This week I had the honour of spending a couple of days in St Ives at the Ocean Wonders exhibition. The event had been set up by photographer Vicky Walker who had spent time photographing humpback whales and was raising money for the Marine Conservation Society. I was in attendance with the Cornish Seal Sanctuary, raising money for this year’s seal pups by selling photographs.
I don’t visit St Ives very often, despite it being only 40 minutes away. The idea of exploring somewhere so busy usually puts me off, but pulling up in the coastal village bathed in autumn sunshine, I remembered why the place is so popular. Light reflected off the water and people played in the surf as though it were a summers’ day.
We were set up in the Salvation Army building, Victoria’s photographs printed on huge aluminium sheets, the movement in the photographs giving you the feeling that you were the one swimming with the giant mammals beneath the waves. Marine conservation videos played in the background, highlighting the need to recycle, clean up our oceans and look after our marine species. Opposite our table in the front room stood a large Easter Island head, erected around 6 feet tall.
The statue was both beautiful and ugly in its own way, as it had been made out of marine plastic pieces found by artist Rob Arnold during beach cleans. It is designed to be a stark reminder of human destruction; the Easter Island head representing the suggestion that all those years ago, the island inhabitants supposedly chopped down trees faster than they could regrow them, leading to an environmental disaster that ultimately ended the population. And here we are again, not learning lessons, repeating mistakes.
Meeting Rob was also a double edged sword; a fascinating man, Rob has an incredible talent for producing art made from marine litter, but it is devastating that this role exists for him at all. His pieces, and his words, were truly thought provoking and all the while talking to him I couldn’t escape that niggly feeling I have when I think too much about it – the horrific damage we have caused and are still causing. The animals who face danger and death every day at our carelessness.
Of course, that isn’t the point. Rob spends his time educating people and inspiring them to make changes, but the impacts of marine litter are shocking. One part of his display was a large box of rocks. I put my hands in them at first, wondering why they were there. They all felt light and waxy to the tough. Rob explained that they weren’t rocks, they were in fact plastic. Nearly every single ‘rock’, but for a few real ones he had hidden in there himself, had been found during beach cleans. This was one of those moments for me that shook me to the core; these pieces of plastic were utterly convincing. The problem of marine plastics is so bad now that the pieces are masquerading as natural items! I beach clean where I can, but I must do more to help the situation.
Outside of the exhibition building, St Ives gives no indication of the horror that lies beneath the waves. The sea was crystal and the most beautiful turquoise colour. I headed out to watch the waves roll over each other and got distracted by the local birds. As well as the usual gull suspects, herring, little and greater black backed, turnstones weaved in and out of tourist’s legs, their own feet moving with a comical quickness and they scavenged for pasty crumbs. I watched as they fought tooth and nail for scraps, evading the huge gulls more than 4 times their size at every opportunity.
By the bandstand near the pier, a group of local starlings have overtaken the patch. Observing them, they were braver than I see them at home. They sat close to a group of children eating their lunch and sung their hearts out, taking it in turns to swoop down and look for morsels. Of course, there were gulls waiting in the wings here too as well as sparrows, who were less brave, only making the occasional appearance. Many of these birds don’t display this behaviour anywhere else, but the opportunity of handouts from passersby is just too good to miss and the bravest are also the fullest.
A while later, I stood overlooking the harbour as the tide was rising. Mullet rolled in with the waves, conqueringing the shallow water with a confidence you never seem to see in other fish. A seal, known locally as Sammy, popped his head about above the surface. Seals often spend their time vertically or horizontally in the water column. This is known as ‘bottling’ and is just their way of resting without hauling out. I took the opportunity to point him out to others around me, many of them not local and it sparked up conversation about seals and other wildlife. One man showed me some pictures of a robin which not only visits his garden, but actually comes into his house and once stood by the sink as his wife did the washing up. “I’m so glad we saw the seal”, his wife told me, “we really wanted to see one and we leave tonight”. Another couple came and leant on the railing next to me and as I was about to point out Sammy, I noticed a herring gull heading directly towards the pair; mouth open, wings wide, a war cry emanating from its beak. I didn’t have a chance to say anything, despite realising what was happening. The man’s ice cream cone was snatched from him in milliseconds, taken out of reach and gifted to a young gull whose high pitched hunger cries were enough to drive any parent crazy.
The victim was, thankfully, gracious in his defeat, although his wife softly chided him as she covered her own cone. I am pleased to hear no stern words said about the gull as you so often hear these days. Gulls are a topic close to my heart and I often find myself fiercely defending them from those who call for their persecution (stop destroying their habitat, stop overfishing, cover your rubbish properly and don’t feed them. They’re starving and their numbers are dropping. They need our help, not our anger over a stolen chip!)
Apart from a nice day out in St Ives and some new connections, the time spent talking to strangers about our oceans really opened my eyes to the fact we need to keep fighting to educate people about our environment and the ongoing work that needs to happen. Many people aren’t bad, they simply don’t realise the impact they are having by doing, or not doing, certain things. There is a school of thought that the damage we have already caused to many worldwide habitats is irreversible, but at least we could attempt to reduce the amount we do in the future?