“So, how was Aldabra?”
Nearly everyone I know since I got back has asked me this question. Colleagues, friends, friends of friends, family, bosses, schoolchildren, strangers on Twitter – everyone loves the story of the Aldabra Clean Up Project! I respond enthusiastically, in a variety of ways.
“The hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
But I hear my words and it feels like whatever I say, it doesn’t really capture it. When I say those things, I’m not lying. It was truly amazing and epic. It was physically and often mentally the most difficult, and thus one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It was indescribably beautiful. It was… just incredible.
So actually, how could words capture something like that? I mean, have a think: what is the most amazing, beautiful, difficult and rewarding thing you’ve ever done? Can you properly articulate to someone else what that event felt like, and meant to you?
There are a million moments from Aldabra that will stay with me forever. Sitting on the front of a boat feeling like I was flying as we sped over a sea full of bioluminescent plankton. Giggling with my team as we laid in the dirt trying to nap under a tarpaulin. Leaping off a boat into the surf because Jude said “JUMP” and you better listen to the Aldabra skippers! Looking up to see a rail steal my Nuttikrust and then sprint into the distance with it’s prize.
Listening to Seychelloise conservationists talk about what their country was doing to protect the oceans. Showing a plastic chess piece I’d just found on the beach to a Sky News camera. Standing on the bridge of the supply boat and looking down to see 15 sharks chilling next to it. Covering ourselves in suncream handprints as war-paint for our final day of the clean up. The cheer we all let out as that final sling of plastic got hauled onto the boat. It’s hard to choose stories from an uncountable number of memorable moments, but I’ve decided to elaborate on the three times that made me cry, to try and get across a snapshot of what Aldabra was like.
I cried on the boat as I arrived at Aldabra.
The sun was setting and as this little flat line on the horizon turned into an island, April suddenly shouted “Hammerhead!” and there was a shark fin in the water! And suddenly, whoosh! A giant sea turtle under the boat! And whoosh! Another one! And another, another, another – hundreds of them shooting out of the way of the boat! I was completely overwhelmed, I’ve studied environmental science for 10 years and I’d never seen a place this alive and full of life.
The privilege of seeing this abundance of life – giant tortoises, blacktip reef sharks, Aldabra rails, frigate birds, dolphins, lemon sharks, boobies, nightjars, corals, eels, egrets, Picasso trigger fish, coconut crabs, hammerheads, stingrays, mangroves, parrotfish – life EVERYWHERE, is indescribable. It is funny to watch creatures bumble around; it fills you with a strange energy watching them fight for their existence, and it’s just a very… whole feeling to know that they’re there, living their life and thriving.
I cried alone on the beach after a week on camp.
I was exhausted, we’d been working from sunrise to well after sunset for days. I was sunburnt, my feet were covered in blisters, my skin was covered in mosquito bites and heat-rash, my clothes were disgusting from days of sweat and grime, and I had had heat exhaustion multiple times. I’d watched turtles die from getting trapped on rocks and been unable to help them, I’d lost the team’s washing up liquid to coconut crabs so we didn’t know how to wash our dishes, and despite the fact I was pushing every single fibre in my body, I worried I wasn’t keeping up with the rest of the team.
On the beaches every day the amount of rubbish surrounding us felt insurmountable, and the beach itself was like an oven as we dragged heavy sacks along the shade-less coastline. We’d had no connection with the outside world for a week and I missed my family so much. It was so, so hard. I cried, wiped my grubby face, picked myself back up again, and went back to the camp and asked how I could help.
And that’s what everyone else on that island did, throughout the whole expedition – we all got back up and kept trying to help. We worked so hard, every day we pushed ourselves to the edge of what we could do and beyond. We did it for Aldabra, for the project and for each other. And the bond of affection and respect that creates between teammates is indescribable. The people working on that island, and in the ACUP team, are just incredible.
Finally, I cried as I left Aldabra.
It was so intense to leave behind this magical island and the wonderful people on it. So there I was, with leaky eyes, standing next to Ivan on the boat as we steamed away, talking about what this place had meant to us. And as we spoke, yet another piece of plastic floated past us on it’s way to Aldabra’s shores.
Ivan, who is usually so zen and positive, was quiet for a few seconds before he said, “But the thing is, we can’t do this alone. If other people around the world don’t listen to us, then we can’t do anything to protect this place.” And I got this huge wave of emotion and said, “But that’s what’s so special about this! We were alone and we did something good! I’ve had a lifetime of hearing about these big problems that everyone in the world causes and nobody does anything about. But this time somebody actually did do something! And we were those people, and we came from all round the world to do it, and we told people all around the world about it. Nobody can do all of it alone, but a few of us sure as hell can do, and did do, something!”
It is the most valuable thing Aldabra could ever have given me; seeing a small group of people take on a big problem and achieve something so impressive. And it’s a place that has always inspired action, because time and again, people have stepped up and became the reason Aldabra and all it’s beauty are still here. People stopped the tortoises and turtles being hunted, people stopped fishing being allowed in it’s waters, people on the research station give everything to look after this place, and people got together and used their bare hands to drag the plastic back off it’s shores.
And people could still destroy this place. Global warming is already bleaching the coral, and sea level rise might swallow large parts of it. So I want to channel the ACUP spirit and spread the hopefulness that Aldabra inspires. Pick up some plastic! Reduce some carbon emissions! It feels insurmountable, but keep going and you will genuinely be amazed at what we can clean up and protect together!
Back on the boat, just as I had finished saying and feeling all this, a final sea turtle popped up in the water and flapped it’s fins at us like it was waving goodbye. Seriously, I’ll never find the words that do justice to this place. It was amazing, it was epic, it was beautiful. It was just incredible.
– Josie Mahony