The years of animal behaviour study and conservation expedition work had paid off; I was living my dream. Coastal southern Mozambique was my home. I was working with Dr Andrea Marshall, the BBC Queen of Mantas and Dr Simon Pierce, world-renowned whale shark expert, at their flagship Marine Megafauna Foundation research centre. Mornings were spent diving with and studying majestic manta rays and whale sharks in the turquoise, nutrient-rich Indian Ocean. Afternoons would slip by as we fastidiously processed ID photos and data in our reed-hut office. In the evening, we gave conservation lectures to enchanted tourists about the challenges these enigmatic creatures face and what we, as marine conservation scientists, were doing to protect them.
Unlocking and learning their secrets was my life. While diving, we collected tissue samples, which showed us the trophic levels of their prey and what depths they feed from. Acoustic and satellite tags showed us how deep they dive, how far they travel and behaviour patterns. Every find was fascinating and many were ground-breaking. We poured our hearts and souls into research and writing papers, with a view to gaining these ocean giants legal protection from fishing and trade pressures. Yet there was one anthropogenic threat we hadn’t tackled at that time.
I have been in the water hundreds of times with manta rays in five continents and every single encounter has been special to me. However, during one particular dive off a small Indonesian island, my conservation focus instantly and entirely shifted. We began our dive and soon encountered four reef mantas (mobula alfredi) feeding in the plankton-rich water. It should have been another blissful encounter. But the mantas navigated their way through water more densely filled with single use plastic rubbish than the tiny plankton they were there to consume. Crisp packets clung to the front of their fins like gaudy tattoos and polystyrene containers and plastic cups hung in the water column in such numbers that I could barely capture a usable ID photo of the manta rays’ belly spot patterns. I didn’t have to wait for sleep to be haunted by images of these innocent creatures feeding in a murky plastic soup.
As huge an honour as it was to spend time underwater with these graceful leviathans and work with world-renowned scientists, I knew that my path lay in raising awareness about the plastics issue closer to the consumer source. Surely if everyone knew what was happening beneath the surface, they would care enough to change their habits. I would return to teaching in the UK while I considered my next move.
I have always encouraged my pupils to realise they have huge potential to change the world now and don’t need to wait until they are adults to unleash it. A child’s heartfelt plea for a cafe to switch from plastic to paper straws, for example, is (I believe) far more likely to have success than an adult doing the same thing. Amy and Ella Meek of Kids Against Plastic are the perfect junior ambassadors for change; encouraging children around the world to get ‘plastic clever’ and join them in removing 100,000 plastic beverage items from the environment, one for every marine mammal killed by plastic each year.
Challenging me to follow my own ‘walk the talk’ advice, my year five pupils decided that I’d had the right idea to return to education, but I needed to follow our school mantra, DREAM BIG. I should embark on a worldwide education mission. I should travel in an environmentally friendly way... why not by bicycle? This was an extraordinary mission, so I would need an extraordinary mode of transport – a homemade bicycle made of grass, just like the one that Dr Kate Rawles had inspired me with at the 2016 RGS-IBG Explore weekend. Being compostable with a low carbon footprint, a bamboo bicycle would be the perfect vehicle to help me pedal out my message.
Six months later, my homemade bamboo bike Sunny, covered in messages of determination and positivity, joined me aboard a flight to New Zealand (for my first foray into solo-cycle touring, my pupils allowed me to travel by plane to begin somewhere safe and welcoming, with challenging and stunning surroundings). As a keen, but casual, cyclist who has historically avoided hills, I knew a huge, mountainous challenge lay ahead and I was ready to give it my best effort.
In 1955, Time magazine printed an article entitled ‘Throwaway Living’, celebrating newly marketed single use plastic; durable products lasting up to 1,000 years could now be thoughtlessly discarded! Our insatiable appetite for convenience has taken plastic production from 15 million tons in 1964 to 448 million tons in 2015, and will likely double over the next 20 years. Over 90 per cent of plastic is created from virgin fossil fuel sources and it is estimated that only 9 to 14 per cent of it is recycled. Annually, more than eight million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean. Once there, plastic kills 1,000,000 seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals annually. In its macro form, it kills by entanglement, suffocation and starvation. Once broken down into microplastic, it soaks up chemicals and contaminants in the sea which are then released into the bodies of sea creatures that eat the microplastic. The time for blame has passed, it’s time for solutions from all parties; consumers, producers, governments. Every one of us can make a difference by avoiding single use plastic.
Despite enjoying a clean and green image, New Zealand is one of the many countries that has, until recently, been sending much of its recycling waste to China. Additionally, in January 2018, it was given the rather unenviable accolade in a World Bank study as the most wasteful developed country in the world, creating 3.68kg of rubbish per capita, per day. This was all being announced as New Zealand, only a week behind the UK in viewing Sir David Attenborough’s latest offering, was experiencing the phenomenal Blue Planet II effect. It was a perfect time to be cycling there on a bamboo bicycle talking about ocean plastics and solutions.
I toured for nearly five months, collaborating with Sustainable Coastlines, an Auckland-based charity that coordinates and supports large-scale coastal clean-up events, education programmes and training workshops.
In addition to meeting and being endorsed by ocean-loving songster Jack Johnson, I was delighted when I was invited to join the veritable godparents of ocean plastics awareness campaigning (5Gyres Institute and Algalita South Pacific) on an educational tour. We presented together at the National Aquarium and handed in the Greenpeace ‘Ban the Bag’ petition to the New Zealand government. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has since announced plans for a nationwide ban on plastic bags.
Having been favourably featured in local and national press, I was flooded by requests to visit schools and communities around the country. I could barely cycle from venue to venue fast enough, sometimes visiting up to four schools a day and cycling 40 kilometres afterwards to be poised and ready to present again. It was exhausting, but as I climbed into my tent at night, my head hit the pillow in a swirl of gratitude and happiness that I was following my passion and making a difference.
Far surpassing any secret goals I set myself, I gave 105 school presentations to over 7,000 pupils during three months of school term time and 1,000 adults from all sectors of the population. I spoke at schools in low socio-economic areas and to community groups, NGOs, university professors, festival-goers, surf clubs, prominent private schools, Maori maraes and government figures. More informally, I talked with anyone who would listen, in shops, at campsites and, often, on the side of the road.
I was heckled more than once by parents whose children had become passionate anti-plastic advocates. Conversations went something like this: ‘You’re that lady on the bamboo bike (usually accompanied by pointing at my bicycle). My child won’t let me buy anything with plastic packaging, it makes food shopping so challenging!’ I would reply that they must be very proud to have such caring and proactive children and enquired how they felt about their newly adapted shopping habits. They invariably conceded that once they had overcome the mental hurdle of changing their consumer routines, they were making healthier choices, enjoyed supporting local producers more by shopping at fresh produce markets, spent less money and produced less waste. They would then conclude that, actually, their children had helped them make great changes and they were very proud of their real life superheroes, creating a wave of positive change at home and in their local community.
As recent Explore feature writer Fearghal O’Nuallain mused, the word ‘explore’ no longer solely encompasses rugged, brave people conquering previously untouched realms, or even talented scientists discovering new species in far flung places. To me, it’s about exploring how we can protect what we love. It’s about exploring ways to be better cohabitants, engage with, and appreciate the world around us. It’s about thinking outside the box and achieving more than we imagine we can.
Some people possess the drive and skills to change laws, invent life-saving machines or medicines. We all have our own unique superpower. Mine is to educate. I derive enormous pleasure from igniting sparks of passion and imagination, then marvelling at what unfolds. Since embarking on my mission, I have seen faces light up, determined ideas forming and have received countless messages from community groups, schools, families and children telling me about significant, tangible change they have helped create in their local communities. From banning plastic straws in local cafes and posting viral requests on social media imploring people not to buy plastic, to successfully persuading a council that a whole town should go plastic free, change is afoot and it can’t happen quickly enough. As Margaret Mead said: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’
Fuelled by a love of the ocean, teacher and conservationist Libby Bowles continues her mission to create real life superheroes. Having most recently cycled across southern Africa, Libby is now back on home turf in the UK, touring schools, appreciating clean tap water, hot showers and unwavering electricity. www.treadlighter.org
This was published in the December 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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