It’s estimated that there are 51 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans, and experts believe we have reached the water’s edge in terms of taking action for the health of the planet. In the face of overwhelming statistics – including the fact that plastic production will have increased by 50pc by 2050 – it’s easy to feel that the situation is helpless. How can anything you do possibly be enough, when you imagine that the Great Pacific plastic garbage patch – a mound of rubbish floating between California and Hawaii – is now the size of France?
There persists, however, a strong belief that individuals and communities taking small steps can ultimately be the game changer in protecting our oceans. That’s what ignites the passion of scores of Irish people who are committed to changing how we value the vast blue spaces around us and making a difference to the health of the oceans. Here, we meet three women who are working to save our seas…
Dr Easkey Britton
Dr Easkey Britton has been surfing since she was four years old. Growing up in Rossnowlagh in Co Donegal, the beach was her playground. A former professional surfer, she now works as a marine social scientist researching the healing power of blue space.
Easkey’s earliest memories involve going on road trips with her parents up and down the coast where, curled up in the back of a van with her sister Beckey-Finn, she would listen for a rise in the sound of waves which would signal the arrival of a new swell.
While Easkey’s heritage is blue, she’s on a mission to remind people that we all have salt water in our blood and that our connection to the sea is deeply embedded in our DNA. Through her work as a marine social scientist with the NEAR Health project at NUI Galway, Easkey is determined to let everyone know what she intuitively understood at a young age: the sea has the power to heal.
“Water memories are some of our most powerful. The sea leaves a powerful imprint on our body and mind. Wave-exposed coastlines release negative ions believed to alter our biochemistry, lower our cortisol and light up our mood. That’s before we’ve even dived into it,” she says.
“A lot of studies have looked at the restorative benefits of outdoor spaces like parks and woodlands. We are only beginning to find that there is something particular about water. Research shows coastal environments and the sea have a profound effect on our mental and psychological well-being. We are just beginning to look at the restorative benefits and how it can be used as a therapeutic experience,” says Easkey.
Leading busy lives, being always on and not feeling we have time means the disconnect with our environment increases and if we are not engaging at a local level with our environment, it’s easy not to notice what’s happening in terms of pollution or damage, explains Easkey.
Her current research with the NEAR Health project looks at how nature, including blue space, can help society attain and restore health.
“We have a sea swimming group in Galway Bay that meets every week in Salthill and there’s an adult programme for people who are new to swimming in the sea. They are making that transition from a swimming pool to the outdoor, ever-changing ocean. It can sometimes be overwhelming and scary, but by creating positive experiences where people can come and learn the skills and tools, they can overcome those fears, get immersed in the sea and also share the experience with other people,” says Easkey.
“The potential for growth is huge. You’re also more likely to notice changes in the environment and understand the impact of our actions on land because you’re immersed in the sea,” she adds. “My bias as a surfer has influenced my desire to better understand what I’ve intuitively felt my whole life – the power of the sea to heal. Emerging evidence is suggesting that physical activities in the sea, in particular surfing, have confirmed psychological and physical benefits.”
And if the ocean heals, she says, it also has to be healed. “Our actions directly impact the ocean. It’s estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. We need new stories and experiences about why the ocean matters.”
The younger of the two Britton sisters, Beckey-Finn is also a self-confessed water baby. She’s involved with the Clean Coasts project, which organises beach clean-ups by local communities.
After studying digital media in Dublin and moving to Galway for a few years, Beckey-Finn’s internal compass, which was set to north-west, pulled her back home to again. Running her own digital media company and working as Clean Coasts development officer for counties Donegal and Leitrim, means she continues to be inspired by the coast and starts many days with a walk on the beach with her mother.
Surrounded by salt water again and seeing the levels of marine litter increase over the years, Beckey-Finn says she really wanted to do something in her own way to effect change. “I did feel quite disempowered – it felt like no matter how much rubbish I’d pick up, there was always more. But then I started to meet more and more people around the coast to see what they were doing. I met people like Annabel FitzGerald, who was Clean Coasts national manager at the time, and I started to realise I wasn’t the only one who cared. The more you meet people and hear what they’re doing, the more you make changes, too,” says Beckey-Finn. “I began to realise that all those little things I did in my day to day had an impact. For example, I absolutely love going to the cinema. When I’d go I started bringing my metal straw with me. The people serving me would say ‘what have you got there?’ I would say ‘I’m trying to reduce my plastic’ and then they’d start thinking about it,” she says.
She soon got involved with Clean Coasts and began working with community groups, including groups in her home place of Rossnowlagh, where locals organise a beach clean-up on the first Sunday of every month. In terms of the practical things people can do in their own lives, Beckey-Finn says the two-minute daily beach clean-up is a brilliant way to begin. The movement, which started in the UK, has at its heart that every piece of pollution removed from the beach matters. “No matter how busy your life is – people are working more hours than ever – you can do this. It feeds into a global movement. Two minutes turn into hours and hours. We all can do two minutes. All the Blue Flag beaches around Ireland now have two minute beach clean-ups,” says Beckey-Finn.
She says the best way for people to get involved and begin their own local movement is to contact Clean Coasts. Social media, she says, plays a great role in helping you to connect with people in the community already doing this.
The work with Clean Coasts has allowed Beckey-Finn to collaborate more with her sister on projects. While Beckey-Finn was often the one taking footage of Easkey surfing, through their work they have been able to put their heads together once again.
Senator Grace O’Sullivan
Grace O’Sullivan grew up two minutes from the pier in Tramore, Co Waterford. A former Greenpeace activist who crewed the Rainbow Warrior, she is now a Green Party Senator and surf instructor.
Grace O’Sullivan learned to swim at a very young age and trained to be a lifeguard. A lifelong surfer, she also became a member of the local sea and cliff rescue.
At the age of 16 on a school trip to the Netherlands, Grace saw a colourful ship docked in a harbour. It was painted green with a rainbow and a dove on its side. She went to speak to the captain. The ship was the Greenpeace ship, the Rainbow Warrior, and it would change the course of her life.
When she returned home to Tramore, she wrote to Greenpeace. A year later she was invited to join the crew of another ship, The Sirius, which planned to confront hunters killing seal pups for their hides off the Norwegian coast.
The plight of the seals struck a nerve for Grace, who’d grown up sharing the surf with seals. “I’d be out there surfing and we’d see the seals coming up. I’d marvel when I’d see this big bull seal looking at us. From a young age I was connecting with the wonder and the mystery of nature. I wasn’t comfortable with the killing of seals for the fur industry. We went on to confront the sealers when they were leaving harbour. It got a lot of media attention at the time,” she says.
In October 1984, she joined the crew of the Rainbow Warrior in Florida and sailed through the Pacific Islands raising awareness about nuclear proliferation. In 1985 the French government, under President François Mitterrand, was testing nuclear weapons underwater in French Polynesia. Rainbow Warrior was intent on stopping it. In July of that year they sailed into Auckland where the ship was sunk. It was later discovered that two members of the French Secret Service, the DGSE, had planted two mines on board. A 35-year-old photographer, Fernando Pereira, was killed.
Devastated at the loss of her friend, Grace – who was only 23 at the time – spent another 10 years with Greenpeace before she returned to Ireland to raise her three daughters. Her environmental campaigning continued on a more local level when she got involved with her children’s local school to make it a green school. She went on to study field ecology at UCC and led nature walks on the beach as well as giving surf lessons to local children at Tramore Surf School, the country’s oldest surf school.
Becoming a senator for the Green Party in 2016 means that she’s still campaigning and the ocean is still one of the closest things to her heart. “The oceans are the key to the future of humanity and biodiversity. As an island nation I really strongly feel we have to look to the sea. We have to look to nature.
“With regard to global warming and climate change, we are so poor at how we do things. Humans have been gifted resources. If we don’t mind them and care for them, Mother Nature will turn on us,” she says.
Grace says there’s much ordinary people can do to make a difference in their own local communities. She points to an international campaign called ‘Three for the Sea’ which calls on people to take three pieces of rubbish with them when they leave the beach, waterway or anywhere.
“The big thing for me is to connect with nature. Go and walk the beach. Recognise that we have to care for it. Get involved with organisations like Friends of the Earth. Become active in your reading and your information. Engage with the people who use that environment around you. Engage always with respect,” says Grace.
“We now know that there are tiny specks of plastic in salt crystals – we need to really take action with regard to plastic. We need to ask ourselves how do we get away from persistent plastic – this is the plastic that does not degrade for hundreds of years. We have to put pressure on our shops.
“Go into your local shop, and bring in your own canvas bag and use your voice. Say to the retailers in every possible way – through schools and social networks – that we are going to start to actively move away from buying products where plastic is used. When pressure is put on producers and retailers, they are forced to conform.”
Even when she’s leading children as young as six in their surf lessons, Grace says she takes every opportunity to talk to them about biodiversity and the health of the ocean. “I’ll be picking up seaweed and talking to them about it. It doesn’t matter where you are, you can always put your energies to trying to do good.”