New on Sidetracked:

The Ocean8Challenge

Eight days, eight daily sea swims, and eight beach cleans
Written by Sal Montgomery // Photography by Will Hawkes
Sidetracked//Trash Free Trails Purposeful Adventure series produced in Partnership with Trash Free Trails & Komoot

Is it time to change our relationship with the outdoors? Is ‘leaving no trace’ good enough any more, or is it time to start leaving places better than we found them?

A day of firsts

From the beach it had all looked so calm and flat. The sun was shining and kids were building sandcastles, but as we left the sheltered bay the wind picked up and transformed our serene haven into a choppy, pushy mess. Even the sun made a quick escape, adding to the sense of exposure and vulnerability.

It’s OK, I told myself; you’ve done this a million times before. You’ve even got a safety paddler. Turning my head for a breath, I stole a sneaky glimpse at Dave, my long-time friend and stand-up paddle-boarding champ. Along with his business partner Lewis, Dave had been a key part of the Ocean8Challenge from the very beginning, so it was reassuring to see him confidently guide his board between me and Nikki. As always, Nikki was ahead and looking strong. Since meeting Nikki, I’ve admired her impressive athletic abilities – she thinks nothing of smashing out cheeky triathlons at weekends, making our 5.00am swim sessions seem like nothing more than a paddle.

Attempting to pick up my pace and bridge the gap between myself and Nikki, I push harder. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in – then I stop in my tracks. Panic runs through me as I see frantic splashing and flapping of arms up ahead. Loud shrieking fills the air. Dave’s chilled composure has turned serious. Now he’s racing towards Nikki. My strong and confident teammate is in distress and I have no idea what’s happening.

Full of dread and picturing the worst, I arrive beside Nikki just as her panic-stricken expression softens. When she begins to laugh I feel a humungous flood of relief surge through me (and no, I wasn’t just peeing in my wetsuit).

Realising that she may have overreacted, she describes an intimate experience with her first ever jellyfish. The extreme shift in emotions makes us delirious; as we girls enter a full-on laughing fit, Dave and his raised eyebrows watch on, no doubt hoping that anyone witnessing this strange scene from the clifftop above isn’t about to call the coastguard.

A wave, sloshing in our faces, interrupts our laughter, and a clear plastic bag pops up to the surface and floats next to Nikki’s arm. A look of realisation spreads across her face. Turns out we were all meeting Nikki’s ‘jellyfish’.

I can’t help feeling disheartened that the health of our oceans is at the point where we are mistaking plastic waste for marine wildlife. But Dave tries to lighten the mood. ‘Remember, this is why we’re doing what we’re doing!’ he says with a grin, and scoops up the sodden plastic, shoving it into his dry bag. Then he points to the mainland. ‘Let’s crack on.’

As well as being Nikki’s first ‘jellyfish’ experience, and subsequently our first deep-water giggling fit, this was also our first insight into the south-west coast’s ocean plastic situation. Many firsts, and we were only an hour into our eight-day challenge.

Back to the beginning

The initial planning of the Ocean8Challenge took place a few months ago. It had been a tough winter, but our sea dips had got us through.

Working on the front line in the NHS during a global pandemic replaced my world of adventurous whitewater kayaking in remote countries. Instead of chasing snowmelt in Europe, paddling big-volume rivers in the Himalayas, or dropping off tall waterfalls in South America, I was working long shifts on busy wards of extremely unwell patients and exhausted hospital staff.

Although I was glad to be able to help those around me, it was still a sudden and unexpected transition. Unfamiliar and out of my control, the shift in lifestyle was mentally hard – and travel restrictions made getting out in my kayak was almost impossible. It all felt overwhelming. Until I found the ocean.

And it was bloody freezing. Some mornings ice crusted the ground as we made our way towards the water in matching pink neoprene socks and brightly coloured cossies. Initially, we felt like absolute heroes if we managed more than a couple of minutes. Our teeth would chatter for what felt like hours afterwards and we’d almost always spill hot tea on ourselves thanks to the ridiculous shivering of our limbs. Gradually, however, our tolerance for cold water grew and we were able to swim for much longer periods. No matter what the weather or temperature, though or even what mood we started in, we always left feeling happier, healthier, and ready to take on another day. We were beginning to feel like ourselves again – and we had the ocean to thank for it. But what could we do in return?

Nikki may be an impressive triathlete and have many enviable skills, but timekeeping is not one of them – something I learned early in our friendship. So, while I awaited her arrival on our early-morning swims, I began carrying out mini beach cleans. We have some beautiful coastlines here in the UK, so it’s no surprise that many of us choose to spend our holidays here. We’re extremely fortunate to have these special places. However, as the number of visitors increases, so unfortunately does the volume of rubbish left to wash into our oceans.

One morning after a sunny bank holiday weekend, our regular swim spot was swamped with drinks bottles, polystyrene trays, plastic forks, and disposable barbecues. Disappointed to see our special little escape scattered with rubbish, we made our pledge: eight days, eight daily sea swims, and eight beach cleans, finishing our challenge promoting ocean health on World Oceans Day, June 8th. We would do what made us feel good, followed by giving something back. And it would be called the Ocean8Challenge.

Interesting discoveries

With the challenge in full swing, it became increasingly clear that the remnants of peoples’ picnics were not entirely to blame.

That morning, as we climbed out of the clear water and began checking out the beach we would be cleaning, we were pleasantly surprised by what we saw – or more accurately what we didn’t see. There wasn’t a single piece of rubbish in sight. Keen to ensure that we weren’t missing any of those tiny microplastic pieces that like to hide in the sand, we’d gone for a closer inspection. What we found surprised us. Any fantasies of an afternoon spent sunbathing became a distant memory. Two hours of untangling old fishing wire from seaweed, whilst crawling around the beach on our hands and knees, resulted in almost three buckets full of wire: not what we had expected.

Yesterday we had another surprise when a local couple pointed us towards an inland stream entering the beach at Maenporth. Other than a couple of chip trays and a broken bucket and spade, the beach itself seemed well looked after. On approaching the stream, however, our hearts sank as we noticed the near-continuous flow of little pieces of coloured plastic. Apparently the source of the microplastics was an inland construction site several miles up the valley. We spent the rest of the afternoon grabbing as many pieces as we could. The satisfaction of removing hundreds of tiny specs of orange and blue plastic, otherwise destined for the ocean, was spoiled by the fact that the problem did not end when we walked away. In the evening we put social media posts out in an attempt to find the source, which led to us being put in contact with a local organisation that could hopefully find a solution.

In it together

Despite what we’ve seen during the challenge, it’s still absolutely mind-boggling to think that 8 million pieces of plastic make it into the ocean every single day. Our Ocean8Challenge is small, but it’s a start – and it’s about more than just beach cleans. It’s a change in behaviour.

Over the last few days, we’ve learnt so much about our coastal environments and are more appreciative than ever for our incredible oceans. But we haven’t been alone! Swimmers, walkers, cyclists, holidaymakers, families, students, and local groups have all kindly given up their time to grab buckets and get involved. Even the deputy mayor hasn’t been afraid to get her hands dirty, swapping a smart trouser suit for her swimsuit and pink marigolds! And as if that weren’t awesome enough, imagine an entire birthday party of kids. Clocking our big yellow buckets, the group ran over, excitedly asking if they could join in. We were all a bit surprised that they had chosen beach cleaning over games and chocolate cake, but we weren’t going to question it!

The birthday girl may have been the smallest of them all, but that didn’t seem to matter as she set about organising her party of friends around the beach. Before we knew it, every corner was covered and the beach was alive with energy: ‘Look what I found!’ ‘I’ve got a sock!’ ‘I bet I can fill my bucket first!’

None of the grown-ups even attempted to hide their big grins as they watched these children patrol the beach, complete with massively oversized gloves on their tiny hands and buckets so big they could hardly walk with them.

Although I’m not a very emotional person, I have to admit that there was a good tug of my heartstrings that evening. As the sun set, filling the sky with pinks and oranges, these enthusiastic children proudly carried their big yellow Ocean8Challenge buckets. If ever there were a scene that represented hope for the future, this was it. And, if only for this one moment alone, it had all been completely worthwhile.

For the long run

For a long time, adventure and the outdoors has pretty much been a one-way relationship: using and sometimes abusing the places we claim to love. Times are changing, however, and we’re starting to understand that a balanced relationship is needed if we want to continue to enjoy the outdoors. It’s a give-take kinda thing!

Individually, it’s easy to feel hopeless, but together we are capable of awesome things. Now is the perfect time to start thinking a little differently and making small, lasting changes. ‘Leaving no trace’ is no longer enough. Now it’s about leaving places better than you find them.

So next time you’re out adventuring and doing the things that make you feel great, be sure to give a little something back to the places that continue to give you so much – as this is definitely a relationship worth working for.

Thank you to everyone that has been a part of the Ocean8Challenge, from our safety paddlers to the brilliant volunteer beach cleaners, smiley swimmers, and epic cake makers, as well as everyone that got involved all around the world. We can’t thank you enough and look forward to joining you again next year for the Ocean8Challenge 2022!

Ocean8Challenge supported by Paddle Logger.

Website: // Instagram: @trashfreetrails
Website: // @komoot
Written by Sal Montgomery // sal.montgomery
Photography by Will Hawkes // @hillwalkswithwillhawkes