Smack bang in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, looking out at pristine waves sparkling bright in the sunlight, it’s hard to imagine that anything could be wrong with the world.

Similarly, walking through the forest on a cool spring afternoon, or drinking a latte in the buzz of an inner-city morning – what could be wrong with a world like this?

But just under the waves, something is brewing. 

In November 2014, I set sail as part of a crew of 14 women to cross the Atlantic Ocean on Sea Dragon, Pangaea Exploration’s 72-foot research vessel. This was eXXpedition, the first of its kind.

It brought together female change-makers – explorers, artists, designers, policy makers, scientists and engineers – to raise awareness for the things that often go unseen. Things that, in our daily lives, many of us try not to look at – like the plastic pollution floating just underneath the surface of the ocean, or the toxic chemicals that are invading our systems. These hide in our shampoo, our moisturiser and our food – unnoticed and too often, unregulated.

It is our mission to inspire young women to really look at the impact of our lives, and to think about the effects of our actions on both personal and marine health. Inspired by the work of charities like CoppaFeel, promoting proactive health monitoring in regards to breast cancer, we want to get women really involved in a process of discovery – investigating the hidden problems that lie just underneath the surface. 

Setting sail from Lanzarote, our eXXpedition team set out to draw parallels between healthy bodies and healthy oceans.   

First, we each had our blood and hair tested for toxic chemicals that have been shown to have a negative impact on health. We were tested for PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), mercury, dioxins and other chemicals that can cause cancer, and are often found in our daily environment – for example from industrial pollution, consumer products, or in top predator fish like tuna and swordfish. We were tested for 32 chemicals, and when the results came back we found that 29 of those toxic chemicals were hiding in each of us.

Second, we conducted trawls of the ocean as we sailed. Using a 0.333 mm net, called a manta-trawl, we skimmed the surface of the water for 30 minutes each day to collect samples of ocean debris – and each day, despite the unspoiled appearance of the waves, we picked up tiny pieces of plastic in our nets. Micro plastic is what plastic turns into when it breaks down. It is the size of plankton, and because it looks like food, that is what it becomes. Fish and birds eat it, and due to the absorbent nature of plastic, it draws in toxic chemicals like a sponge. 

Our biggest trawl was our first, when we picked over 30 tiny pieces of plastic from the mouth of the manta-trawl. However a second boat, the Corwith Cramer – which was following our course and conducting similar experiments – picked up over 200 pieces in one 30-minute trawl. 

Once you know what is lying just underneath the surface, it is hard to look for too long – the facts are often simply too terrifying. Dr Jenna Jambeck, part of our crew, recently published new research stating that eight million tonnes of plastic is dumped into the ocean each year – the equivalent of five whole bags-full for every foot of coastline. 

How then, do we summon up the courage to really look, and feel inspired to make a difference? How can we – personally and as a wider society – reformat the stories we tell ourselves about the lives we are living, and through that, re-imagine a better future? First we have to start speaking to each other about the problems we face, and that is the joy that I found in sailing across an ocean with a team of women. We need to break down the boundaries of disciplines – artists speaking to scientists, engineers to writers, policy-makers to explorers and activists. And it is through this cross-disciplinary conversation that great ideas are born. Ideas that may – in time – change the course of our future.   

By Laura Coleman. Laura is the Founder and Director of the ONCA Centre for Arts and Ecology – a UK-based charity that fosters and inspires a greater understanding of environmental and social change through art, education and creative practice.  She is a writer and curator, and was part of the first eXXpedition crew that sailed from Lanzarote to Martinique in November 2014.

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