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First day on the water...Nairn Beach up to Whiteness Spit

Good planning with the weather! We parked our van at Nairn Harbour and woke to a glorious sunrise. Today would be our practice day before a bigger joint effort tomorrow with Nairn Sailing Club.

I run through all the usual stuff for a day on the water. Double check the forecast, the tides, the VHF radio batteries, the fuel for the boat, the spare fuel. We have created a bag for our survey stuff; our tape measure, Marine Conservation Society survey forms, pencils, tags to label interesting things we might find, a few tools. Plus the camera, phones, drone, chargers...oh and lunch.

Once the RIB is launched we head out for the day's adventure. Mike is joining us for the day, so we are 4. We are going to Whiteness Spit, a sandy stony spit formed from longshore drift, 7 miles or so from a public road and inaccessible by car. The beach at Nairn runs all the way there, uninterrupted sand backed by grass and gorse- a tremendous walk when you have enough hours to spare. I have chosen the location because it is the perfect place to trial our idea of towing Optimist dinghies as small marine skips making the transport of debris easier from remote sites. I know there is plenty debris there because it is directly downwind of McDermott's, the former oil rig construction yard at Ardersier. SW wind has been blowing debris off the site, across the water and onto the spit for 50 years or so. It also collects debris from the NE winter gales, which toss rubbish high up onto the pebble banks. Arctic terns nest there and it is an SSSI. A seal colony owns the shore to the west and it is always fun to see them out enjoying the sun. With its resident dolphin community, this section of the Moray Firth is really a special place, rarely visited and by rights should be as pristine a place as it is possible to be.

We stop for a plastic milk bottle that floats past us and Amy gets the job of fishing it out and face full of spray. She is grinning as she claims the first catch of the day. Out on the spit, the sand is perfect, stretching for miles as the tide recedes. In the sunshine it is spectacular, the blues and the yellows as bright as any holiday postcard. We have two club optimists under tow and we pull everything up and lay the anchor from the RIB on the sand. The kids are excited and let off some energy running around and then we go take a look at the pebble banks and the dry area of the spit where grasses are growing.

It is sadly as expected. There is a half century collection of post industrial debris. Traffic cones, ear defenders, hard hats, ropes and more ropes, sacks, tyres, unidentifiable hard plastic pieces of all sizes colours and shapes, cabling, hoses...and on the seaward side, in addition, there is the usual beach litter...broken fishing gear, ropes, more ropes, nets, shoes, wellies, gloves, cartons, food packaging, cigarette lighters, bottles and more and more bottles... We set out our tape measure and collect every piece of litter for 100m from the midland of the spit to the high tide mark on the Seward side. It takes four of us about half an hour. We log it, bag it and carry it all down to the boats- our 100 m haul fills one dinghy. We go back for more. Now we are going for the big stuff- the ropes, and nets, the big pieces of plastics and we fill the other dinghy too. We find a dead seabird and a young decomposing seal, too far gone to guess at the cause of death.

I reach down to pick up a tangled heap of faded blue nylon 1 inch fishing rope, maybe 15m in sloppy disarray. As I try to scoop up an armful, it fragments. Like a CGI animation, my fingers and arms run through its expected solidness without resistance, and the wind blows the shattered microfilaments up and away and towards the sea. I ram my plastic bag down over it and bag up the rope before it disintegrates any more. This is the state of rope that has been exposed to the harsh northern elements -discarded or lost perhaps in the 1970s. Maybe it's not so old though, there is no way to tell- but I have never seen rope do this. To witness it, to have triggered this by merely touching it, is to feel the sudden urgency- we must remove the fishing ropes that are heaped up all round our shores quickly whilst we can. We cannot leave them to degrade in situ because then they are in the ocean forever, unrecoverable, attracting toxins, forming a banquet of poisoned fake food for sea and bird life.

The devastating spoilage is in deep contrast with the intense beauty of the place. The perfect sand beckons you to run on it till it narrows and disappears at the end of the spit into the cold sea. The ultramarine blue of the water seems only slightly more intense than that of the sky. The distant pale blue mountains form a narrow stripe above the greens and yellows of the Black Isle. The sound of the wind racing over the sand is the only noise. We spend a while taking it all in, eating lunch, before the afternoon draws in and we prepare the boats for the trip home.

We are delighted to see that the dinghies tow just as well with rubbish in them as they do with young sailors. In times past, we have walked to this place, sailed and canoed out there, but we have never managed to do much beyond despair at the rubbish, and carry out a small quantity in a rucksack. It feels wonderful to have totally cleared 100m. If 4 people can easily do that in an afternoon, then maybe we really can scale this to tackle the enormous crisis of beach plastic polluting our remote and most beautiful coastlines.

The kids take turns driving the RIB and before long we are back at the harbour. We tie up the boat and haul the dinghies up the slip and round to the sailing club yard. Suddenly, out of the water on onto their trailers, we get a sense of exactly how heavy all this stuff is, and how practical- and obvious - it is to use boats for remote beach cleaning. Just a modern twist on one of the oldest ideas in history: boats make transport easy.

Salty and windswept, I couldn't wish for a better first day on the water.

Along with the litter, we salvaged some hope for the future.

Action Optimist

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