December 13, 2017
Words: Libby Bowles/
Photos: Tom Powell
Hearing the roar of the ocean from the bed in my little wooden hut. Long walks on the beach first thing in the morning. Not just diving with, but studying, learning about, and understanding the world’s largest living rays and sharks. Yoga three times a week. Surfing most days. The beaming smiles and infectious giggles of local kids in flip flops, joining in with evening runs. I had it all.
For six years I worked in marine conservation and for three years that’s how my life was, deep in the heart of rural Mozambique, Africa. I was directly contributing to scientific research with world leading experts at the Marine Megafauna Foundation, which played a key role in getting manta rays and whale sharks protected by worldwide organizations. It was a huge privilege.
When underwater with these magnificent creatures, we took identification photos. We recorded their gender, behaviour and any physical conditions out of the normal, like scarring from predators or damages sustained because of humans – from fishing lines, nets, ropes, and propellers. During a research trip to Ecuador a giant manta ray, entangled in fishing line, approached us looking for help. He had a barbed fishing hook through his spiracle (just behind his eye) and endless meters of fishing line wrapped all around his body, which had caused deep cuts in his skin and extensive red raw patches.
a self belief that they have great power to change the world for the better.”
He had no reason to trust humans, and yet he slowly circled as we cut the line away, leaving him with a horrific piercing that we couldn’t remove. Back home in Mozambique, we had a juvenile male whale shark we lovingly named Flat-Top. He had once been photographed with clear propeller cuts in his skin and his huge dorsal fin hanging off. Eventually the fin fell off and he healed. His injuries didn’t put him off humans, though, and he is still often sighted. In Indonesia I saw manta rays trying to feed in waters so filled with plastic they swam with plastic wrapped around the front of their pectoral fins. These encounters were indelibly emblazoned in my mind and I couldn’t ignore them. These kind of incidents are by no means isolated.
What is the point of protecting these animals if they can’t survive in the sea because of what humans have done? And so began my thoughts on how I could make a difference. I’m just one person — what can I do? I moved back home to the UK when my sister had a baby, and returned to primary school teaching. And all the while the memories of these poor, suffering animals niggled away in my brain, haunting me.
I have always prided myself on being the kind of teacher who fills pupils with a self belief that they have great power to change the world for the better. My brilliant school’s motto is ‘Dream Big’ and that suited me just perfectly. If there is something you don’t like in the world, work out how you can make it better and go for it. We talked about marine and terrestrial conservation, and the kids wrote letters to organizations asking for help. They raised money for causes dear to their hearts; here was a blossoming tribe of game changers. One afternoon, during our ‘superpower’ chat, a boy asked me, “Miss, if you feel so strongly about the ocean and you tell us we can change things, why are you still in a classroom? Why aren’t you doing something to fix it?” I was dumbfounded. I remember standing there, looking at a sea of expectant faces. I couldn’t think of a single answer that didn’t sound like a lame excuse. So I started brainstorming. The problem of plastics in the ocean is vast. Single-use plastic is the biggest problem. A miraculous manmade material, built to last almost forever, but used for disposable items which don’t just disappear when thrown away. There is no away!. Every piece of plastic that has ever been made is still here, in some form or other. Plastic water bottles take 450 years to break down. The statistics are terrifying.
“Single-use plastic is the biggest problem. A miraculous manmade material, built to last almost forever, but used for disposable items which don’t just disappear when thrown away.”
The mission had to be as sustainable as possible, so I came up with the idea of riding a bicycle, made from grass, around the world to share messages on living more sustainably with the future generation of conservation superheroes. My pupils helped me design a frame for a bamboo bicycle, which I made at the Bamboo Bicycle Club in London over the summer holiday. My bike is covered in messages of determination and self belief to create positive change, which I want to impart to everyone I meet along the way. And at the end of its lifetime as a bicycle, it can be composted. I decided to live as plastic-free as possible on my journey, including wearing natural fiber clothing to minimize the release of microfibers during washing. The whole world is affected by the scourge of plastics and plastics in the ocean, so in terms of a destination, the world is my plastic-filled oyster. Tread Lighter isn’t just the name of my blog, it’s my wish to tread lighter on our precious planet.
New Zealand began to crop up in my dreams and call me back. I’d spent four years living in New Zealand and I knew it was the place for the start of my new journey. I hadn’t toured on a bicycle before and wanted to be somewhere surrounded by supportive, friendly, helpful people. I’ve only been riding for a couple of weeks so far and have been constantly overwhelmed. I’ve been offered lifts up numerous challenging hills, invited to stay in people’s homes, greeted on the street, and received so many unexpected helping hands along the way.
At every point, the universe has provided me amply with whatever I’ve needed. Transporting my bike as part of my checked luggage meant I didn’t have much room or weight allowance for personal items. Icebreaker saved me by providing the necessities to keep me warm (and cool and stink-free!) along the way. Then, when I was staying with a kind family, my dying smartphone kept shutting down while I was trying to take a photo. Understanding my frustration, my host called a friend who owns the Vodafone shop in Keri Keri and told me to visit the shop. I went in, hoping they might be able to fix my old phone, but instead received a brand new phone! So now I can share photos and stories throughout my journey.
I aim to visit as many schools and community groups as I can, discussing how we can avoid single-use plastics, treading lighter and beach cleaning as I go — alone or with new friends. I am overflowing with love and a strong sense of purpose, peace and belonging. I know this is exactly where I am meant to be and this is exactly what I should be doing. Love and deepest gratitude to that unwitting pupil who kicked me into action. Children really are the game changers.
“At every point, the universe has provided me amply with whatever I’ve needed.”