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An interview with Cal Major

Cal is a veterinary surgeon turned ocean advocate and stand up paddleboarder, campaigning to stop plastic pollution at source, and reconnect people to nature. Cal became the first person in history to SUP the length of the UK, a distance of 1,000 miles, from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and the first woman to solo circumnavigate the Isle of Skye, Scotland. These expeditions were used to raise awareness of plastic pollution in the ocean. Cal got into SUP in 2014 as a result of an injury and it’s fair to say she has never looked back.

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The first question is inevitable - what have you been doing to keep yourself sane during the current crisis?

I’m not sure the term ‘sane’ can be applied! I’ve been very up and down throughout lockdown, but this has led me to some pretty profound discoveries as to what does and doesn’t serve my mental health. Just an aside here – we all have mental health, and I feel that during lockdown a lot of us have become more aware of our need to support our mental health, just as we might support our physical health by going to the gym and eating well (and of course mental and physical health are so often linked)!

 I very quickly became aware of how different I felt on the days I spent indoors, compared to the days I was out in the garden. Being outdoors filled me with so much more happiness, and even though I couldn’t get to the ocean, I was really lucky to have fields and birds and wildflowers to engage with. I would try every morning to take my cup of tea into the garden and just walk barefoot and really observe the plants, listen to the birds – being as mindful and purposeful as possible. I also made sure I went out every day if I could on my road or mountain bike, or for a walk to get my daily dose of endorphins, and was surprised to find some pretty amazing places within walking or cycling distance of home.

It was really obvious when I didn’t do either of these things, as I’d feel anxiety and irritability creeping back in almost instantly. I also did a lot of online fitness classes with friends, which was cool, and tried really hard to cut sugar out of my diet. I was finding that the news, the uncertainty and not being able to get in the sea was anxiety-inducing enough without adding to it, so my main goal was just to keep that at bay for the first few months. Now that things have opened up, I’m really valuing being able to get back onto and into the water! The first time I went for a swim in the sea I sobbed, I’ve never been more enthralled by jellyfish out SUPing, and the grin I have from a surf session now lasts a week.

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You came to SUP later in life after surfing and scuba diving. In your last interview you described yourself as naive. What has experience taught you?

Interestingly I wouldn’t describe myself as quite so naive anymore! My time in and on the sea has taught me so much – both about the way the ocean works, respect for its unpredictability, but also about my own strengths and vulnerabilities. It’s a very humbling experience being put in your place by the ocean, and that’s happened to me more than once! I have a very deep respect for her now, and have spent days on end learning how to read forecasts, read the water and the clouds, so that when I put myself at the mercy of mother nature I’m a little bit more in tune with what the signals around are telling me.

That feels incredibly freeing – no longer do I feel I need to fight against her immense power, but I can appreciate when that will assist me, when I’ll be strong enough to overcome a situation, or when I need to gracefully accept that she’s more powerful than I am. I’ve been in some pretty sticky situations on the ocean without support, phone signal or assistance, and learning how to deal with them has been so empowering, and so humbling, and I think that’s transferred into my campaigning and life. Some days you can weather the storm if you just believe you have the capability; other days you just need to take a step back and wait for it to blow through.

So when and why did the idea of tackling plastic pollution first come to mind?

I moved to Devon to be close to the sea, and was finding plastic on every beach I surfed or paddled. It started to enter my consciousness, but it was really on the remote island of Tiree in Scotland, which is absolutely tiny, where I found myself wading knee deep along a remote beach in plastic waste. It struck me how ubiquitous the problem was. I was outraged by it, upset at the idea that the animals I’d sworn to protect (I’m a vet) were being killed by our obsession with convenience and a throwaway lifestyle.

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Half the plastic we find on beaches is single-use, so much of which is avoidable, and I was finding items like plastic water bottles which are so unnecessary. I just felt that if we connected the dots a bit more between our decisions on land and their implications in the ocean, we might stand a chance of tackling this at source. There was a lot of negativity surrounding plastic pollution when I began the ‘Paddle Against Plastic’ campaign, but I really wanted to deliver a positive, empowering message of how we can also be a part of the solution.

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