Beach clean on the Isles of Skye

Categories // Wildlife Officer Sightings

Beach clean on the Isles of Skye

CalMac passengers have been experiencing some great encounters with wildlife this month, from puffins to minke whales, and our luck with the weather has continued into August with only the odd day of rain and wind, very unusual for Scotland!

A sightings update:

The picture below is a screenshot from my mobile phone of a survey done on the ORCA App on a crossing from Uig on the Isle of Skye to Lochmaddy on North Uist. As you can see we had a pretty hectic hour for sightings as we passed Waternish Point, a great spot to see cetaceans from. There was a huge amount of seabird activity and minke whales, porpoises, and dolphins were popping up everywhere. Plenty of seals were out too, taking advantage of what must have been a great spot for fish that day and passengers were incredibly excited, as was I, to see the sea teaming with life.

Screenshot 20210823 141412 ORCA

Amazingly on a recent crossing from Ullapool to Stornoway, we had yet another distant breaching minke whale! There was also a lot of feeding behaviour from gannets and a hungry pod of common dolphins joined them. The Wemyss Bay porpoises were showing off again to passengers on the MV Bute whilst travelling to Rothesay, and there has been a brilliant number of razorbills and guillemots with their fledged chicks tweeting away and delighting passengers. There has been reports of sunfish in Scotland recently, a species that has now been added to my wish list for this year, and the basking sharks are still being shy and eluding me. But I still have two whole months left of survey time in the Hebrides before the Scottish winter creeps in, so maybe next month I can proudly report back on an amazing basking shark sighting! ..maybe!

This month, in between crossings, I went along to a local beach clean that was taking place at Ardmore beach in Waternish, in the North of the Isle of Skye. This was organised by a volunteer group called Skye Tidy Tidelines who were just starting up again after a break in their beach cleaning activities due to Covid-19. The group had organised via the council for a skip to be delivered down to the shore for us to put the rubbish in. This was a beach that they had cleaned before but this time they brought a 4x4 vehicle to help tow out some of the huge bundles of rope and rubbish that had become buried in the sand and soil and was impossible to pull out by hand. Previously they had had to leave behind these huge bundles as they were just too heavy.

The group were not just collecting the rubbish, but they were categorising and weighing it before throwing it into the skip. We each chose a category of rubbish to collect. I picked thin rope, whilst others chose hard plastic pieces, plastic bags, twine, glass, bottle tops, fishing nets, and large rope. At first, it was hard to just focus on one category of rubbish, there was a temptation to just grab everything and get it off the beach as soon as possible, but Aileen who organised the beach clean explained to everyone how important it is that we find out not just how much litter there was, but what it was. She then sends all this information off to the Marine Conservation Society who every year run the Great British Beach Clean in September. By encouraging people to record their findings as they clean up their beaches, the Marine Conservation Society have been able to work out exactly what the worst litter offenders are so that they could work out how best to tackle the problem. It has been found that unlike many beaches in England where flip flops and cotton buds are an issue, Scotland’s west coast beaches mostly suffer with industrial waste such as rope and fishing equipment and waste from fish farms.  

beach rubbish

Industrial fishing and fish farm waste covered the strandline at Ardmore Beach. Photo by Aileen MacKay.

I am often asked about the threats to cetaceans, and I often think of it and describe it to others in numbers and statistics. According to the Marine Conservation Society, between 8 and 13 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans every year, globally some areas of the ocean contain six times more microplastic than plankton, and 29 million metric tonnes of plastic is expected to enter the ocean by 2040. This is of course shocking, but it’s also incredibly difficult to visualise. Actually seeing and handling the rubbish down on the beach and seeing the extent of the damage first hand was really quite depressing. I had never been on a beach that badly affected by marine litter.


Bundles of wastes pulled up from underground with the help of a truck and some local volunteers. Photo by Aileen Mackay.

As we pulled up huge pieces of rope and fishing gear, you could see hundreds of tiny pieces of plastic in the soil and sand and it was impossible to remove it. I feel the next step would be to go down with sieves and filter out the tiny pieces but even then you wouldn’t get it all out. The damage was vast and I was pulling up rubbish that was buried more than a meter deep. I was starting to feel like our attempt at cleaning this beach would be futile and that the issue was too massive for a tiny group of volunteers on Skye to tackle. I actually felt quite hopeless, especially as I was aware of the statistics regarding the amount of litter that is still entering our oceans on a daily basis, despite so many people now being aware of the situation.

As I pulled up rubbish, I found hundreds of tiny amphipods, little animals like sand hoppers hiding underneath it. These are fantastic detritivores, eating rotting seaweed and providing a food source to coastal birds. I learnt recently from reading a fantastic book called Rock Pool by Heather Buttivant that many amphipods not only break down organic matter, but also eat and break down plastic. This might sound like a good thing, but the smaller the plastic gets the worse effect it has on the environment, as the smaller the plastic, the more animals that are able to ingest it, and the more plastic that is ingested by small animals at the bottom of the food chain, the more plastic that accumulates and magnifies at the top of the food chain. Pollutants can also build up on the surface of microplastics, particularly POP’s (Persistent Organic Pollutants) such as solvents, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. 

So even when plastic waste is just sitting on a beach, not necessarily entangling an animal or being eaten by anything, it still poses a huge risk as it starts to break down, which is why it needs to be removed as soon as possible.

Learning this gave me a real boost in motivation when it comes to beach cleans. Even though we were not able to remove all the tiny microplastics that had already settled there, we were able to remove the larger pieces before they broke down any further. I feel like beach cleans are a fantastic thing that people can immediately do to feel they are positively contributing to conservation. It’s not futile, it’s not hopeless, we have to remove this immediate threat to wildlife, regardless of whether we know more is on the way or not.

As we got stuck in, the conversation varied between volunteers from discussing local environmental issues to sharing funny stories and it was a real joy to spend time with a varied group who had all come together because of their passion for their local environment. Two hours from starting, and after my initial panic at the amount of rubbish, I looked up and scanned the stretch of beach we had picked our way along. It was quite a transformation. The volunteers continued picking for another hour. Tackling that beach alone would have been a thankless and disheartening task, but together, whilst chatting and enjoying ourselves, we had cleaned up 2060kg of waste, just over two tonnes of plastic, ropes, pipes, packaging, nets, buoys, and bottles.

Volunteers Full Skip

Skye Tidy Tidelines volunteers next to a full skip, after three hours of hard work. Photo by Aileen Mackay

One thing I really liked about the beach clean was that this was the first one I had ever been to where we used reusable sacks to collect the litter in instead of single use bin bags. We tipped the rubbish straight into the skip before reusing the same sack. A simple but brilliant way to make sure our green activity really was green!

You can learn more about Skye Tidy Tidelines here: