THE AZURE PROJECT: COLLECTING WASTE IN THE MEDITERRANEAN

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Annaelle has been supporting sustainable development for several years, but she had never been kayaking in the sea. This did not stop her from launching a project to collect waste and raise awareness of pollution in the Mediterranean Sea. And what better sea craft that the latest prototype of the Strenfit x500 Itiwit 2-seater inflatable kayak? Nicolas, the engineer who developed the prototype, thought this would be a great way to test the kayak and to use Annaelle's feedback to make improvements. Other partners soon joined in, so that she was able to take to the water at the start of September 2019.

#1: The origin of the project

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"In March 2019, I was working as an usher at the Avignon travel film festival. I was in charge of seating the audience in the cinema to watch the film « Le Grand Saphir, une révolte ordinaire » by Jérémie Stadler. I was not on the selection committee that year, so I was about to see the film for the first time, along with the audience. The film was a real eye-opener. By the end, I was bowled over. The film depicts several citizens' initiatives that consist of collecting waste to protect the environment. The portraits of these committed whistle-blowers were filmed at the personal initiative of Emmanuel Laurin - The Grand Saphir - who combines sporting exploits with environmental protection. Emmanuel spent almost two weeks swimming 120 km along the coastline collecting macro-waste in an effort to raise the general public's awareness of the critical state of pollution in the Mediterranean. "Le Grand Saphir" depicts a society that nurtures a paradox: being guilty of what is happening and acting responsibly at the same time. So, I decided to set off on my very own ecological adventure. But where do I even start? I did not know the Mediterranean very well, and I had never taken to the high seas... I had to learn how to read sea charts and the maritime codes, how to navigate and to identify the local NGOs that promote ecological values, while staying safe for the two months I spent diving, kayaking and exploring the shore.

#2: The first steps: Hyères and its surroundings

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I organised a press conference in Toulon on the day before my departure. The media covered my adventure. I was delighted that they spoke about the ecology and I received encouragements on social media. I started collecting waste onshore and underwater on the superb coastline at La Londe, Les Maures and Hyères. I could swim underwater comfortably with my wetsuit and fins. I gained confidence and learnt how to hold my breath for longer. I was learning on the job. I discovered some magnificent landscapes and fish. But I had not expected Hyères and the surrounding waters to be so clean in September. I did not come across the underwater rubbish dumps and plastic-covered beaches that I had seen in the film. This is the time of year when the local councils clean the beaches and the currents carry the waste further offshore. But I could see pollution everywhere. There will soon be more plastic in the sea than fish. I met a lot of activists who are also disgusted by the state of the sea. Most of them practise sports, and the sea and the coastline are their playing fields. Some of the veteran divers explained that, at my age, they saw many more colours underwater than today. Thanks to my kayak, I was able to go further and reach waters that cannot be accessed by land and where it is forbidden to drop anchor. I headed for Port Cros island and its surroundings! Floating polystyrene and plastic accumulate in the magnificent creeks, where they are washed ashore by the waves. When I went ashore, I was walking on plastic, rather than seashells. The tone was set. Pollution is mainly present in places where it is deposited by the wind and currents, and there are no people on hand to collect it. The pollution accumulates and merges with the ecosystem, where it is used by crustaceans as shells, by certain organisms as rafts and even as food, all along the food chain...

#3: From Le Pradet to Saint Cyr sur Mer - The two-seater kayak

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Kayaking at sea on your own is fantastic. You can focus on yourself and paddle at your own pace and that of the swell. But, I was not familiar with the places I went to. I needed some team mates to share this adventure with me. Nicolas, the engineer who developed the K2 at Itiwit (Decathlon), lent me a prototype of the brand new Itiwit Strenfit x500 inflatable kayak, and I set off on some long trips with volunteers who had read about my project in the media and on social media. And a few friends joined me along the way. It took two of us to raise old tyres from the seabed and to clean up larger areas. Thanks to the kayak, we were able to venture further offshore and at a higher speed than if we were swimming. Working as a pair, one of us swims and collects the waste, and the kayak is on hand to keep us safe and to store the rubbish. After every collection, we spread out what we had found on a readily accessible beach, where people could come and see the problem for themselves. A lot of people stopped and asked us where the waste had come from. Everything we collected was floating on the water, under the water or in the creeks where we dropped anchor. But only 20% of the waste is dumped directly in the sea. The remaining 80% comes from the land and is carried into the sea by the wind, rainwater, streams and rivers... One chap was particularly interested in our inflatable sea-going kayak. I invited him to try it out for himself, then I told him all about my trip and what I was doing. He was very moved by our project, went back to collect his camera and took a portrait. A lot of people were moved by our initiative, and felt grateful for what we were doing and how we were raising awareness around us. They welcomed us, lent us equipment, and told us their own stories about how their sea, our sea, is so beautiful.

#4: La Ciotat

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Once a week, I organise a team collection with local NGOs, to which everyone is invited. On this occasion, the event co-organised with Déchet Zéro & Co collected several hundreds of kilos, thanks to more than 80 participants. In the glorious sunshine, a land-based team and a team at sea, made up of kayaks and divers, set about cleaning up the main beach in La Ciotat. Despite my shock at the quantity of waste, I was happy to able to count on so many people. Friends, people who were following my adventure, the locals, of course, and Manu, the hero of the "Grand Saphir" were there too. Meeting him inspired me and reboosted my motivation like never before!
Before heading for Les Calanques, my team mate and I decided to visit the Île Verte. We set off on a choppy sea from Figuerolles Creek, just below the Bec de l'Aigle. The kayak was stable, but the swell was irregular and the wind was strong. We didn't say a word, concentrating on staying well clear of the shore to avoid crashing into the island's steep cliffs. The Île Verte was a lovely surprise. This island is ruled by birds. There are no predators here. At the summit of the island, we came across some ruins that recalled the island's former role as a strategic military outpost, plus lots of little birds' bones that were more recent. Amongst the bones, we found some plastic bottle caps, on which the birds had probably choked to death.
When I think back to this crossing, I realise that we were both a bit crazy! Later on in the adventure, we explored Cap Canaille and the Devenson cliffs, without having the necessary technical skills. I took a fall that could have been fatal. This lesson taught me to be more careful on my adventures in future.
 

#5: The Les Calanques national park

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This was definitely the prettiest part of my excursion. I liked it so much that I made the entire trip by kayak and on foot. On foot, the terrain was sometimes hostile, with steep cliffs and a wind that almost never stopped blowing. It is a clean place that is treated by hikers and climbers with respect, because this is also a popular spot for climbing. I took a break in several shelters, each of which had their own particular charm, especially the hidden shelter, where I sought refuge from a storm. This shelter was built from bric a brac by someone who loved Les Calanques back in the 1970s. This former military mariner spent his years in retirement taking care of Les Calanques by restoring numerous shelters, some of which are hidden. He used to collect and burn all the waste he found. I was walking in the footsteps of a protector of nature.
On our return, we stopped off in Port Miou creek in Cassis, before setting off for Marseilles in the kayak on the following day. We were intrigued by an old grid. Was it an old well? Or a gallery of caves? A hiker told us the worrying truth. The Alteo factory extracts alumina and dumps its waste in Les Calanques through this pipeline. The famous "red sludge", which is toxic for the environment, is discharged 7 km away at a depth of 330 metres in the bottom of Cassidaigne canyon, a sort of very narrow underwater valley with steep sides that is 2,000 metres deep in places and home to some deep-water and coastal species that make it quite a remarkable site. The permanent avalanche effect of the toxic sludge has destroyed all forms of life in this sector.
We covered all of Les Calanques in our kayak. From the water, we could see the places we had visited the day before on foot. I won't go on about the beauty of Les Calanques and the crystal clear water. The kayak was the ideal means of transport to get close to the cliffs and appreciate the geological characteristics of this landscape. This soft means of transport does not produce any pollution or disturb the marine ecosystems. At the foot of the cliffs at Soubeyrannes, I spotted some wrecks of old cars on the side of the cliff. By geolocalising our position and reading posts written by regular visitors to the site on social media, we realised that they are just below a sharp bend in the coast road and that there are many other wrecks in the water...
 

#6: Marseille

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Our trip through Les Calanques ended at Les Goudes in Marseilles. The day came to an end in the port with a beer and a game of table football with some locals from Marseilles. After a good night's sleep, we woke up to a rainy and windy morning, and prepared the kayak for the trip to the magnificent Île Maïre and then the Baie des Singes. The wind quickly carried a whole load of rubbish onto the beach. I started collecting the waste, then one, two, three, four, ten other people joined me to help clean up the beach. Everyone is concerned, so everyone joins in.
The following day saw the "Clean old port" operation, in which some 100 divers cleaned up the old port in Marseilles. We collected more than 45m3 of waste, from scooters and easels, to toilet bowls and suitcases. An extraordinary and impressive operation. In Marseilles, I met several organisations that are taking action to protect the environment. I went to the Frioul archipelago with two of them. After the crossing, we met Christian, who invited us to spend the night on his yacht. He introduced us to every nook and cranny on the island and told us its story. After a really impressive tour, we took to our kayaks and headed for the islands creeks. In Cambrettes creek, we filmed the most spectacular video of our entire trip, in which the surface of the water is completely covered with floating plastic. The pieces of plastic became stuck here following a storm. A lot of people came to help us, both on land and at sea. The bathers cleaned up the beaches, while the sailors recovered the tens of kilos of waste collected on land and at sea on board their boats.

#7: A flourish on the last day

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Since I was ahead of schedule on my last day, I decided to head for Carry-le-Rouet, west of Marseilles, to join a clean-up operation that was already under way. I spread the word on social media, and was surprised to see about 30 people from Avignon, who had come to bring the Azure project to a close with a flourish! The Jolo Gang and the Brazilian band, La Batucada, of which I am a member, came to help us on land and at sea in a major clean-up operation that brought together about 100 people. We lit up the port to the beat of the Brazilian drums and brought the project to a close in the best way possible, in a beautiful setting bathed in bright sunlight, with a crowd of people intent on getting things done!

My team collected more than 500 kg of waste, with the help of about 100 people on 27 different sites.

The images we have posted speak for themselves. Plastic is everywhere. This invasion is totally out of control.
But this sporting and ecological challenge revealed another dimension. That of a human adventure, of meeting people and organisations, scientists, athletes, teachers, influencers, media and institutions that are outraged and are taking action to save our seas. Many solutions exist, a lot of progress has been made in the last few years and we are on the right track. The ban on plastic bags, boycotting irresponsible products, clean-up operations, campaigns in schools, improvements in the waste-sorting systems and the reduction of the waste produced by many households are all good news. But the fight must go on and the oceans need us! We hope that all these people who took an interest in our project will also become ambassadors of our suffering oceans that will only be healed with our help. We are counting on you to spread the word!

#8: Debrief at Itiwit

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A few months later, I was invited to the Itiwit Design Centre in Hendaye (Decathlon Watersports Centre). Nicolas, the engineer who lent me the prototype kayak, was waiting for my debrief after using the kayak for 2 months. And the entire Itiwit team also wanted to hear about my adventure, because they are all kayak or stand-up paddle enthusiasts, who really care about conserving the marine environment. I also told them about my future projects, because they are very keen to continue supporting me in my efforts to raise awareness of the conservation of nature. I took the opportunity to visit the Basque coast, from Biarritz to Bilbao, in weather that was beautiful for January. What a superb place!

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