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A group of Oxford graduate students is spending five weeks taking part in the Aldabra Clean-Up Project – an ambitious collaboration between the University of Oxford and the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF).

Oxford students and seychellois volunteers team up for an epic beach clean mission
Aldabra beach clean. Photo credit: Seychelles Islands Foundation

The five-strong team supported by The Queen’s College, Oxford, and spanning the Departments of Plant Sciences, Zoology, and Materials Science are working with seven Seychellois volunteers to achieve an ambitious goal – the cleaning up of Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean, which is badly affected by plastic pollution.

Aldabra Atoll is one of the largest atolls in the world and is home to unique species, including 150,000 Aldabra giant tortoises. But, despite its isolation and protection, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has not escaped the threat of marine plastic debris.

Large amounts of rubbish have been accumulating along the coastline, including thousands of everyday items such as toothbrushes and flip-flops. This obstructs endangered marine turtle nesting sites and pollutes coastal grasslands where giant tortoises graze.

Seychelles team member Ivan Capricieuse said: ‘People in the Seychelles have always seen Aldabra as unspoilt and they are shocked when I show them pictures and videos of what is on Aldabra’s beaches.’

The project is cleaning up Aldabra in the only way possible: by hand, with hard work and determination. The teams are deployed to remote field camps and move along the coastline, piling the plastic at designated sites, to be collected by chartered barge. They are also making systematic surveys of the rubbish and attempting to discover its origins, aided by ocean current modelling. The terrain is extremely difficult, and conditions are tough, but the team is well prepared and have spent the last year fundraising, conducting outreach activities and developing specific research aims that will inform the management of this threat to Aldabra and other remote islands.

In the first two weeks of the project, a total of more than 20 tonnes of trash was cleared from turtle nesting beaches and tortoise grazing areas. Despite the difficult nature of the work, the team has been motivated by the incredible wildlife that inhabits the island and taken great satisfaction in helping to clear their habitats. Interactions between animals and the trash have been frequently observed - giant tortoises have been seen ingesting plastic while the team has watched baby turtles wading through trash to reach the sea. 

The project has attracted attention from Sky News, who featured the clean-up on 19 March as part of their Deep Ocean Live series, filmed as part of a mission led by the Nekton Oxford Deep Ocean Research Institute.

Craig Francourt, one of the Seychellois volunteers, says: “Although we had a good understanding of the challenge awaiting us on Aldabra, witnessing first-hand the staggering volume of marine debris along the beaches of the south coast has been both shocking, and at times, despairing. This once-in-a-lifetime expedition has not been easy."

April Burt, project co-lead, who is studying for a DPhil at The Queen’s College said: ‘Aldabra is proof that with enough willpower we can save Earth’s special places. But the ongoing plastic threat shows us that we must act as a truly global community.’

Associate Professor Lindsay Turnbull from the Department of Plant Sciences (also a trustee of SIF and a Fellow of The Queen’s College), who co-founded the project, said: The project offers an incredible opportunity for Oxford graduate students, who are deeply concerned about the state of the environment, to work in partnership with brilliant young people in Seychelles, who are equally committed. I hope this partnership inspires young people everywhere to realise that they can do something to make a real difference. The challenges facing the natural world are enormous, but we can’t be put off by the scale of the problem.’

Story courtesy of the University of Oxford News Office and the Departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology