Sophie Dingwall sees firsthand the impact of plastic pollution on the Caribbean's population. Her article - Polluted Paradise - has won the inaugural Brian Black Memorial Award

Polluted Paradise by Sophie Dingwall – winner of the Brian Black Memorial Award 2021

For centuries humankind has settled along our coastlines, but for some, myself included, that was never enough.

Curiosity got the better of me and the freedom of the unknown ocean became more appealing than the safe haven of the earth beneath my feet.

Life at sea is the best way I’ve found to experience nature and for me, the connection to the ocean is incomparable to anything else. 

 Witnessing first-hand the damage being done to our oceans, I found myself distressed and needed to embark on a path with intention and purpose, and so I confirmed my position on board and packed for a voyage which would carry me over 5,000 miles from the UK to Panama.

I’d spend five months onboard the 72ft steel yacht, Traveledge as part of the eXXpedition scientific mission, studying plastic pollution around the world.

A yacht sailing through the water

Traveledge is a purpose-built 72ft expedition ketch, designed to sail in high latitudes. She is equipped for scientific expeditions and is fitted with equipment to monitor plastic pollution levels. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

The weather and climate affects every living organism on our planet and is governed by the oceans and their currents.

Without the ocean, life simply wouldn’t exist.

Today, more importantly than ever before, the ocean absorbs around a quarter of the carbon dioxide we humans produce and is one of the largest carbon sinks.

It also provides an essential source of food, allows us the possibilities to travel, trade goods but greater yet, it’s a medicine; having the power to heal, improving physical health and mental wellbeing.

The importance of sustaining the ocean is essential and high on the list of threats is plastic. 

Microplastics found in the ocean as part of a plastic pollution project

Microplastics were found in every water sample during the voyage. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

There is currently very little data on the number of plastics in our oceans. Dr. Winnie Courtene-Jones, head of the science lead for eXXpedition, created a programme that uses standard methods of data collection and studies to provide a global assessment of the distribution and accumulation of microplastics in our ocean.

In order to validate the presence of microplastic and its concentration in the marine environment, it is important to sample various sediment, subsurface and surface layers. The ongoing global study highlights hot spots, causes, and potential solutions to the ocean plastic pollution crisis.

This work is a collaboration between humans from all walks of life, from artists, scientists, teachers, designers, to students. It has created the opportunity where individuals are now part of a global network, building together a community making the changes that our environment so desperately needs.

Each crew member is participating for their own reasons, but is bound together to achieve a published scientific study into the research of our oceans. 

We covered over 3,000 miles sailing from the UK, stopping at the Azores, Antigua and Bonaire before tying up alongside the dock in Aruba.

eXXpedition crew taking water samples during an expendition

The crew take regular water samples throughout the voyage to determine levels of plastic pollution in the ocean. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

Punching our way into 60-knot winds, towering breaking waves and relentless rain seemed another lifetime ago, which was a relief.

Gathering data in such unforgiving conditions had its challenges, especially when bracing in a warrior yoga pose was required to brush your teeth and a 20-minute nap had priority over showering, even if it had been four days.

Surviving such extreme weather gives one a huge sense of achievement and satisfaction which does not come with calm waters and tropical sunrises, but in Aruba we faced other horrors.

 Aruba is a holiday destination and tourism is the main source of income, but first impressions are quite different from the brochures.

A synthetic stench tightened my chest and plumes of black smoke fogged the sky from the overflowing landfill Parkietenbos, which spilled carelessly into the open ocean.

Crew on a yacht during a rough crossing

The crew experienced waves and 60 knot winds while crossing the Atlantic. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

Toxic fires burn continuously endangering the productivity of the necessary mangroves adjacent, home to the indigenous parrot which are being pushed closer to extinction every day.

Smart hotels and fancy restaurants disguise the environmental devastation; however, Aruba is working towards reducing waste. 

eXXpediton crew member and ambassador Juliet Carvalhal fought for a plastic bag ban on the island as co-founder of Impact Blue Foundation, which was successfully implemented in January 2017. Since then, 82.8 million plastic bags have been prevented from entering the ocean and marine environment.

eXXpedition crew onboard their boat in Plymouth

The eXXpedition crew left from Plymouth. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

Most recently, her efforts have pushed the government to implement a new law banning all single-use plastics, bioplastics and oxo-degradable plastics.

The scientific data collection methods practiced on board have allowed her to use this research, develop from it and submit it as evidence to support her cases. If this isn’t proof that one person can make a difference, I don’t know what is!

Continues below…

Disappointingly but not to my surprise, we had found plastic in every single sample since leaving the UK.

We had sailed through the North Atlantic gyre which is also known as a plastic island, although it isn’t as you might imagine.

An island of rubbish doesn’t appear over the horizon, hitting you like a brick wall. In fact, at first glance, the ocean looks healthy but underneath lies a disguised aggressive cancer continuously growing. The ocean is sick and these concentrated areas are now a toxic soup of plastic waste, causing damage to the ecosystem. 

A child standing next to plastic pollution in the San Blas islands

Plastic pollution from all over the Caribbean washes up in the San Blas islands, carried by the currents. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

Most of our findings were identified as microplastics, meaning they are less than 5mm long which indicates they have fragmented from larger items whilst in the ocean.

After analysing these samples, the majority were found to be polyethylene. This is used in a huge variety of products such as food packaging, bags and film. 

Inadvertently, we also sampled natural debris such as zooplankton. They range from microscopic organisms to larger species such as jellyfish. Without them, many species would starve to death as these are the basis of the food chain. Plastic outweighed zooplankton three to one in our samples in the North Atlantic Gyre. 

The very same day as these findings, a minke whale graced us with its presence.

Diving deep under the boat and playing in the waves that peeled away from the hull, the crew watched in awe from the deck at the whales’ mesmerising movements.

A group of women having just done a beach clean

The crew did regular beach cleans at each destination. Sophie Dingwall

Minke whales are part of the baleen family and small in comparison to other whale species. They do not have teeth, but baleen – long, flat keratin plates that hang from the whale’s mouth. They engulf water and then filter it out again, trapping their prey in the process.

Distracted by the beauty and power of this creature, it suddenly dawned on me that this marine animal would most definitely be ingesting plastic.

The catastrophic damage and deaths that are caused to marine species due to plastic pollution are unjustifiable and the figures linked to this are unknown but nearly all will ingest plastic during their lifetime, a material that has no place in this environment. 

Our time in the Caribbean Sea had been productive, informative and influential working closely with local schools, government bodies and holding educational talks and workshops on the islands we visited. 

As we headed off the beaten track on our next voyage to an archipelago of islands off the coast of Panama, called the San Blas we recorded the worst findings yet.

A chid carrying plastic and waste paper in the San Blas isands

The eXXpedition crew ran workshops in local schools about ocean pollution and met the elders of the Guna Yala tribe to better understand waste management in the islands. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

The San Blas is made up of over 370 islands, many of which are uninhabited and is home to the Guna Yala tribe.

On approach, the sun-scorched my skin and a haze obscured the islands which lay ahead. The reflection from glossy smooth water blinded me and so I moved to the aft deck, to what little shade was available from the mainsail, and looked out over the rail.

The deck was quiet, which was a rarity for a boat crewed only by women; I put it down to the overwhelming conveyor belt of plastic guiding us to the anchorage.

A chair, a fork, a lightbulb, these were just some of the objects that passed our vessel.

We had anchored in the most turquoise waters I’d ever seen, surrounded by sandy beaches and palm trees. It was like we had landed on a desert island out of the movies, although it was not long before reality hit and like a magnet, rubbish hugged the hull along with a thick scum engulfing our vessel.

The Guna Yala tribe’s way of life is threatened by rising sea levels, with some communities already moved to mainland Panama. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

The Guna Yala tribe’s way of life is threatened by rising sea levels, with some communities already moved to mainland Panama. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

There was no escaping it, plastic was prevalent in all corners of the world. 

As part of the programme, we visited the local schools to run a workshop and educate the children, as well as meeting with the elders of The Guna Yala tribe to better understand the waste management for this area.

The main island was no bigger than a few football pitches and clearly very basic, yet we were welcomed with warmth, which bestowed on us a feeling of contentment and happiness within the village.

Western culture was wholly absent as it seemed tradition and family were of more importance. In fact, the only western culture here had been negative, and it lay everywhere. 

Houses stood mostly on stilts and each slanted slightly in its own direction due to the salvaged mix of materials in construction, whilst colourful washing hung between the narrow alleyways of neighbouring houses.

Plastic pollution chokes the mangrove swamps. Mangrove is vital in protecting islands from storms and hurricanes. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

Plastic pollution chokes the mangrove swamps. Mangrove is vital in protecting islands from storms and hurricanes. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

The younger children scuttled through the dusty sand and led me to their school, a derelict concrete building, flooded and empty except for the old posters that still clung to the wall and rubbish that collected in the corner. 

Sophie Dingwall

Sophie, 28, began sailing as a child, having been introduced by her father. She was part of the Team GB Cadet team, competing in National, European and World competitions before moving to 420s. She then worked professionally, sailing all kinds of boats from charter to racing yachts. Sophie has sailed the UK, Europe, Atlantic, Caribbean, Hawaii and Mexico. A photographer and writer, Sophie has written for sailing publications and charities, and recently had her photography exhibited in Geneva for the UN Environmental Convention. In recent years, she has taken part in scientific research programmes around the world. Credit: Sophie Dingwall

The playground backed onto the west side of the island and the children ran barefoot to the water’s edge, playing in the filth that was man-made.

Even the grass grew through a layer of plastic bottles that crunched under every step.

The children bounced through the lapping waves which rolled ashore yet another layer of debris, slowly suffocating and closing in on the island. Unaware of the dangers and pollution to their health and homes, the children went about this devastation without care. 

The geographical positioning of these islands makes it a dumping ground for debris from all over the Caribbean Sea due to the ocean currents.

Some of the plastic that ends up here will have travelled hundreds of miles and yet the children and families of this tribe are left with the wreckage.