Forever Belem!

Since 2021, the BELEM Caisse d'Epargne Foundation and THE SEACLEANERS have been working together to raise public awareness of ocean plastic pollution and encourage changes in behavior. During stopovers and sailing courses, our teams are welcomed to offer scientific conferences, actions and awareness-raising times to BELEM visitors and trainees.

During the sailing course from Cadiz to Ibiza, which took place from August 20 to 24, 2023, it was our Awareness Manager Stéphanie POEY who was on deck to train trainees in the fight against plastic pollution. She shared her logbook with us.

🗓 August 19: Plastic in the harbor

After a long journey under the Spanish sun, I arrive at the Andalusian port of Cadiz in the early evening. In the distance, I catch sight of the three-masted BELEM, which will be welcoming me for 4 days to raise awareness of ocean plastic pollution among its trainees. Along the harbor, hundreds of young people have been waiting for hours for the imminent opening of the concert by MAKA, a Spanish artist still unknown to me at the time. At their feet, a multitude of garbage has been abandoned, including bottles, glasses, plastic bags and packaging. A gust of wind and it could all end up in the sea. Around the world today, 1 tonne of plastic is dumped into the ocean every 3 seconds. This must stop. To put an end to this scourge, we must first change our behavior, and raising awareness is one of the keys to achieving this.

At 9pm, I climb aboard with the 48 participants in the sailing course that will take us to Ibiza. The crew welcomes us and introduces us to the groups, the schedule, the bunks and the rules of life on the boat, before letting us go to sleep or enjoy the concert from the forecastle.

🗓 August 20: Gibraltar in fog

We set sail from Cadiz at 10:00 am, under a blazing sun. Direction Gibraltar!

Around 1pm, as we catch sight of the Moroccan coast, we set the main sails. But soon after, the fog rolled in, the wind shifted and the temperature dropped. We had to hoist everything low* (*drop the sails).

So we passed Gibraltar in the fog, proceeding by radar and foghorn. The Strait of Gibraltar has a geostrategic position, between Africa and Europe, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. It is a major traffic zone, with over 100,000 ships passing through each year. It is also an area of frequent degassing and discharges into the sea, where pollution is dense.

The setting is well suited to showing BELEM trainees the extent and different faces of plastic pollution in the ocean and throughout the water cycle. Because pollution is everywhere! Plastic has been found in the depths of oceans as well as at the top of mountain peaks, in water tables as well as in glaciers, and also in the air we breathe. It invades the environment in the form of macro, micro and nano particles. It is estimated that there are 500 times more microplastics in the ocean than there are stars in the galaxy.

This fact will resonate later in the evening, for those of you who, like me, are on the night shift and will be lucky enough to admire a magnificently starry sky.

🗓 August 21: Sailing and cetaceans

It was a short night. After the 4 to 8 a.m. watch, we followed up with breakfast and the daily collective cleaning of the boat. In the morning, we set the sails with the strength of our arms, heading north.

Today, the gabiers* (*sailmakers specialized in sail maneuvers) teach us how to climb the mast in harness. Settled on the mainsail yard, we can watch the ballet of cetaceans that will punctuate the day: risso dolphins, common dolphins and pilot whales come to play in the bow waves of the boat.

Suddenly, an animal’s breath is heard in the distance. It is repeated several times, before our attentive eyes, before the animal’s tail fin appears, plunging into the depths. Whale, rorqual or orca? The mystery won’t be solved, but the crew will be amazed.

In the evening, I explain to the trainees the impact of plastic pollution on marine biodiversity, and in particular on the mammals observed during the day. Over 100,000 of them fall victim to plastic pollution every year, and this figure is probably underestimated. They can die from entanglement in abandoned nets, from ingestion of plastic bags, bottles or other waste, or from contamination following ingestion of particles. And they are not the only victims. We discuss the vital role of marine biodiversity, from phytoplankton to whales, in capturing atmospheric carbon.

In the evening, we cargue* (*Fold a ship’s sails against the yards or mast using the cargues) all the sails, then head northeast along the Spanish coast.

🗓 August 22: Live the life of a sailor

We wake up off Cartagena. The morning is calm, and we set sail for Alicante.

From time to time, we spot isolated floating garbage, such as abandoned plastic bottles or cans. In fact, the trainees have taken to calling me as soon as a piece of garbage is identified! The trajectory and drift of waste at sea is a complex science, and several models exist. According to the work of Ocean Cleanup, 43% of the plastic macro-waste that reaches the ocean sinks directly, as opposed to 57% that floats. Of the latter, almost all (97%) would be redeposited on the coast, carried by winds, currents and waves, repeating this cycle several times before ending up in the open sea or on the ocean floor. Collecting waste in coastal and port areas before it sinks is therefore one of the solutions to reducing ocean pollution. This is the mission of The SeaCleaners collection boats: the MOBULA today and the MANTA tomorrow.

In the afternoon, the wind is favourable for teaching us several manoeuvres. The 200 ropes of the BELEM are waiting for our strength of arms! The first tack is missed, but the second is a success. Later, the skipper suggests a luff-to-luff tack (a sailor’s term meaning to change windward and leeward in order to regain downwind speed). At the end of the day, the wind drops. We finish the day by furling all the sails and sailing along the Spanish coast towards the Balearic Islands.

🗓 August 23: Ibiza, here we are!

The BELEM is heading for the Balearics and the bay of Sant Antoni de Portmany, where we plan to anchor for the night. I take advantage of this gentle return to civilization to talk about the solutions available to us in the fight against plastic pollution.

During the lunch break, we discuss the various eco-gestures we can adopt in our daily lives to reduce our consumption of plastic, and specifically single-use plastic. We take stock of the different logos and designations on packaging: recycled, recyclable, biodegradable, biosourced, compostable… As consumers, it’s important to understand labels so as to make informed, responsible choices. We talk about sorting rules, their harmonization in France by 2023, and the benefits and obstacles to recycling. Finally, we recall the key role that governments and public authorities have to play, by reporting on the laws and regulations in place in several countries, and by talking about the progress made in negotiations for the Global Plastics Treaty.

We start the afternoon re-motivated: the solutions exist, and we can all contribute to them!

At the end of the day, the boat settles at anchor opposite Sant Antoni de Portmany. We enjoy a swim in 30° water and an evening visit to the town, where we watch a magnificent sunset with the BELEM in the foreground.

🗓 August 24: Bye-bye Belem

The next day, we leave our anchorage for Eivissa. We skirt the steep coastline, pass Formentera and dock at the port of Ibiza. At our side, the sight of two giant cruise ships welcoming thousands of tourists brings us back to reality…

The enchanted interlude over, we pack up, thank and warmly greet the entire crew. We’ll be spending the evening in Ibiza. David Guetta or Cala Llonga? With our eyes still full of stars, and our bodies swaying, we choose the second option to continue the experience in a gentle way.

A huge thank you to all the trainees who took part in this course and attended the awareness sessions, and to the entire BELEM crew for their warm welcome on board.