Out of sight
Cal Major is a vet, ocean advocate and world-record stand up paddleboard adventurer who founded the UK charity Seaful to reconnect people to the ocean. In this column, she sheds light on the significance behind her efforts to paddle around Scotland.
Two years ago, I nervously carried my enormous stand-up paddleboard and dry bags down a swan poo covered slipway in the centre of Glasgow towards the River Clyde. To my left was the Tall Ship, a tourist attraction moored on the Clyde’s banks, and just further up lay the heart of the city centre. To my right were industrial yards, followed by increasingly green areas on the horizon. I couldn’t yet see it, but two days’ paddling would take me to the open ocean.
Over ten weeks I paddled day and night to cross to the Isle of Arran, through the stunning azure Argyll Hope Spot, around Scotland’s most westerly point, the Ardnamurchan peninsula, up the rugged West coast via Skye, around the brutal Cape Wrath and along the indomitable North coast, weaving through Duncansby Stacks to the Moray Firth, down the East coast, past castles and seabird colonies, to the last harbour in Scotland. These 1200km incorporated every possible weather condition, time of day and snack you could imagine.
I wanted to show people what’s out of sight and out of mind in our seas. Not somewhere exotic, with warm, crystal-clear waters (lest I make life easy for myself!) but right here in the UK, in Scotland’s uninviting, peat-coloured, windswept, cold ocean. An ocean which is just as full as life as any tropical reef.
If you’re reading this magazine, then you probably know how vitally important our seas are globally. But how we connect to them as individuals plays an important part in how we care for them. So, as I paddled, I met and interviewed individuals and communities along the way to understand how different people connect to the sea. I dived underwater and saw for myself what really is out of sight and out of mind to so many people. I learnt more than I even realised there was to learn about fishing, conservation and playing in Scotland’s seas.
My aim has always been to bring this to life for as many people as possible, and so my partner and I set out to make a film series about the journey. The term “epic adventure” is so overused nowadays, but I can’t find a better way to describe what unfolded over the two and a half months we were at sea together. Sights I would never have believed to see in Scotland, wildlife I could never have imagined being so close to, and situations I would never have thought I could get out of.
Filming added a new element to what was already a full-on time of planning and paddling and eating enough to keep going day after day. We had to work extremely hard to ensure we captured everything that might be relevant to the series, which was particularly challenging in the face of dangerous waters or wildlife encounters when we only had one shot at getting it right.
It was also challenging to really capture the magnificence of Scotland underwater. I’ve been fortunate enough to scuba dive in some truly stunning places around the world. But I can honestly say that I was most blown away when I snorkelled on the West coast of Scotland. Perhaps it’s because looking out at the brown seaweed floating on the surface, I couldn’t have imagined just how special it could be under the surface. But this particular spot was absolutely bursting with life – maerl, brittle stars, fish, algae, anemones… it’s impossible to describe the scene. When I first watched the footage back, I was over the moon to think that I could translate some of what is out of sight and out of mind to viewers at home. I had a similar experience snorkelling amongst seagrass, one of the ocean’s most important plants, and feeling a desperate desire to bring everyone I possibly could to see it for themselves. Nothing will replace seeing it for yourself, but the footage goes a long way to doing this verdant forest justice.
Our Scotland Ocean Nation series is launching in the UK on STV Player on April 1st, and after more than two years of working on the project, I’m incredibly delighted to be able to share with people back home just what is so wonderful about Scotland’s seas, wildlife and people. To share its majesty and its plight, all wrapped up in one “epic adventure”. To bring to life places and things that people might not see otherwise. What are Scottish waters really like? How can we protect them? What does an eight-week-old sea eagle chick look like? How would a human react when a 25-foot-long orca swims under her paddleboard? Let’s find out together.
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