Mission Ocean: Plastic Pollution Workshops in Tenerife

Posted: 6th February 2018 | Written by: Laura Beard

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There was no rest for Mission Ocean during our week-long stay in the Canary Islands. Thanks to Marie, President of the French Teachers’ Association in Tenerife, we had a packed Schedule of schools to visit, teaching in French and Spanish up and down the island.

We began the week in the beautiful town of La Laguna, whose centre is classed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, due to its unspoiled traditional island architecture. We received a wonderful warm welcome from the school principal, who treated us to breakfast before ushering us into a rather grand auditorium, where we were to deliver workshops to over 100 teenagers. With the help of photos, videos and drawings on the board, we managed to explain life aboard Contigo, our 42’ catamaran, the food chains of the oceans, and how plastic pollution has entered into them.

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We tipped out bags of plastic trash that we had collected from the beaches in Palma, and sorted through them with the kids, discussing how plastic never goes away, but rather breaks up into tiny particles that are small enough for fish to eat. We looked at single-use items such as straws, bottles and ice cream spoons, and together we came up with ideas of how to replace them with more ecological solutions.

We explained our citizen science projects and the students gather enthusiastically around our low-tech microscope to look at samples of plankton. And we were able to show photos of plankton net contents that we had trawled on leaving Almeria, en route to Tenerife, containing not only sea life but also micro-fragments of synthetic clothing.

Measuring less than 5mm in length, these fibres are classed as micro-plastic pollution; when we wash synthetic clothing (think yoga pants, stretchy t-shirts... anything containing man-made fibres), hundreds of these tiny fragments are released into the washing machine and down the drain. And as we all know from Finding Nemo, all drains lead to the ocean.

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We repeated this lesson till we were almost blue in the face, visiting a further 15 classes and speaking to nearly 600 children from 13 to 18 years old. In each school, we were met with presents – herbs from the one school’s horticultural section, homemade cakes and hot chocolate in another – and endless enthusiasm.

The range of students that we spoke to was immense, from well-off private school youngsters brandishing expensive water bottles, to a group of recent immigrants from Senegal who explained to us in detail what sounds like a huge plastic pollution problem in their home country.

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We learnt from the kids, and they learnt from us. The Canary Islands suffered hugely this summer with algae on the beaches, due to rising sea temperatures and pollution from agriculture. Many of the students were keen to explain this issue to us, which we knew nothing about.

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Our program took us to every corner of the island, and we discovered that there was much more to Tenerife than just Santa Cruz and Mount Teide. Following a friend’s recommendation, we berthed Contigo in the pretty town of Garachico – well worth a visit for its volcanic coastline, criss-crossing cobbled streets and fascinating history. Garachico used to be the island’s main commercial port, until a huge lava flow from the volcano filled the natural basin that formed the harbour, leaving the rest of the town almost intact. Today, it has a brand new marina for small yachts, and a steadily increasing luxury tourism market.

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We picked up our new crew member, Jeremie, in Tenerife and, after stocking up on provisions and water, set off for a day sail to La Gomera where we intended to refuel before crossing to the Cape Verdes. We coincided with the departure of the Talisker Atlantic Challenge, a race to row from the Canaries to Antigua, and commiserated in the port bars with those whose boats were deemed unfit to leave. We scoffed down banana and papaya ice creams before hoisting the sails for the seven-day trip to Mindelo, in the north of the Cape Verde archipelago, where plenty more adventures were waiting for Contigo and her crew.

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