that breed in underground burrows in the soft soil of the cliff tops. Puffins have no natural predators on the island but, nevertheless, their numbers are plummeting. On the Shetland Islands, for example, 33,000 puffins were recorded in the spring of 2000. By 2018, those numbers had dropped to 570. And while environmental factors may be playing a role in the plight of the puffins, the decimation of their primary food source has to be high on the list of possible causes.
What can I say? Lunga, like so much of our trip, was a poignant reminder of the fragile beauty of the sea’s web of life. Our daily rituals of beach-cleaning, sailing, and witnessing the incredible natural heritage of the Inner Hebrides, had become familiarly, depressingly, marvellously, gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring in equal parts.
Where are we
In all of this,
And what is it exactly,
Are we witnessing?
— from Lunga
Coastline project: our haul of pollution
To be honest, I had no idea what could come out of a trip such as this. As it was, I found the words pouring out of me, the sorrow welling up inside me, my heart and senses expanding as they always do when I’m near the sea. Whilst the others were exploring or pulling yet more rope out of the high-water wrack-line, I found myself staring at the patterns in the weed, or the dew on the grass, and feeling the need to preserve it all in some way, however inadequately.
Leaving Ulva in particular, I remember feeling almost overwhelmed by the unforgivably tragic consequences of what it was that we — humanity — have collectively unleashed.
As if in answer, that was the very moment when we were visited by a pod of inquisitive bottlenose dolphins, spiralling beneath the bow of our ship and leaping out of the water. Absolutely impossible to let depression and seeming futility win in such a moment! It’s certainly easy enough though, in these harrowing times, to let oneself be pulled into a focus on death and destruction. But how much more inspiring to consider the beauty of life, in all its exuberance, unbidden and joyful.
But strapped like a tumour
To the aft rail
The starboard locker
Like some Pandora’s
Puppet on a spring
Our haul of pollution:
Plastic, in every shape and form
Gleaned, beach-cleaned and hand-picked,
Sacks and sacks
Of the stuff.
Items from the everyday
To the unidentifiably arcane.
We’re heading back now
Full of impressions
Drunk on sea and sky
With the realization
Of what our
Presence in the world
Is doing to the world.
— from Return to Oban
In our brief week of exploring the wonders of the Scottish shores with the Coastline Project, we were struck repeatedly by the wild majesty of the scenery, the richness of the wildlife, even in the face of impending extinction, and the urgency of acting now, in order to turn the tide, and save what remains.
It’s not too late. But it will be soon, unless we start taking drastic action now.
For me personally, in addition to writing and participating in this autumn’s European-wide wave of environmental protests, I’m looking forward in particular to seeing my crewmates and skipper again in London in November, when Sail Britain will be organising a symposium and exhibition on the Coastline Project. My own contribution to the exhibition will be the series of photographs and poems that have emerged from that inspiring week in May. I am also hoping to publish both in book form — Sailing With Alcuin — if I can find a publisher brave enough to publish a photopoetic journal by a sailing environmentalist.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my thanks to Oliver Beardon and Sail Britain for their Coastline Project and the opportunity to take part. Ever since I was I child, I have been fascinated and awed by the sea, and thought I knew a thing or two about the state of the ocean. But in the space of a week, I had my love of the ocean renewed, and received fresh motivation to dedicating myself to saving the source of all life on our planet.
Find out more
Update: Mike has now published an online version of the Alcuin photos and poems on his website.
For more on the Coastline Project programme exploring the coasts of the British Isles, visit the Sail Britain website: “While the boat, our team, and the idea forms a common narrative, each stage is be crewed by a different group of people from as varied a background as possible. Along each stage these groups develop as a coherent team, something which sailing is a wonderful catalyst for, to explore the people, identity, history and ecological importance of the places they visit and to develop individual research and responses.” The symposium and exhibition Mike mentioned is the Sail Britain End of Year Show from 21st – 24th November, in London.
If you have suggestions for publishers for Mike’s photopoetry book of his expedition, Sailing With Alcuin, do email him at writing[at]mikehembury[dot]org
To follow up on some of the environmental issues Mike discusses, see these recent news stories in The Independent and The Guardian: