Exploration

Ocean optimism

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. 

Words by Cal Major
Photograph by John Little

There’s a lot of doom and gloom around the state of our seas. The climate and biodiversity crises are regularly in the news and on our social media feeds. But without hope, we can’t expect to effectively work towards a healthier planet. Overwhelm and eco-anxiety are rife amongst activists and campaigners, and are so effective at destroying resilience. I see hope, action and community as the antidotes to this. My week aboard Merlin, a 41-foot sailboat owned and run by Oliver Beardon and his organisation Sail Britain, was a powerful tonic.

The theme of our sailing week: ‘Ocean Optimism’. Our crew for the week totalled nine, and many of us had never met each other before. Amongst our crew was Dr Jo Henley, senior lecturer at Falmouth University, whose research interest is ‘Ocean Optimism’. She describes the subject as “a shared belief in a more hopeful future for the ocean that we can all inhabit”. Over the course of the week, we explored this theme further.

One of the most important aspects of our trip was knowledge and insight sharing. The more we know, and the better we understand the problems, barriers and solutions to ocean conservation, the more effective we can be at working towards a healthy ocean – individually and collaboratively. It can feel enormously overwhelming learning about the scale of the crises facing our seas, but the more we delved into them over the course of our week together, the more we understood what needed to be done. We were cautious not to operate on naive optimism, but to find genuinely empowering places to give hope. We also delved into empathy and understanding towards other stakeholders, particularly the fishing community, with exercises aimed at understanding other lived realities and how that can influence decisions from different angles. A more informed and compassionate approach can help avoid ‘us and them’ thinking, blame, animosity and conflict, and improve chances of collaboration and solutions.

During the week we sailed almost 200 miles from Falmouth to Milford Haven. We saw sunfish, encountered rain and sunshine, and sailed through flat seas and high waves. We were immersed in the energy of the ocean, inspired and constantly reminded of its power, its ability to give and maintain life, and in a more personal sense, to provide solace, space, joy and healing. Our individual connections to the ocean were renewed and strengthened, and we connected to each other through a shared love for our seas. 

One day we sailed overnight and took it in turns to keep watch. When it was my turn, I heard sounds all around the boat in the pitch black. I could just about make out the fins of a pod of common dolphins as they swam around Merlin, and the bioluminescent streaks that followed them as they danced and played lit up the ocean like a Northern Lights display. It was pure magic. Throughout the week, we also had a few glimpses of a minke whales, watched gannets swoop over the bow of the boat, puffins and guillemots diving under the water as we sailed past, seals playing in the shallows. We trawled a very fine net alongside the boat one afternoon and tipped out the contents to watch zooplankton and alien-looking worms dart around under the microscope. We snorkelled to search for seagrass and hermit crabs and found underwater forests. Our seas are struggling, but where they’re protected they’re still full of life. Seeing it for myself is the most important boost for my own ‘Ocean Optimism’. It reminds me of what I’m working to protect, it fills me with passion to help others see what I have the great privilege of seeing.

Within our group, everyone had a different area they were particularly passionate about, and a different skillset available to them. I think it’s important to zoom out and see the big picture, and the interconnectedness of environmental and social justice, of human health and planetary health. But I think it’s equally important to then zoom back in and focus on the bit we can change, the bit where our skills and passions lie. We can’t all do everything, but we can all do something. 

I’d like to leave you with a quote from Jane Goodall: “I like to envision the whole world as a jigsaw puzzle… If you look at the whole picture, it is overwhelming and terrifying, but if you work on your little part of the jigsaw and know that people all over the world are working on their little bits, that’s what will give you hope.” 

Photograph by John Little

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