Scotland Ocean Nation expedition - Cal Major
In the Summer of 2021, dryrobe® ambassador and ocean advocate Cal Major set off on her most epic expedition to date, paddling the 1200km journey around Scotland on her SUP. The purpose of her Scotland Ocean Nation expedition was to explore our human connection to the water and its impact on both biodiversity and climate crises.
Starting at the SEC - the location of the 2021 COP26 international, Cal achieved some incredible accomplishments along the way including becoming the first woman to paddleboard Cape Wrathome.
With coastal protection at the heart of her challenge, Cal shares her experience of paddling around the stunning Scottish coast, what she learnt during her incredible challenge and what we can do about the global ocean crises.
In May 2021 I set off to stand up paddleboard around Scotland: a 1200km ocean voyage. Setting off from the SEC - the site of this year’s COP26 international climate talks, the purpose of the expedition was to explore the vital role our ocean plays in the climate and biodiversity crises, and how our personal connections to the sea can influence its protection.
The first couple of days of paddling down the Clyde through Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city, I was completely unaware of how impactful this trip would be for me personally. The river Clyde connects Glasgow’s inhabitants to the sea; in fact wherever we are on the globe we all have a connection to the ocean.
The ocean globally produces more than half the oxygen we breathe, is vital in the circulation of water and for the food we eat. A healthy ocean is absolutely essential for our health on our home planet, and our lives and the sea are inextricably linked. The ocean also plays a vitally important role in the climate crisis - absorbing a quarter of our anthropogenic carbon emissions, with the ocean ecosystems forming hugely powerful carbon stores: Blue Carbon.
One of the first things I noticed paddling down the Clyde was the plastic floating directly out to sea. This is one of the most visually obvious issues our seas face.
However our ocean, and the plants, creatures and ecosystems within it, are highly threatened by human activity which we cannot directly visualise. Overfishing and destructive fishing practices, pollution and loss of biodiversity are threatening the very ecosystems upon which our lives depend.
Having made it down the River Clyde, on a beautiful sunny evening, I paddled the 10 miles across to the Isle of Arran - home to Scotland’s first Marine Protected Area and No Take Zone. Under these protective measures, biodiversity is able to flourish, such as rare and fragile flame shell beds which provide habitat and nursery grounds to a myriad species.
My journey carried on up the West coast of Scotland. One thing I had heard on Arran was the idea that out of sight and out of mind, the life underwater is often overlooked. Time to see it for myself. I stopped off at what had been promised to me as a really impressive snorkelling spot. Looking out over the grey water it didn't look like much! But the minute I put my face underwater I was blown away. Thousands of brittle stars (a type of starfish), incredible ornate seaweeds, anemones, crabs and fish everywhere I looked! I was absolutely blown away by the density and diversity of life here - a fully functional ecosystem, and because of its topographical position within the sea, protected from human activity. The piece de resistance - maerl - Scotland’s equivalent of coral reef, which grows at just 1mm a year and forms intricate, interlocking structures within which fish and other sea creatures can lay their eggs. Maerl is endangered in Scotland as a result of the seabed being systematically damaged by bottom-towed fishing gear such as trawling nets and scallop dredgers. I felt so grateful to have seen this safe haven, and imagined what the rest of our seas could look like if this level of fragile biodiversity was allowed to flourish, to support species from worms to whales!
My journey continued up the West coast of Scotland, past phenomenal scenery - where mountains and ocean interact. I was paddling between 20 and 30 miles a day, which took anything from 6 to 8 hours. It was exhausting, especially if there was any wind on the water, which makes paddling on a SUP very challenging. But I was rewarded by the wildlife which joined me - porpoises, so many different bird species swooping by to investigate, and I saw my first Minke Whale crossing over to the Isle of Mull.
However the most memorable wildlife encounter happened on a very rainy, grey morning when I had very nearly not gone paddling. I was so tired I could barely find the energy to keep moving forward. Kneeling on my board just North of Handa Island, willing myself to keep going for just another 2 miles to shore, I heard a blow behind me. Dolphins, I thought. I turned around to see 3 enormous black fins heading straight towards me at speed. Two were bigger than me, one slightly smaller. Orca. Without any control over my reaction, despite knowing they are no threat to humans in the wild, I began uncontrollably shaking as the two males with their 6 foot tall fins did a lap of my board while the female swam right underneath me, turning on her side and looking directly up at me. For a fleeting moment I locked eyes with her, before all three of them turned round and darted at speed in exactly the direction they had come, enveloped by the misty horizon like something out of a movie. That is a moment I will never forget, and feel grateful every day to have experienced.
Continuing around the North Coast meant paddling around Cape Wrath - notorious for its massive tidal races and epic weather. After waiting several days for a storm to pass through before attempting the dangerous passage, when the wind had calmed enough to set off the swell was still huge, and voyaging around this point made me feel incredibly small and vulnerable, hanging onto my board as swell reflected back off the enormous cliffs creating what felt like mini volcanoes underneath my board. The entire North coast was nothing short of epic - huge crossings between headlands, very few get out points and wildlife wherever I looked - Risso’s dolphins, White beaked dolphins and seabirds galore.
The seabirds were most numerous, however, on the East coast. Thousands of nesting birds - puffins, guillemots, razorbills, fulmar and gulls, swarming on the water, and making incredible noise (and smells!) on the impressive cliffs, caves and rock stacks I paddled next to and through.
The East Coast was also the most heart-wrenching section of the trip. One afternoon after a long day on the water we saw something floating a mile offshore. Upon approach my heart sank as I realised what it was - a dead humpback whale calf. Less than a year old, with rope and lobster pots hanging off his tail, likely drowned after becoming entangled feeding close to the shore. I adore whales, and seeing a humpback alive in the wild would be a dream come true. To see one, a juvenile no less, so powerful yet powerless against humans, was devastating. I felt quite depressed for a couple of weeks, which wasn't helped by also finding a gannet, this time alive, with barbed hooks through its foot and tail. This animal I managed to free and release (I am a vet so have the training to do this - if you find an entangled marine animal please contact British Divers Marine Life Rescue, BDMLR), however I saw several other gannets within its colony with bits of fishing gear wrapped around their legs or wings that I couldn’t help.
Continuing South, I crossed the Firth of Forth to Bass Rock, the world’s largest colony of Northern Gannets - beautiful, huge, graceful animals.
We also heard so many stories of people’s personal connection to the water, and how that drives an interest in marine conservation. We all have a stake in the health of the ocean, but those dwelling coastally with a personal connection to the ocean, a personal reason to want to protect it, understandably seem to have a stronger connection and a deeper resolve to see our seas healthy. Oftentimes that connection seems to be driven by an appreciation of how it feels to be there - the mental health benefits of being by, on or near the ocean and all her glorious inhabitants.
We need to protect 30% of our seas by 2030. How can this be achieved? What can we do about the ocean crises we face globally?
I think the first step has to be connection.
While I was paddling I’ve been fundraising for Seaful, the charity I recently set up to help connect more people to our incredible ocean. People will protect what they love, but they can only love what they know. Seaful aims to help inspire and educate people about the ocean, but also facilitate in person experiences of the sea to help create those connections and empower people to spend time there, improving mental health and encouraging stewardship of our blue spaces. In our island nation, one in five children in the UK has never been to the sea! We want to change that, and our Vitamin Sea Project launched this year to do just that. We have also set up Vitamin Sea TV to use films to educate and inspire. If you would like to donate to my fundraiser you can here:
And you can find out more about Seaful at www.seaful.org.uk
We can all have a voice in protecting our seas. I urge you to learn as much as you can about the ocean, different fishing methods (there are different merits and disadvantages of the differing methods!) and investigate campaigns such as the Our Seas campaign, and the 30 x 30 campaign. Check out and support UK based charities tirelessly fighting for marine protection, such as Marine Conservation Society, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and get involved in local organisations.
We can and must make our voices heard - write to your MP or MSP and let them know what you would like to see for our ocean. We must get ocean health higher up on the agenda for COP26, and that will come from public pressure.
And of course, you can make your own difference too! Choosing good quality kit that will last season after season is a great start.
Thank you for reading, and for anything you can do to help protect our ocean.