Sea Dragon - exploring the oceans, exploring ourselves

| 16th June 2015
Sunset on the Sea Dragon. Photo: Kate Rawles.
Sunset on the Sea Dragon. Photo: Kate Rawles.
Three scientific expeditions into the Atlantic ocean will take place this summer, writes outdoor philosopher Kate Rawles. But as well as gathering data about plastic pollution and over-fishing, they will give participants the chance to think deeply about our society, its values, the often false narratives it tells; and our place, as humans, in the natural world.
Imagine grappling with questions about the value of nature while sea kayaking off the west coast of Scotland surrounded by seals, say or, sailing into the North Atlantic gyre to investigate ocean plastic pollution.

Phosphorescent dolphins are amongst the most beautiful things I've ever seen. Arched and glittering through curling bow waves, their blowholes breathed sparklers into the night air.

It was the 4am shift on Pangaea Exploration's yacht Sea Dragon, sailing the North Atlantic Gyre last summer to investigate ocean plastic pollution. The sparkling dolphins remain a highlight. Utterly beautiful; and achingly sad. Because by then we knew just a bit too much about how we are impacting their habitat.

A recent paper in Science puts the amount of plastic created annually at around 275 million tonnes. About 8 million tonnes per year end up in the oceans. The havoc caused to wildlife by plastic pollution is familiar from those heart breaking images of turtles choking on plastic bags, and the horrific, plastic-filled stomach contents of albatross chicks.

Almost all the plastic ever created, bar a small percentage that has been incinerated, still exists. Over time - and plastic is a substance that's been around since the 1950's - it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. And that's where the scientific dimension of our trip last year was focussed.

And microplastics

As described in a previous piece for The Ecologist, microplastics are defined as bits of plastic smaller than 5mm. They arrive in the ocean as microbeads, as microfibers released when we wash fleeces, as nurdles (the raw material for large pieces of plastic), or as large pieces of plastic disintegrating into fragments.

We were trying to establish 'real world' (as opposed to lab-based) evidence that these microplastics can be ingested by plankton. Given the role of plankton in the ocean food web, and in the oxygen and carbon cycles, the importance of this research is hard to overstate.

The oxygen in every second breath you take has been processed by plankton and the ocean absorbs about a third of anthropogenic CO2, with plankton playing a key role. But scientific research was just one dimension of the voyage.

The ocean is BIG. But so are our impacts on it

We all know that 70% of earth's surface is ocean. Perhaps less well known is that about 98% of the space available for life on earth is in the ocean, with land and the thin sliver of breathable atmosphere very much in the minority.

Knowledge is one thing. But when you've been sailing for days without seeing land, or even another vessel, what this means in terms of sheer hugeness really hits home, and becomes meaningful and real in a very different way.

And each day, despite the vastness of the seas and after only a brief twenty minute trawl, multi-coloured microplastics were clearly visible in every sample. Plastic has pervaded the ocean.

Imagine grappling with questions about the value of nature while sea kayaking off the west coast of Scotland surrounded by seals, say or, sailing into the North Atlantic gyre to investigate ocean plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution, though, for all its importance and difficulty, is only one issue. Throw in ocean acidification, noise and light pollution, dead zones and of course overfishing and it's clear that, for all its immense size, the anthropogenic impacts on the ocean are extraordinary.

A question that has exercised me for a long time is 'what lies beneath all this?' Are there shared drivers of these multiple ocean impacts? And, if so, what might they be?

The architecture and stories of industrialised life

Answering this involves burrowing down into the shared architecture of our social, political and economic systems; unearthing their underpinning logic and values and bringing them into the light of day for critical scrutiny.

And it involves trying to notice the stories our societies and cultures tell us so constantly they are rendered invisible: stories about humans, nature and the relationship between the two; stories that tell us there is such a thing as humans on the one hand and nature on the other; and stories about what makes us humans happy and what counts as 'progress'.

That this architecture and these stories are deeply problematic is not a new analysis. Many have expounded it in articles, books and lecture halls, including myself.

Over the years, the irony of discussing the impacts of humans on nature, and why nature matters, in highly unnatural settings - artificial light, artificial heat, sometimes without even a window and often with the only other species in the room being our own gut flora and fauna - has become impossible to ignore.

And that's turned into a journey towards discovering the impact and efficacy of taking a very different approach.

Outdoor philosophy

Imagine grappling with questions about the value of nature while sea kayaking off the west coast of Scotland surrounded by seals, say or, sailing into the North Atlantic gyre to investigate ocean plastic pollution.

These experiences involve simultaneously journeying to the heart of an issue, ground-truthing (or sea-truthing) it by actually being there. And stepping away from the high-paced, high consumption, high impact industrialised modern societies in which most of us live out of lives.

Both journeying to and stepping away open up the rare and precious possibility of seeing our unsustainable 'normal' lives from a different perspective. Both offer the possibility of noticing those invisible stories we're normally immersed in, like a fish in water, and opening them up for critical debate.

The chance to feel as well as think that those narratives of nature as merely a set of resources for our own species, or of consumerism as the fast-track to happiness, might be deeply, deeply flawed.

There are other huge positives too. Inevitably, there is a great mix of people and professions on board, so that all our debates are informed by multiple, interdisciplinary perspectives. Debates that are emotionally engaged through relevant experience support a sustained commitment to finding, and living, new solutions.

And then there are the multiple ripple effects that ensue when a boat-load of fired up people, bonded through shared and sometimes out-of-your-comfort-zone experience, disembark and track back to their lives, supported by new networks and taking dolphin-inspired determination with them.

The adventure of sustainability

A final powerful dimension arises through taking the insights, realisations and solutions that emerge from these journeys back out into the world cloaked in the story of an adventurous voyage. It transforms their chance of traction and engages new audiences in new ways.

And adventure is a great metaphor for the change we need. The transition to sustainability, to single as opposed to multiple planet living, is an immense challenge; an adventure we are all on, whether we choose it or not.

Being up for it, and calling on all those qualities of teamwork, collaboration, humour, compassion, creativity and resolve we need on board has to be up there with our best chances of success.



Sea Dragon expeditions

July 30-Aug 8 - Gyre to Gaia II: Ocean Plastic Pollution Azores - Lanzarote (includes supporting further scientic work on plastic and plankton, plus exploration of the context, deep roots and potential solutions for ocean plastic pollution).

Aug 22-Aug 31 - Be The Change: The Adventure of Sustainability Lanzarote - Cape Verde Islands (environmental sustainability, leadership and change).

Sept 6-Sept 19 - Fish for the Future! Overfishing, context and solutions Cape Verde Islands - Ivory Coast.

Three bursary places are available to join Kate Rawles and the crew of Sea Dragon this summer. More information at

Also on The Ecologist: 'Microplastic ocean pollution - will you join our research voyage?' by Kate Rawles.

Dr Kate Rawles is a freelance Outdoor Philosopher, writer, lecturer and activist. She runs regular 'reconnection with nature' sea kayaking courses for environmentalists who spend too much time with their computers, and is the academic director of Reconnections@Findhorn (with Jonathon Porritt and Forum for the Future). Kate worked as 'Mission Leader' on Sea Dragon for two legs last summer, and will be working with her again later this year.

Her book The Carbon Cycle; Crossing the Great Divide (Two Ravens Press 2012; Rocky Mountain Books 2013), based on her 4,553 mile bike ride from Texas to Alaska exploring N. American attitudes to climate change, was shortlisted for the Banff Mountain Festival Adventure Travel Award and a runner-up in the People's Book Prize.

Her next big bike trip will be in the Andes, with a focus on biodiversity. She has recently left the University of Cumbria where she lectured on environmental issues, environmental ethics and sustainability. Kate is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and sits on the Food Ethics Council.

More info at


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