Environmental Scientist and Round Britain Leg 3 Crew Member Melissa Mayhew tells us about her long-standing connection to Plymouth (our Round Britain start and end point) and why she’s happy to be returning as part of the eXXpedition crew:
“I didn’t need much of an excuse to fly off overseas to study environmental sciences at a leading university as an adventurous international exchange student. And, much like a million and one blogs will tell you, spending a year abroad really did change my life.
I arrived at the train station in Plymouth one September afternoon in 1998 and made my way to whatever building I’d been told to go to at the university. After standing in what was surely the longest and slowest line in the history of lines, my student accommodation assignment was handed over. (I had yet to discover the fine art of queuing; a skill I would practise routinely yet never quite master). Off I went to my new home in Robbins Hall, where I faced the single greatest challenge of my relocation – dragging everything I had in the world up seven flights of stairs. True story.
Over the next days and weeks and months, I made friends from around the world, legally drank beer in public for the first time ever and began what will surely be a life-long love affair with the British coast. The exchange program allowed me to tailor the classes I was taking to make sure my home university in Canada gave me the course credits I needed to graduate on schedule. Because of this flexibility, I got to pick and choose across multiple disciplines learning about ocean physics, marine mammal ecology, and the role of toxics in the ocean environment. Almost 20 years later, these topics still fascinate me and are reflected in the eXXpedition Round Britain.
With free time, our little Plymouth group took trips around the south west visiting seaside communities. Some surfed, some sailed, some waited for those glorious moments when the sun was out and it was warm enough to go to beach without foul weather gear. I volunteered once a week at the National Marine Aquarium, admiring local beauties like pollock and plaice. Sharing fish and chips soaked in vinegar and wrapped in newspaper on the green lawn at The Hoe never got old. Yet, my clearest memory of the seas around Britain was made in a passing moment along a deserted shoreline in western Sweden.
For the Christmas holiday that year, I stayed with a friend and his family in a lovely little town situated north of Gothenburg and south of Oslo. It was grey and windy; we decided to go for an afternoon walk anyway. I have no idea what we talked about, but like it was yesterday, I remember my friend pointing out a bottle of liquid dish soap in a pile of washed-up debris. “We don’t sell that brand in Sweden. That rubbish came from England”, he said. Given the prevailing surface currents in the North Sea, the offending plastic was perhaps more likely to have entered the water in Scotland, but that’s not the point. The discarded plastic package had travelled hundreds of kilometres and was continuing to persist as pollution in the marine environment. His off-handed comment and mild irritation at this “British” plastic on that Swedish beach, in hindsight, was the very beginning of my eXXpedition journey Round Britain.
I learnt an incredible amount about marine sciences and about myself during my year at the University of Plymouth, and that knowledge has played an important role in my ocean activism journey. So, what are my main takeaways from my time on and around the British coastline?
- British waters represent many things to many people, from relatively remote and pristine areas full of sea life to busy city waterways where plastic debris is ubiquitous and water quality is degraded
- Sailing in this part of the world is cold and wet, frequently nauseating, and totally awesome
- ‘Far away’ is never too far for friends
- Ocean plastic pollution has been a global problem for a really long time
- More than one place can feel like home
See you in September, Plymouth. I can’t wait!”