The Covid-19 crisis has outlined the problems we have with plastic pollution in our waters both in the ocean and on our rivers. It was highlighted many times how the lockdown had drastically reduced pollution, certainly on the rivers, and now how the reduction in lockdown restrictions is having the opposite effect, as single-use plastics are once again increasing in our waterways and oceans and we’ve become uncomfortably familiar with images of masks and gloves in water courses, plus mountains of littler on public beaches. We asked Cal Major, known for her work on keeping our oceans free from plastic, whom we interviewed two years ago on her career and paddling highlights (https://paddlerezine.com/an-interview-with-cal-major/), to find her views on how we can get back on track for the future…
Cal is a veterinary surgeon turned ocean advocate and stand up paddleboarder, campaigning to stop plastic pollution at source, and reconnect people to nature. Cal became the first person in history to SUP the length of the UK, a distance of 1,000 miles, from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and the first woman to solo circumnavigate the Isle of Skye, Scotland. These expeditions were used to raise awareness of plastic pollution in the ocean. Cal got into SUP in 2014 as a result of an injury and it’s fair to say she has never looked back.
The first question is inevitable – what have you been doing to keep yourself sane during the current crisis?
I’m not sure the term ‘sane’ can be applied! I’ve been very up and down throughout lockdown, but this has led me to some pretty profound discoveries as to what does and doesn’t serve my mental health. Just an aside here – we all have mental health, and I feel that during lockdown a lot of us have become more aware of our need to support our mental health, just as we might support our physical health by going to the gym and eating well (and of course mental and physical health are so often linked)!
I very quickly became aware of how different I felt on the days I spent indoors, compared to the days I was out in the garden. Being outdoors filled me with so much more happiness, and even though I couldn’t get to the ocean, I was really lucky to have fields and birds and wildflowers to engage with. I would try every morning to take my cup of tea into the garden and just walk barefoot and really observe the plants, listen to the birds – being as mindful and purposeful as possible. I also made sure I went out every day if I could on my road or mountain bike, or for a walk to get my daily dose of endorphins, and was surprised to find some pretty amazing places within walking or cycling distance of home.
It was really obvious when I didn’t do either of these things, as I’d feel anxiety and irritability creeping back in almost instantly. I also did a lot of online fitness classes with friends, which was cool, and tried really hard to cut sugar out of my diet. I was finding that the news, the uncertainty and not being able to get in the sea was anxiety-inducing enough without adding to it, so my main goal was just to keep that at bay for the first few months. Now that things have opened up, I’m really valuing being able to get back onto and into the water! The first time I went for a swim in the sea I sobbed, I’ve never been more enthralled by jellyfish out SUPing, and the grin I have from a surf session now lasts a week.
You came to SUP later in life after surfing and scuba diving. In your last interview you described yourself as naive. What has experience taught you?
Interestingly I wouldn’t describe myself as quite so naive anymore! My time in and on the sea has taught me so much – both about the way the ocean works, respect for its unpredictability, but also about my own strengths and vulnerabilities. It’s a very humbling experience being put in your place by the ocean, and that’s happened to me more than once! I have a very deep respect for her now, and have spent days on end learning how to read forecasts, read the water and the clouds, so that when I put myself at the mercy of mother nature I’m a little bit more in tune with what the signals around are telling me.
That feels incredibly freeing – no longer do I feel I need to fight against her immense power, but I can appreciate when that will assist me, when I’ll be strong enough to overcome a situation, or when I need to gracefully accept that she’s more powerful than I am. I’ve been in some pretty sticky situations on the ocean without support, phone signal or assistance, and learning how to deal with them has been so empowering, and so humbling, and I think that’s transferred into my campaigning and life. Some days you can weather the storm if you just believe you have the capability; other days you just need to take a step back and wait for it to blow through.
So when and why did the idea of tackling plastic pollution first come to mind?
I moved to Devon to be close to the sea, and was finding plastic on every beach I surfed or paddled. It started to enter my consciousness, but it was really on the remote island of Tiree in Scotland, which is absolutely tiny, where I found myself wading knee deep along a remote beach in plastic waste. It struck me how ubiquitous the problem was. I was outraged by it, upset at the idea that the animals I’d sworn to protect (I’m a vet) were being killed by our obsession with convenience and a throwaway lifestyle.
Half the plastic we find on beaches is single-use, so much of which is avoidable, and I was finding items like plastic water bottles which are so unnecessary. I just felt that if we connected the dots a bit more between our decisions on land and their implications in the ocean, we might stand a chance of tackling this at source. There was a lot of negativity surrounding plastic pollution when I began the ‘Paddle Against Plastic’ campaign, but I really wanted to deliver a positive, empowering message of how we can also be a part of the solution.
Have you always felt strongly about protecting our oceans and rivers or is it more recent?
I’ve always been obsessed with animals – that’s why I wanted to be a vet from an early age. I think I was always mesmerised by the sea as a child, but it was learning to scuba dive in Australia, aged 18, that really hooked me on the indescribable beauty of the underwater world. I was head over heels in love with the peace, the colours, the creatures… I knew from that moment onwards that I wanted to dedicate my life to protecting these places and the animals in them. I took up every watersport I possibly could: surfing, wake boarding, scuba diving, free diving, and later paddle boarding and kitesurfing – anything to allow me time in and on the ocean. It became the place I felt most happy, joyful, at home, and the place I wanted to do everything in my power to protect.
It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve consciously been able to describe my need to be near water as my body’s craving for my mental health, and that it’s that deep emotional connection that drives me to the lengths I go to protect it. I battled with depression after finishing my Land’s End to John O’Groats expedition, and that’s what’s alerted me to water’s power to help that. Until then, my time on the water was still protecting my mental health by providing fun and joy and laughter, and it does that for, I’d say, most of the people who make their daily, weekly or holiday-time pilgrimages to the ocean, but I didn’t have the context of mental illness to relate it to until recently.
What effect do you think the Covid-19 crisis has had regarding pollution?
I think this has unfortunately been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we’ve seen incredible photographs of cities in China with a skyline for the first time in decades as air pollution decreased, life in the canals of Venice, and the sardine run in South Africa coming close to shore without all the noise pollution from recreational watercraft. It’s been incredible to see how quickly nature has been able to recover from decades of abuse, and how immediately our actions can alter when a personal threat knocks at the door.
I just wish we could see that the climate, pollution, ecological and ocean emergencies threaten human life too, and our action towards those needs to be seen as urgent and important as well. For example the World Health Organisation estimates that 4.6 million people die each year from air pollution. This isn’t to say Covid-19 is any more or less pressing, it’s to say that we need to be taking much more immediate action to minimise our negative impact on nature as well, and now we’ve seen we can do it.
We’ve also seen a huge increase in single-use PPE – mostly masks and gloves. The images of these washing up on beaches around the world is pretty harrowing. Plastic companies, who are also oil companies since plastic is made from fossil fuels, have jumped on this as an opportunity to profit in a world that was starting to decrease its reliance on single-use plastic by spreading misinformation about the necessity of single-use in this era. Single-use definitely has its place in medical settings to protect workers who are already risking their health, but in everyday situations, reusables are often still the best option for our wallet and our planet. There are many companies making reusable masks, and they’re perfectly sufficient to wear on the bus and to the shops.
We have all seen the recent images of over crowded beaches during the crisis and the mountains of litter left behind. What more can be done to drive the message home?
Education and reconnection to nature is key. By this I mean helping everyone to appreciate how inextricably linked our lives and actions are to nature, and how important a thriving natural world is for our own health. I think as a society we’ve become disconnected from nature, valuing convenience, financial success and material wealth over community, health and the planet. Forming a personal, meaningful and emotional connection with nature is so crucial if we’re going to get people to appreciate the importance of protecting it. As Jacques Cousteau said, “People protect what they love,” but they can only love what they know. This is where I think mental health and environmentalism intersect, and is the basis of the charity I’m currently setting up.
How can we as paddlers get more involved?
As paddlers we’re in a unique position in that we are regularly in the thick of it! We generally are appreciative of the environments that bring us so much joy, and are able to see first-hand the impacts of our throwaway culture. We can therefore all be advocates for the ocean and waterways, be sentinels for issues that crop up such as sewage outflows, plastic pollution or building plans, help to educate and inspire others to care and limit our own impacts on the places we play.
As an avid protector of the oceans, I imagine that you must have strong views on where food and goods are sourced?
Yes I do; I think it’s important to be aware of the impact of all aspects of our life. I don’t however think the onus should solely fall on the individual. Businesses need to do more to limit their impacts, and the government needs to create legislation to ensure this happens. However, unfortunately most businesses operate to generate profit, and only a minority of politicians operate with their main agenda to respect the environment. So the systemic shift we need in values that drive our economy and way of life has to come from a mixture of responsible business and government, but often is driven by consumers’ awareness and desires.
The more people that support businesses that are doing the right thing, source food from farming practices that don’t destroy our planet, and vote for governments that put the environment at the forefront of their agenda, the more pressure there is on change going in the right direction. I strongly believe in the power of community and individual voices, and of our individual choice. Choosing organic food, eating less meat and dairy, reducing our own carbon footprint, using less single-use plastic – it all has a role, and we humans need to know other humans are also doing it to take action, so there’s so much power in individuals making green choices in every day life.
Land’s End to John O’Groats must be your greatest achievement – how do you surpass that?
That’s a tough one! I think I’ve come to terms with not necessarily needing to surpass it in terms of distance or time on the water… each of my expeditions has had a different focus, and this year’s focus is different again – it involves setting up the charity to help reconnect people to the ocean, and creating a documentary series about our amazing seas and waterways.
I really miss adventuring and the escapism it brings, and have certainly missed it during lockdown, but my challenges have always been for the opportunity to deliver a message about our environment, and this year that has to take a different form. I’m excited about that. However, I do have some expedition plans on hold for once we’re no longer in the throws of a global pandemic!
What piece of tech kit do you rely upon the most?
I get really cold, so I think that would have to be a tie between my Palm Equipment Atom pants, which have revolutionised paddling for me by meaning I can stay completely dry when I’m paddling, and hugely increase my ability to recover after a long paddle by keeping me warm, or my dryrobe, without which I don’t think I’d be plunging into cold water in the winter!
We all know you as a solo paddler – but just how big and important are the team behind those expeditions?
Great question! My Isle of Skye expedition was just me out on the water and on the island, and that was pretty empowering having to get myself through those situations alone. That expedition was pretty transformative for me, and I think I wanted to recreate it when I paddled from Land’s End to John O’Groats. But I very quickly realised that to paddle day after day, and eat, and raise money for charity, and raise awareness around plastic pollution, and make it through my own mental health and grief challenges at the time, I was going to have to rely on all the absolutely wonderful people who generously assigned themselves as my support crew.
My boyfriend, James, is also a photographer and film maker and spent hours running along the coast path with his drone in the air or paddling out to meet me to get the footage he needed for the film we made, ‘Vitamin Sea’. He also took on the roles of logistical and emotional support plus chief van driver. My Mum and Dad, brother and friends, all helped out with logistics at some point too, and my Mum was chief feeder. I had so much support from the amazing Glyn Brackenbury who kayaked LEJOG a few years previously, and who talked me through a lot of decisions; I had fantastic psychological support from my amazing coach Penny Barker, physical support from my physio Lucy Wright, PR help from my agents at Speakerbuzz and the lovely Lesley Quinn, and then so many strangers I either met along the way or who supported from afar via Facebook or Instagram.
This really did make all the difference, and was very humbling to think just how different, or even impossible, it might have been without them. I did a talk with Water Skills Academy about it recently, which is online to watch: https://youtu.be/c5l327sre6c
OK – so please leave us with just one last thought on what we could do better to keep our oceans and rivers clean…
Find your tribe! The most impactful campaigns are those conducted by local communities, protecting their local environment. Check out Save Our Rivers, the Rivers Trust, the Surfers Against Sewage Plastic Free Coastlines campaign, 2-Minute Beach Clean, City to Sea and find like-minded people near you to engage with. Equally, I think it’s really important that we don’t become bogged down with anxiety over our individual actions, or indeed feel guilt for the things we cannot currently avoid, but rather feel really proud of what we can do.
Keep in mind that those individual actions that might seem small and insignificant do form part of a much bigger picture of systemic change that’s desperately needed to change policy, the way businesses work, and the status quo that is currently allowing environmental atrocities to occur. Put pressure on your MP, talk to businesses and let them know their customers want change. I think behind all of this is a desperate need to reconnect to nature, so if you paddle, you likely have it, but who else can you take out onto the water and get stoked about protecting it?
Any final shout outs?
Thanks as always to my online supporters and my wonderful community and team. Thanks to my amazing sponsors who share my vision: Palm Equipment, dryrobe, Starboard SUP, KEEN Footwear, Klean Kanteen, Ocean Ambassadors and the amazing companies I work with including the Midcounties Co-operative.
My films are online to watch for a few quid, which is going towards the charity set up costs:
Thank you so much Cal for your time.
My pleasure – thanks for reading!