When environmentalists on a Seychelles atoll decided to race boats made from ocean litter, they had 500 tonnes to pick from
• Photographs: Anna Koester/Seychelles Islands Foundation
Red Lion is the kind of boat you would not see in most regattas. Its frame is made of bamboo, sourced from washed-up fishing equipment, and it uses two old oil drums for buoyancy.
Equally strange is Rasta Rocket – made from old plastic drain pipes, washed-up floats and fishing buoys.
These were two of the boats in the inaugural Aldabra Regatta: an ironic attempt to draw attention to marine plastic pollution by racing boats made from marine debris.
Organised by the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF), a non-profit organisation that manages the Aldabra atoll, the event was a fun but nevertheless last-ditch effort to fight back against the waves of plastic washing up on this Unesco world heritage site.
“A significant portion of three boats was made from marine litter associated with the fishing industry,” says Luke A’Bear, the science coordinator for Aldabra and part of a team that lives at the isolated research station all year.
The bamboo for Red Lion comes from fish-aggregating devices (FAD) – floating objects used to attract certain species of fish. They are often abandoned by the fishing boat to save fuel on the journey back to shore. Huge chunks of bamboo, which can take years to degrade, wash up on the beaches of Aldabra, blocking turtles from coming ashore to nest.
“Sadly, there is no consequence and very little incentive for FAD recovery,” says A’Bear, explaining how the decision to hold the regatta felt like a desperate move. “It is going to take years for any meaningful policy or legislation to come into force.”
Another boat, Wakanda, built by Rickpert Woodcock, an electrician, and Alex Rose, who works in logistics, with wood recovered from the beach, also used washed-up floats for stability. A fourth, Floppy, was built by the manager of Aldabra island, Jude Brice, using part of a wooden canoe that had washed ashore.
Island nations such as Seychelles bear the brunt of marine plastic pollution due to the convergence of ocean currents. On Aldabra, researchers have observed the endemic giant tortoises eating plastic, seabirds entangled in fishing lines and other examples of the havoc wreaked by marine litter on both terrestrial and marine ecosystems.
“Just last week, we pulled out a 200-metre longline with hooks and buoys that had got stuck on the coral. We had to attach it to the boat to be able to pull it off. It just kept coming and coming,” says A’Bear. “And that’s just one long line.”
“At our most conservative estimate, around 68 tonnes of marine litter gets washed ashore annually,” says April Burt, an SIF research associate based at Oxford University, who co-led the five-week Aldabra Clean-up Project (ACUP) in 2019.
The collective effort removed 25 tonnes of accumulated plastic litter from the atoll, at a cost of $225,000 (£170,000), but that is merely a fraction of the 513 tonnes that ACUP researchers estimate still remains. “This number [also] did not account for the new litter arriving each year,” Burt adds.
An overwhelming 83% (by weight) of the marine debris remaining on Aldabra is fishing-related gear, including buoys, nets, ropes and FADs.
The regatta was not a close race: Floppy led throughout the 1.5km course, eventually winning by more than 300 metres, with Rasta Rocket edging Wakanda for second place. The participants enjoyed themselves, but they are serious about the challenges ahead.
“If you went to the beaches cleaned during the ACUP, you wouldn’t know that they have been cleaned,” says A’Bear. “Sometimes there’s 55kg of litter washed-up along a 50-metre stretch – in one month. We’ve cleaned a beach a month before, and it’s like you’ve done nothing. It’s depressing.”