Paddling against plastic - Dr Cal Major's mission to clean up our oceans

Posted on 20 February 2019 by

Guest Blogger

in the Animals in the wild blog

Read Cal Major's amazing recount of her expedition in The Maldives, raising awareness of marine plastic pollution while breaking records and saving animals

This blog was written by Dr Cal Major.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

- Margaret Mead

In February 2019, I was part of a four-woman strong team which completed an unprecedented stand up paddle boarding expedition in Baa Atoll in the Maldives, paddling 100km over 8 days and raising awareness of the need to protect marine life, and how to do it.

From left to right: Dr Cal Major, Saazu Saeed, Dhafy Hassan Ibrahim and Dr Claire Petros. Photo credit: Dr Cal Major

The team included Dr Claire Petros and myself, Dr Cal Major, veterinarians from the UK, and Saazu Saeed and Dhafy Hassan Ibrahim, Maldivian Ocean Advocates. The four of us all consider ourselves ocean advocates - passionate about protecting the oceans we love so deeply. Dr Claire Petros is the lead veterinarian for the Olive Ridley Project, a UK charity working to protect turtles in the Indian Ocean from ghost fishing gear. 

We visited schools, local islands and resorts along the way to give presentations, run beach and harbour clean ups, and investigate the myriad of solutions to plastic pollution and climate change already in place in the country, with the aim of inspiring further positive change. Our messages were universal and non-critical – we weren’t there to point fingers at anyone, but rather to celebrate the solutions in place to inspire further change.

Why The Maldives?

The Maldives is renowned for its pristine marine environment and abundance of wildlife, but it is also so vulnerable to plastic pollution, coral bleaching and climate change. Thousands of marine creatures every year are entangled in lost or discarded fishing nets (ghost gear). Thousands more ingest plastic fragments, causing starvation by obstruction and poisoning the food chain.

Image: aerial view of an island in The Maldives. Photo credit: Jailam Rashad, Unsplash.

The Expedition

We paddled a gruelling 100km between 16 islands in the beating sun, fighting dehydration and exhaustion. I was by far the palest of the group, so spending hours in the sun all day was the biggest physical challenge for me!

From left to right: Saazu Saeed, Dhafy Hassan Ibrahim, Dr Cal Major and Dr Claire Petros. Photo credit: Dr Cal Major.

The Wildlife

As a vet, this is one of the primary drivers in my campaigns. OH my goodness, when they arrived! We were fortunate enough to paddle with dolphins, manta rays and turtles, and regularly saw fish under our boards on the reefs we paddled over.

Team Work

Most of my previous expeditions have been solo, so for me having a team of women was one of the biggest highlights and challenges of the trip! I feel so, so fortunate to have had the opportunity to get to know these women’s stories, passions and spirits, and we quickly learnt our respective strengths, slotting them all into place to create a succinct and unstoppable unit. I also don't think I appreciated how unusual this kind of thing was for the Maldives: this was four women, taking it upon themselves to try and change the world, to talk to people, and to physically push themselves.

Left: Dr Cal Major with "a tiny eco-warrior". Right: the team at sunset. Photo credits: Dr Cal Major.

School Presentations

An important part of our message was to engage schools, and this was particularly important to Dhafy and Saazu, who regularly run events with children to help them understand how amazing our oceans are. We delivered 3 school talks, and in one school even had children giving us a presentation about the work they were doing to manage waste on their island. Each local island we visited was different, with varying levels of commitment to removing single use plastic. But the majority of the children we spoke to were connected to the importance of the ocean, even if just through the importance of fish in their diet.

Image from a local school visit. Photo credit: Dr Cal Major.

Beach Cleans

We ran several beach clean ups with the school children. In Eydafushi, the atoll’s capital island, we teamed up with Parley to remove over 150kg of plastic from the beach.

Image: Dr Cal Major at a beach clean. Photo credit: Dr Cal Major.

Resorts

Tourism is a huge industry in the Maldives, with over a million visitors a year arriving, for good reason. I support people experiencing new places, particularly if it involves falling in love with the ocean. However, the tourism industry in the Maldives also drives the need for a lot of packaging, waste and carbon emissions.

I was very relieved to see that many of the resorts were going a lot further than I had expected to limit their environmental impact. A lot of the managers of the resorts had a genuine passion for protecting the environment. Some said it was in response also to pressure from the guests. Guests are really starting to notice when plastic is used, and they don’t want to see it.

Image: Dr Cal Major diving in The Maldives. Photo credit: Dr Cal Major.

So What's Next for Stand Up For Our Seas?

We were welcomed home by the Minister for Environment, Dr Hassain Rasheed, who commended us on the awareness raised by the campaign, and bringing the message to the world. His endorsement, along with the positive reaction from the Maldivian press, has resulted in several parts of The Maldives, and indeed the world, to invite us to replicate Stand Up For Our Seas in their home environment. Watch this space!

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