We have a perfect place to start our beach cleaning adventures. We are in East Lothian about an hour west of Edinburgh, and the beach is nearby. The coastline here is spectacular with cliffs, castles and sandy beaches. We have selected 2 places for surveying, places where you need to walk a distance from the car park . One stretch is a pathless part of the coast, just inland of a rocky point, where the coast turns to form an estuary; the other is on the seaward side, on a stoney park of the beach. We haven't picked up the dinghies yet, so we are just walking today.
We explore along the estuary side first. 100m is marked out along the shore, and we pick up every piece of litter from the tideline to the back of the beach. We need to look carefully, and still we only partially fill a carrier bag. A balloon string, fishing line and rope, bottle tops, bits of broken hard plastic. We are just outside our 100m stretch when we come across perhaps 150 kg of fishing gear, high up the shore. Ropes of all descriptions and faded colours are bound and twisted around some tangled metal, wood and rubber. We tug at it but can not move it. If we had the dinghies with us, and knives to cut the ropes into smaller chunks, we could get it out of there. As walkers, there is nothing we can do. We leave it where it is, imagining the North Sea storm waves dragging the heavy coils so high up the shore- so very different from the calm seas of a summer's morning. This lump, a cubic metre or so, will likely remain in the environment, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces over the years- a source of micro plastics for decades to come.
For our second survey, we cross over the headland and drop onto the north facing beach. We can see the Isle of May and the Bass Rock. Seabirds are bombing for fish, suddenly plummeting as they fold their wings and dive. This beach is well tended by a local gentleman, who, with his black dog, is often spotted out picking up litter. Even without his attention, this is a quiet beach and the prevailing SW wind is offshore - which means that it is very clean indeed. Little is washed up here and what is dropped by picnickers will quickly blow out towards Norway. We find just a few recent looking food items, a beer can, and odd bits of broken plastic or bags. But the seaweed in the tideline is pristine- nylon, rope and plastic bags are conspicuous in their absence.
It is with a shock that I realise it has been a very long time - decades at least, since I have walked along a really clean beach- my eyes quickly revert to looking for shells or bits of driftwood. How lovely- and sadly nostalgic- to see only natural things.
I stop for a swim though its still early. There's nobody on the beach at all besides us. The sand is clean, the light is beautiful and the water is clear and inviting- and of course very cold! But what a pleasure.
When we get back and congratulate our relatives on their exceptional beach, someone asks if I was disappointed not to find more litter, seeing as this is our project for the next few weeks. I could not possibly have been less disappointed! On the contrary, our stunning morning had reminded me why we are spending our summer holiday picking up garbage, why it's important. Immersion in nature and appreciating, even for a short while, a world unsullied by humans is so very important for our health and happiness. We are determined to shine a light on the problem of marine pollution. Our reliance on every day and thoughtless use of plastic is having an effect, not just on wildlife, but on us and on future generations too. Surveying the shore can help provide the data needed to drive government policy; removing litter gets it away from the ocean ecosystem.
It is fitting that our journey has begun just along the coast from Dunbar, the birth place of John Muir. From a Scottish fishing village to the mountains of California, John Muir's extraordinary travels and writing continue to foster a love of the wild places in so many. Expressing thoughts that were far ahead of his time, he understood this human need and was instrumental in persuading the US government to set aside vast areas as protected National Parks, including his beloved Yosemite.
We who have enjoyed his legacy must also sustain it. This is our watch.