What I learnt on board the Beluga
This week hasn’t been a normal “day at the office”. I’ve spent the last few days on board the Beluga II, the Greenpeace boat currently sailing around the Scottish coast to document and investigate the impact of ocean plastic pollution on Scotland’s internationally significant wildlife.
While ships are part and parcel of life at Greenpeace, it was my first time on a proper boat (school ferry trips aside). Here’s three key things I learnt from my time on the Beluga:
1. Accessing the outer reaches
Greenpeace’s ships enable us to travel to some of the most remote and pristine places on the planet. While voyages to the Arctic and Pacific islands may hit the headlines, many beautiful landscapes are much closer to home. The Hebridean islands, off the west coast of Scotland, are one such place: it’s like you’ve entered into a magical kingdom.
One of the most fitting ways to describe the Hebrides was a conversation I overheard between walkers arriving at a settlement of perhaps 10 houses, noting, “There’s quite a few houses round here, eh?”
I was lucky enough to travel on the Beluga from the Isle of Skye to the Shiant Islands, which are uninhabited by people – but home to an incredible multitude of iconic seabirds: guillemots, razorbills, skuas, shags, fulmars and over 130,000 extremely cute puffins (!!)
Anchoring in the middle of these rock formations, watching the birds fly overhead and gradually spotting thousands nestled into the towering rock crags surrounding the boat, we got the humbling and rare feeling that this place is their domain – and we are simply visitors.
2. The power of good storytelling
Except of course, that human influence is having a long-lasting impact on these distant islands – in the form of plastic polluting the seawater and washing up on otherwise pristine beaches.
Greenpeace’s mission is to expose and stop harm to our shared environment. With photographers and videographers on board the Beluga, we’ve been able to shine a light on the stark impact that plastic is having on our oceans and the marine life. Plastic bottles washed up on beaches are a sight we are all too familiar with, but I was shocked by how many of these single-use bottles were all over islands where no one is living.
These levels of pollution show that there is no “away” when plastic bottles are thrown away. Rather, plastic is being dumped on beautiful beaches, in our amazing oceans and is choking the incredibly special wildlife that inhabit these places.
The scientists on board are also a key part of the storytelling element of this expedition. They’ve been trawling the ocean surface to run tests in our Greenpeace Research Laboratories on how much plastic (including pieces invisible to the naked eye) is floating in our oceans – particularly in the foraging grounds of the seabirds and basking sharks off the Scottish coast.
3. Teamwork is dream work
Planning these expeditions is a LOT of work. Campaigners, logistics coordinators and ship crew spend months planning routes, building relationships with local conservation groups, negotiating access to islands from landowners, and recruiting volunteers to ensure all sails smoothly. And on board, the Beluga was a flurry of activity, with everyone playing a vital role. I saw a real respect for each role on board, whether a first mate, a marine biologist or the cook (with special respect paid to the cook’s top notch flapjacks).
The level of professionalism on display in cramped conditions, which are heavily dependent on the weather and refuelling practicalities, was outstanding – and while the incredible photos and stunning drone footage are the most visible element of this, so much hard work has gone on behind the scenes and is continuing as the team revise plans each morning to make every day count throughout this two month expedition.
BONUS: The joys of harbour wi-fi
As a campaigner, a core part of my role was to liaise between the needs of the campaign team at the Greenpeace UK office and what the crew on the Beluga could facilitate each day. That meant a lot of pleading with one bar of phone signal to not cut out, and plenty of buffer-face as my inbox helpfully told me I didn’t have internet access. So I must give a special commendation to the free wi-fi of Uig pier – although the sound of the wind, waves and seabirds of the Shiants beats the buzzing of Whatsapp messages any day.
About Louisa Casson
I'm a campaigner in Greenpeace UK's oceans team, leading our campaign to create the world's largest protected area in the Antarctic ocean.