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Oceanic roots: nurturing a childhood connection to combat plastic tides

Written by Dr Freija Mendrik, Marine Scientist, Plymouth Postdoctoral Research Fellow, National Geographic Explorer


If you were to walk through my childhood home, you wouldn’t question why I ended up becoming a marine biologist. The kitchen is blue with fish and ships on the shelves, a mermaid is painted in the bathroom and beach combing treasures can be found in almost every room. I know it’s cliché, but the ocean really does feel like home to me. Like coming back to an old friend, it’s as if some sense of calm washes over me when I’m staring out at the waves. I’ve never really questioned this feeling, but I decided to explore why I have such a deep connection to the ocean.


I was very lucky to grow up right by the Jurassic Coast of Devon, in the UK. You may think that the UK is just grey and cold (and sometimes it does feel like weeks since you’ve seen the sun or left the house without getting soaked…), but against the backdrop of blue skies or crashing waves, the red sandstone cliffs are vibrant. The coastal path becomes alive with the heavenly aroma of coconut as the bright yellow gorse makes its seasonal return. What lies beneath the waves that lap our rugged coastline is equally unique and beautiful. I’ve snorkelled in the lush green of seagrass meadows, blades intertwining to form a retreat for countless marine creatures seeking refuge. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of fossil hunting and rock pooling - the best time to go can be in the winter after a big storm, and I’ve spent many days getting soggy as the grey drizzle rolls in. We would typically find a lot of little ammonites, and I was fascinated by these tiny windows into the past, allowing my imagination to go wild with the giant creatures that used to be in the same place we were now walking.


An example of one of the fossils we would always find. © Freija Mendrik
An example of one of the fossils we would always find. © Freija Mendrik


A lot of my childhood was just me and my mum. We would sometimes venture inland to the Pebblebed Heaths, hike on Dartmoor or wonder up the River Otter; but the coast was always our favourite. The ocean is clearly an influential part of my mum’s life. From the way she decided to decorate her house, to the sailboats, seaweed, and shores in her artwork. Mum was born in the Rwenzori mountains of Uganda. Despite being very far from the ocean, water was an ever-present element. At the bottom of their garden ran the Nyamwamba river, flowing over huge boulders that had been pushed down the mountain side. The melody of the tumbling water was the soundtrack to her early childhood, as were the enormous thunderstorms that rumbled for what seemed like forever around the mountain peaks. Her love for the ocean, however, seemed to begin during a very special holiday, when they took the night train to Mombasa. They would spend hours and hours playing in the warm sea, where the sand was so white it would dazzle you in the sunshine. She remembers her father standing knee deep in the shallows and the little fish that would come and nibble on his hairy legs. I like to imagine her as a little child giggling at that.


My mum with her older sister and dad in Mombasa. © Freija Mendrik
My mum with her older sister and dad in Mombasa. © Freija Mendrik

The family moved to the UK when my mum was still quite small but these early experiences and love for the ocean only continued to grow. Her uncle had a small boat that they would sometimes sleep on. The sound of the sea slapping against the hull was soothing as was the call of seabirds, beautiful in the morning light where there was still dew on the deck. I am so glad I understand this feeling now, with waking up on a boat being one of the most wonderful things. I recall her telling me that on more than one occasion her uncle misjudged the tides, and they got stuck on a sandbar. To pass the time they would wander over the sand collecting and finding all sorts of things. This habit of beach combing continued and as time went by, became a large part of her life. The collection of shells, seaweed, bits of wood, pebbles and egg cases has grown over the years, being added to by her children also.


Rock pooling with my brother. © Freija Mendrik
Rock pooling with my brother. © Freija Mendrik

At some point as I grew up, that beach combing became beach cleaning. I realised more and more plastic was on our beaches, or maybe it always had been there, but I was only just understanding what it meant. I felt frustrated that us humans were not taking care of our beautiful home. With this, a huge sense of responsibility started to creep up on me: we got ourselves into this problem and so we must solve it. It felt very natural to me to want to pursue marine biology as a career, although it hasn’t been easy. Now I am working to safeguard our oceans from plastic pollution, which is of course linked to so many other threats to our planet too. My research has covered many different aspects of plastic pollution: from what influences microplastic transport in rivers out to the ocean, to the different ways they impact coral health and how microplastics are present in archaeological sediment samples. As a National Geographic explorer, I was part of the River of Plastic project in the Mekong River of Cambodia and Vietnam, and also led a team to determine how coral reefs in Vietnam are being impacted by plastic pollution. Now I am investigating the degradation rate of plastics in offshore structures and their potential ecological impact at the University of Plymouth.


 Filming the reefs during the coral project in Vietnam. © Freija Mendrik
Filming the reefs during the coral project in Vietnam. © Freija Mendrik

I have also led beach cleans with Yorkshire Wildlife Trusts and joined in on others all over the UK such as with the Marine Conservation Society and Surfers Against Sewage. It is such a great way to meet other people taking action for the environment. Another passion of mine is communicating science in creative ways, through art, social media, infographics, and short films. Social media has become an invaluable tool for scientists to share their work to a wider audience and there is a wonderful online community of inspiring people from every discipline. I have a love-hate relationship with social media, but it has been a brilliant way to spread awareness of different topics, research, and advocacy to the public, with the hope of inspiring change. I thoroughly enjoy the challenge of condensing a scientific paper down to a couple of carousel slides while getting creative and making them enticing and thought-provoking. Recently I published a study on experiments investigating how the structure of a coral reef causes microplastic trapping and accumulation. Through a 17-second reel with short clips of the experiment in action, I was able to share the premise of the study with over 500,000 people! I coupled this with a more detailed post on the results, with hundreds of people asking questions and sharing the post. I also enjoy raising awareness of other topics, not just plastic pollution: from understanding the facts around shark attacks, to what blue carbon is and the importance of seagrass.


From the coral experiment's 3D model to sharing the results on Instagram @freija.marine


Thankfully, I have finally moved closer to the sea again. If I walk to the top of the hill near my house, I can see the ocean. It fills me with comfort, trepidation, excitement, and joy all at once. I’m so grateful that mum was able to pass her love for the ocean to me. We both share the notion that being in or on the water teaches you to respect the elements and never take for granted the power and unpredictability of the sea. We cannot take for granted the importance of the ocean for life. The need to protect this special place is vital for all our futures, but it is also about protecting a sanctuary that I care so deeply about. I now understand how that feeling of connection to nature is so important for ensuring its protection. I recognise my privilege in that I was very lucky to have that connection instilled in me from a young age and I work to spread that connection to others. From raising awareness through social media, to talking to schools, mentoring, and taking part in science festivals.


Encouraging others to take action is vital for the protection of our seas and collective action really does make a difference. One example that always springs to mind is the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST) who helped create the first community-led marine reserve of its kind in Scotland through over a decade of campaigning. Home to one of the largest maerl beds in Scotland, no fish or shellfish can be taken from the waters or seabed of Lamlash Bay, with biodiversity increasing by 50%. I had the pleasure of snorkelling there a couple of years ago and it is truly teaming with wildlife and is one of my favourite snorkelling spots I have ever been to! Taking action looks different for everybody. We need a systemic change to tackle the plastic pollution and climate crisis, it is not the fault of the consumer; yet everyone has a role to play. From making conscious decisions to reduce your single-use plastics waste, to signing petitions and getting involved with your local community. Just as we are all connected to the ocean in some way, at a fundamental level, it’s in the air we breathe, and our collective actions do make an impact.

1 Comment


So evocative - and inspiring too - thank you!

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