Interview: Peter Tranter/Anne Egan
Pics: James Appleton
Huge congrats to Cal Major on her expedition around the Scottish coastline starting from Glasgow in aid of Seaful charity in the year of Scottish Seas – the Year of Coast and Waters and COP26 in Glasgow. We caught up with Cal just a day after getting off the water. So we are enormously thankful to Cal for giving us this opportunity to speak to her at this time with the experience so vivid and fresh in her mind.
First of all, when and why did the idea to do this first come to mind?
Thank you so much! I think the seed was first planted when I was paddling from Land’s End to John O’Groats in 2018. The Scottish part of the trip was my absolute favourite – especially seeing all the wildlife on the North East coast, thousands upon thousands of seabirds all around me on the water; I’d never experienced anything like it! I didn’t want to stop at John O’Groats, but I was pretty broken, so I decided I’d have to come back and do the rest of the Scottish coast another day.
This was cemented in my mind when it was announced that 2021 would be the Year of Coasts and Waters for Scotland, and more importantly, that Glasgow would be hosting COP26, the climate talks. I am also part of the Our Seas Coalition, campaigning for better protection of Scotland’s inshore waters, and so all of these combined meant this was the perfect time to take on the expedition.
What was the worst of the planning and logistics? Could you share with the readers of SUP Mag UK how long it took to complete your planning?
It’s really hard to micro-plan an expedition like this because it’s all so dependent on the wind forecast and tide times. So the day to day planning and timings has to be done no more than a couple of days in advance. That does take up a lot of time during the expedition – whenever I was off the water, I would be meticulously checking wind, swell and weather forecasts, tide times, current flows, potential entry and exit points and almanacs to choose the right place and time to be on and off the water, and to ensure that I would be safe when I did go out to sea. Then when I was paddling, I often tracked my speed to make sure I’d be back on land before the tide changed or a system came in.
There’s a lot to think about behind the scenes and many decisions to make daily! The most challenging part of the pre-planning for this trip was ensuring we had appropriate land support. We have been filming for a documentary series and needed to charge the camera kit every couple of days. We also wanted to meet people and hear about their stories of connection to the sea, so getting all that side of things organised has been the most challenging! I started planning this in 2020, and most of 2021 has been solely figuring out all the logistics for the documentaries.
Completing such a venture at any time would present challenges, were there extra challenges, both seen and unforeseen, due to the pandemic?
Yes, I initially planned to do this in 2020! That obviously wouldn’t have been safe or fair for local communities or legal, so I used 2020 to train, which was a blessing in disguise as I was better prepared this year than I would have been last year.
How were you received by the local people you met in different places? Did you feel you were welcome, or did you have any negative experiences that you either were surprised by or understood?
I have been so touched by the welcome we’ve received almost everywhere we’ve been. We’ve had the great pleasure of meeting so many local people and communities, all with a story to tell about their connection to the sea. Whether they are wild swimmers, fishermen, paddleboarders, tourism providers… the people have made this trip, and it’s been an absolute pleasure to meet them. We have also had some difficult conversations along the way, but at all times, we’ve been open to understanding different viewpoints, and I feel so much better informed and aware as a result.
We understand your decision to start the paddle in Glasgow, where world leaders will meet for COP26. What new legislation would you like to see brought to tackle the environment’s problems, particularly those affecting the ocean environment?
First of all, I would like to have it recognised that we all have a stake in the ocean’s health. Not just those whose livelihoods are entangled with it. Our ocean ecosystems are vital for producing the oxygen we breathe (more than 50% is produced by plankton in the sea!), so whether we realise it or not, every one of us is inextricably connected to the ocean. Our health and the health of the seas are intertwined. I believe that we should all, therefore, have a say in what happens in our seas. However, the conversation is too often dominated by those with the loudest and most aggressive voices, which is often, unfortunately, those exploiting it for financial gain.
The conversation around climate change is so often focused on decarbonising our societies. Whilst this is essential, we cannot overlook the biodiversity crisis we are also facing, and the vital role nature plays in maintaining an inhabitable planet with clean air and water and producing the food we eat. Not only that, but the ocean plays an irreplaceable role in mitigating climate change, absorbing 25% of our anthropogenic carbon emissions, and with plants like seagrass sequestering 35 times more carbon than terrestrial forests.
Protecting nature has to be at the forefront of the talks at COP26, and protecting ocean ecosystems needs to be taken seriously. Our ocean ecosystems – the ones which support our life on this planet, birth awe-inspiring and important creatures and give us those environments we so rely on for our wellbeing, are deeply threatened, with fish stocks collapsed and government agencies failing, year upon year ,in their targets to aid their recovery. The UK government has pledged to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030, a figure which scientists have cited as the bare minimum needed for recovery of the seas from the over-exploitation they have been subjected to. The UK already has a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs); however, many of these or no more than ‘paper-parks’, offering no real protection from the most damaging forms of fishing such as bottom trawling and scallop dredging, which destroy fragile marine habitats and fish nurseries.
We’ve heard so many times that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ the ocean ecosystems are too often overlooked. But we know the science and the facts now. We cannot afford to continue to deplete and destroy the ocean. The good news is that the ocean has incredible resilience and the ability to regenerate, but it needs to be given a chance.
I want the leaders at COP26 to stand up for the protection of ocean environments. To create properly managed and enforced marine protected areas that are fit for purpose.
One solution is the reintroduction of the three-mile limit around the coast of Scotland, whereby destructive practices of bottom trawling and scallop dredging are banned in inshore waters, which are often home to the most fragile important reefs and fish nurseries. You can learn more at www.ourseas.scot
That first part of the coastline must have been incredible in terms of natural beauty. Is this a part of the world you have paddled in before or new territory for you? Can you tell us more about it?
I spent the first two days paddling down the River Clyde, which I thought would be pretty tame in terms of scenery. However, halfway through the first day, the scenery was already phenomenal, and by day two, I had views of the Isle of Arran in front of me for hours on end! All the way up the West coast, I was surrounded by mountains, islands and incredible light. It was spectacular, a paddleboarder’s heaven.
I had some pretty special nights camping on uninhabited islands and remote beaches, watching the sun set into the sea and waking up to be on the water before the sun rose. They are memories I’ll never forget.
What were the most unusual sightings of wildlife species?
It had to be the three orcas that joined me on the West coast. They appeared out of the mist like something out of a film! They came straight towards me – two huge males whose fins were taller than me circled me, while one female swam under my board, turned on her side and looked right up at me. Our eyes locked for a fleeting moment before all three of them turned around and swam directly back in the direction they had come, disappearing into the mist.
Before this had happened, I had been asked how I’d feel if I met an orca on the water and I had nonchalantly replied that would be wonderful. I wouldn’t be scared because I know that they have no interest in eating people – there have been no fatalities from orca in the wild! However, in the moment, surrounded by three enormous creatures, who were so capable and strong and in control, it was very humbling and pretty terrifying – and an uncontrollable, visceral reaction ensued where I was shaking and crying for ages afterwards! I had flashbacks for weeks! But it was also definitely the highlight of the trip; I feel so privileged to have experienced that, and it’s a moment I’ll never forget.
What creature comforts do you miss the most when on such an undertaking?
I miss having a kitchen and fresh food most of all! Our support crews have been excellent in helping keep us well fed, and we’ve done the best we could on camping stoves, but I miss a big fridge full of fresh food!
The days on the water and time away from your routine gives you space to think. Do you find it makes a significant difference to your mental well being; does paddling always put you in an excellent mental place, or sometimes is it the message or the mission that drives you?
I find that the first hour on the water, my brain is really busy, I’m thinking a lot, there’s a lot going on. Then over the subsequent hours, everything starts to slot into place. I have ideas and brainwaves that come to me, creative thoughts I don’t have on land, and things seem a lot calmer. There have been a lot of times when it’s been tedious. I’ve just wanted to get to the end and even occasionally have put music or podcasts on as a way to distract myself. I’ve tried to be as mindful as possible, focussing on what’s happening in the here and now, the water around the front of my board, the birds, the sounds, and that’s all been very beneficial for my mental health.
I’ve found the days off the water challenging in that regard – there is so much to do, so many distractions, and I often feel pretty stressed and anxious. In contrast, when I’m on the water, there’s only one focus, only one thing I can do, and it often feels like a relief from the busyness of everyday life. When the going gets tough on the water, which it often does when paddling 6-8 hours day after day, the mission and the message spur me on, as does knowing that the weather could change any day, so I am conscious of making the most of any potential weather window which appears. I also often don’t have a choice! Once on the water, I have to paddle a certain distance to get to the next potential get out, and there have been times on this trip where that’s been 25 miles away, so often there’s no option but to carry on back to safety.
On this incredible paddle, you are fundraising for Seaful charity; what would you like to share with our readers about the work and aspirations of Seaful and how you became involved?
The word Seaful means Mindfulness of the Sea, and the charity is where environmentalism and mental health intersect. Seaful aims to reconnect more people to our incredible ocean and waterways. I founded the charity off the back off my LEJOG expedition, after learning a pretty important lesson – people will protect what they love, but they can only love what they know. When I was paddling LEJOG, I was talking to people along the way about plastic pollution in the ocean, but I came to realise that I could talk to people until I was blue in the face about the impact of plastic on the sea and wildlife there, but unless they had a personal connection to it, it wouldn’t necessarily register, they wouldn’t necessarily care.
We need as many people as possible standing up for the protection of our seas, but to achieve this we need people to understand what the ocean means to them personally. To be mindful of the importance of the ocean in their own lives. I’ve met many people along my journeys who have a strong connection to the ocean, and often times it’s based around how it feels to be there.
I feel so fortunate to explore the seas both above and below water, but not everybody has that opportunity. In the UK, a nation of islands, one in five children has never been to the sea! And you might be as surprised as I was to hear that many of them live in coastal communities. It’s been proven that time in, on or by water is beneficial for mental health, and I have experienced this myself. I want to help more people experience this, inspire and empower them to spend time safely by the water, and nurture stewardship of our blue spaces as a result.
This summer, we launched our first Vitamin Sea Project pilot event with the help of the Chelmarsh SUP club, combining SUP, mindfulness, and conservation, and took over 40 children paddle boarding who had never been before. Many of the children said they had been fearful before going, but their feedback afterwards was incredible. One child said it had been the best day ever; one response was, “I’ve seen something so wonderful, I can’t wait to go back”.
I’ve been raising money for Seaful as I paddle – if you would like to donate even the equivalent of a coffee, we’d be so grateful – search for Just Giving Cal Major. Thank you. You can learn more about Seaful at http://www.seaful.org.uk.
Based on your experience, do you feel like system change is necessary rather than just individual efforts?
Definitely, I think it’s unfair to put the onus on the individual to solve our planet’s issues. Someone recently asked me how campaigning around marine protection differed from plastic pollution in terms of public engagement, suggesting that it’s obvious what we can do about plastic pollution – the changes we can make in our own lives etc. However, I have realised over the years that although taking individual responsibility for our plastic footprint is essential, it’s the businesses benefiting from the destruction of our environment by producing all that plastic that need to be taking the responsibility. The governments that are encouraging their industries also need to be held to account. In that regard, we need to vote with our wallets and make our voices heard as consumers but also as citizens.
We need to make it known we won’t stand for this, and we want to change. It’s the same for marine protection, perhaps even more so. So many members of the public aren’t aware of how vital the ocean is for their health and wellbeing or aware of the level of destruction befalling it – so those of us that do know need to hold the government and industries to account. We all have a stake in this, and it’s time the UK government managed the ocean for the benefit of all stakeholders, not just those directly financially profiting from exploiting it. When we talk about the economics of coastal communities, that includes us – the water lovers, conservationists, recreational anglers, wildlife photographers, as well as the fishing and energy sectors.
Seeing the coastline of Scotland over that prolonged period, what surprised you regarding the level of plastic pollution you encountered? Were you hoping it would be less than it was?
I think the thing that affected me most this time wasn’t so much the plastic found on beaches or floating in the sea, but the individual animals affected by it, and this time it was mostly fishing gear. I’ve heard all the stats – 100,000 marine mammals and 1 million sea birds are killed annually due to plastic (estimated – the accurate figures are likely to be higher). Still, they were just numbers until I was confronted with the suffering of individual animals. This really opened my eyes to the reality of it.
One day off the northeast coast, I came across a floating dead humpback whale calf with rope entangled in its tail and an enormous lobster pot hanging off the rope. This animal was less than a year old and had likely struggled and drowned from the entanglement. I learned from experts that entanglement is thought to be the leading cause of death in minke whales in Scotland and that there is too much rope in the seas of Scotland to maintain a healthy humpback whale population.
A couple of weeks later, I found a gannet with barbed hooks through one of its feet and into its tail. This one was alive, and I managed to free it and give it a second chance (NB I’m a vet, so I have the skills and experience to do this – if you find entangled or injured marine life please contact British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) or a local vet). Still, I saw several other gannets with fishing rope around their beaks, legs, wings that I could not help. I also watched a fulmar land on the sea with a piece of rope in its mouth. It’s not so much the death of these animals that upsets me, as the idea of them suffering, and on this trip, I was face to face with the reality of that suffering.
Plastic in our ocean is visible, tangible and easy to translate to the general public. What is less easy to relate to is the systematic and ongoing destruction of the seabed and over-exploitation of fish stocks out to sea, which affects all aspects of the ecosystems, from worms to whales. But out of sight, out of mind, it’s much harder to be upset by than seeing a dead whale calf.
You have been an ocean ambassador for some time. Are you still mostly optimistic about the human race?
Mostly! I do have moments where my optimism waivers, as when I found the dead whale. That sent me into a bit of a downward spin, and I felt pretty hopeless and depressed for a couple of weeks. But then I think about how far we’ve come, how much more awareness there is now about conservation issues, how much more politically and environmentally active the youth are, and how much more public pressure there is on governments and industry.
We still have a long way to go, and we need to be working much faster than we are, not afraid to make the right decisions for fear of upsetting small groups of people. We also need to support those who will be negatively affected financially in the short-term by conservation methods introduced but confident of the long-term benefits of protecting our one home planet.
If you could eradicate one destructive practice in the ocean tomorrow – what would it be?
It would have to be bottom-towed fishing methods: Bottom trawling, which drags heavy machinery along the bottom of the ocean, destroying fragile ecosystems in its path, and scallop dredging, which rakes up the sea bed to harvest scallops. These fishing methods are not needed to feed our UK population.
I would also educate the public further on the different fishing methods – I think there’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding and a lack of awareness. Often ‘fishing’ is lumped into one without an understanding of the different types of fishing practices. if everybody understood the facts, we’d be able to have more informed conversations about how best to manage the ocean for the greatest benefit.
A 1200 km paddle around the Scottish coast is daunting; what and where were your biggest concerns?
I was most concerned about the enormous tidal races and strong winds. I had nightmares about Cape Wrath for months before getting there, and it lived up to its name, with enormous swell rolling in from the west, reflecting back off the cliffs and creating clapotis underneath my board – crazy standing waves and what felt like volcanoes erupting beneath me! That whole North coast was pretty crazy, with very committing paddles around some prominent headlands, but the reward was the phenomenal wildlife and scenery; I regularly felt like I was in Lord of the Rings or Jurassic Park – looking back on it, it was amazing.
You’ve witnessed mile upon mile of stunning scenery – which was the standout memory?
It has to be crossing from Ardnamurchan to the Isle of Skye. We set off pre-dawn; the water was like a mirror, with the mountains on Eigg, Rum and Muck to the left, Skye up ahead and the mainland mountains over to the right. It was a big paddle – a 20-mile crossing to the south of Skye, but the light, mountains and wildlife during the crossing made it so special.
If there was one moment of pure joy, and to the contrary, agony. When and what caused it?
Pure joy – has to have been on the northeast coast, around Duncansby Head – incredible sea cliffs and stacks housing thousands of nesting sea birds. They just surrounded me – puffins, guillemots, razorbills and fulmar – they weren’t at all bothered by me being there, swimming underneath my board, swarming around me in the air and rafted up on the water next to me. So surrounded by raw wildlife and scenery. I felt so, so fortunate to be experiencing that and even more passionate about helping others experience that too.
Pure agony – there was one day on the north coast paddling across the entrance of Loch Eribol towards Whiten Head when the wind just funnelled down the loch directly out to sea. It was pretty intense, and for several hours I was on my knees just battling, paddling only on the left, to avoid getting blown directly out to sea. It was physically exhausting; I was in a lot of pain and mentally draining to stay calm and not panic at the prospect of ending up out to sea. I never plan to paddle in offshore wind, but with the mountains in Scotland, there are often anomalies in the wind direction, and this was one of them. I was pretty scared, to be honest, the North coast was unforgiving, and I felt pretty humbled by the power of the sea and conditions.
The wildlife is wondrous; what were the special moments you shared with the creatures you came across?
One particularly special moment was paddling out of Thurso towards Dunnet Head- we’d set off at 04.00, I was tired, and it was raining. But this experience made it all worthwhile. For a few weeks after the Orca experience, I immediately felt a huge surge of adrenaline every fin I saw in the water. I saw a blackfin. Then another. Then another four or five. But they weren’t big enough to be orca. As they approached, I realised they were white-beaked dolphins – huge animals playing so gracefully and expertly in the water. I sat on my board and took it all in, a grin spread right across my face. Only a few days earlier, a pod of white-beaked dolphins had become stranded on a beach not far away and re-floated by the amazing BDMLR team – I was hopeful that these were the same dolphins, returned to their home and glad to be back.
How many calories did you burn on an average day, and what did you eat to keep refuelled?
I’m not sure how many calories exactly, but I would estimate 4-5000 a day. I ate a lot. I made sure to eat proper food while paddling and had some great lunch boxes from Klean Kanteen to take the cake in! However, my piece de resistance on the food front was my homemade expedition rations which I dehydrated myself in the months before setting off.
I have an insulated canister from Klean Kanteen and would take this with me every day with hot food in it to have on the water – this was a total game changer! I also took a flask of tea with me most days which was a huge relief after hours of paddling.
I eat a primarily plant-based diet, so I am cautious to ensure I have all the micro and macro-nutrients I need. Every day I’d have a smoothie with banana, and Vivo Life Thrive (greens and micronutrients) and Perform (vegan protein) powders, and plant-based Omega 3 and B12, which between them have all the good stuff I need to keep going each day!
James Appleton was your constant companion on this expedition; besides his excellent photography, what does he add to your time on the trip?
James paddled every mile with me in a kayak – I was made very aware of how different ocean SUPing is compared to sea kayaking! James was an absolute trooper, filming and photographing everything of relevance, and this was invaluable for moments like finding the dead whale.
However, more importantly, I really valued being able to share the experience with James, having someone to bounce ideas and plans off and reflect on the good and bad bits together. It was such a different trip having a companion compared to my previous solo expeditions. James has a wonderful sense of humour, and even though we were both exhausted a lot of the time, we still found times to laugh at and with each other.
He supported me when the going got tough, helped me stay positive when I felt down about the state of the seas and reassured me when I felt fearful or out of control on the ocean, even if he did too. I also trust him implicitly on the water – there aren’t many people I would want to paddle those waters with. Scotland has some incredible paddling opportunities, but some of the water we paddled through was seriously wild! James – you are a total legend; thank you so much.
Huge, huge thank you to everyone we met along the way, and all the support from people both in-person and online during the expedition, it did make a world of difference.
Massive thank you to Klean Kanteen, who supported me on this trip – I couldn’t have done it without them, and it’s incredible for me to be able to work with such a like-minded, caring group of people.
Thank you also to my wonderful sponsors – Palm Equipment, dryrobe, Starboard SUP and Mooncup. Thank you, Fourth Element, Vivo Life and Patagonia, for helping out with the kit and to Water Skills Academy for all their support.
The biggest thank you has to go to our fantastic land support crews – Zoe and Skye, my Mum and Dad, and Lorna, Toby and Madie, without whom we absolutely wouldn’t have done this who made our time on land so much more enjoyable. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Cal, for your time and efforts to make the world a better place – it is much appreciated.
Thank you, I appreciate your help in spreading the word about how wonderful and deserving of protection our ocean is!