Updated: Nov 15
I was stuck in New Zealand after cycling the length of the thing and pondering what would come next. I'd been keeping myself busy by painting the beautiful landscapes that I'd found myself accidentally surrounded by, but I grew restless. OK my paintings were great for story telling, especially the misadventures! But they lacked any real purpose. Ultimately I was just painting pretty things for the sake of it! I felt a need to be doing some kind of good in the world but I didn't know where to start.
A handful of times in my life I'd declared that I really cared about the environment and I'd been put on the spot with "Then why don't you do something about it!?". Their hearts in the right place failing to appreciate just how big of an ask that was for someone diagnosed with an anxiety condition. Volunteering? With random people I've never met? Protest!? Causing trouble and being the centre of attention? Oh HELL no. I'll stick to doing my recycling and feeling guilty that it probably isn't enough, thank you very much.
Humpbacks off the North coast of Iceland Prints available.
Then along came Ocean Missions and their beautiful ship, the Ópal! I already had my eye on the Bark Europa as a dream trip to Antarctica but at the cost of a house deposit, I figured I should probably see if I even liked sailing before bankrupting myself. Ocean Missions offered week long citizen science expeditions, sailing around Iceland; collecting ocean plastics, observing whale and bird species and generally doing a cracking job of raising awareness for ocean conservation. Hello adventure! I'd wanted to visit Iceland my whole life!
It took me a while to get there. New Zealand ended up being a 26 month saga. Then their next trip clashed with my Sister's wedding. And a week before I was ready to set off in 2023, my appendix decided to burst! Rude!
But it was all meant to be. I ended up on their first ever Hope Expedition, being my first time volunteering, my first solo travel in Europe. First time sailing. And most importantly, the first time I'd join an expedition as an Expedition Artist. OK I paid for the privilege but it still counts!
Getting to Husavik and the start of the trip was surprisingly smooth. In my mind, Solo travel is still a pretty scary beast but I've at least done airports enough to use them in my sleep. Keflavik's was tiny and I'd navigated much bigger. The bus transfer was easy. Disproving my outlandish imaginings that I'd somehow get lost or stuck somewhere. It was just a bus.
Even Reykjavík was a breeze. As capitals go it's TINY! I managed to explore the whole thing by foot in a couple of hours. Breathing through my anxiety and settling into the fact that I'd done something pretty awesome. I'd managed to be abroad completely by myself! I finished up with a midnight painting of Hallgrimskirkja. It wasn't the best self care staying up that late, considering I had an emotionally demanding expedition ahead of me, but how often would I be able to paint in the permanent daylight of a Summer Solstice!?
The sun wouldn't set for the next two weeks!
The most nerve-wracking part of the whole trip was meeting my fellow crew. I'd be spending the next week squashed on a ship with 14 complete strangers and meeting them all at once was a pretty intimidating prospect. To tackle this I cancelled my flight to Húsavík so that I could join four others for a road trip around the island. This would allow me to see a little more of the country, but more importantly, turn up to the trip having already made four friends. Only ten more to go!
That evening it was time to meet the others at the serene Tungulending Guesthouse lodge. Deep breaths! I had another trick up my sleeve though. During the Milford Track Great Walk I was already peopled out before I even arrived, so I spent the whole hike hiding behind my sketchbook. The irony was that by the end of the trip I knew all forty people by name because it's such a great ice breaker! Time to crack out the paints!
Tungulending Guesthouse - painting left as a thank you
The following day it was time to embark. The drive to Húsavík slowly reveals the harbour by rolling over a hill and there she was. The Ópal! The trip was finally real! I'd spent three years dreaming of being on this ship. She's been my desktop background for a year. And it was finally happening. At least it would after we'd donned our super sexy weatherproof sailing onesies.
The excitement was high as we left port. We'd been blessed by flawless weather and the whales put on quite the show. The aim of this expedition was to raise awareness for the newly declared "Hope Spot". An area of ocean designated as a site of special interest by Mission Blue. And it was easy to see why! Humpbacks surfaced in all directions. Often hearing their blows before spotting them, causing us to run around the ship like mad people. By the time we approached Grímsey we'd also seen six blue whales. One of guides on board hadn't seen any at all in two months!
Lapping the remote island of Grímsey we stopped to visit the bird colonies. 40% of Iceland's puffin's hung out here, along with THOUSANDS of other birds. I've never seen (or smelt) anything like it. It made me laugh because experiencing nature first hand vs on television engages all the senses. Whether you like it or not!
That night we celebrated our first days sailing by visiting the bar. A very enthusiastic local (of which there are only about 25) dressed in a purple jumpsuit, holding a milk bottle full of booze, heartily encouraged us to join them for a party at the end of the airport. They had an airport!? I looked at my new friend Taylor, who responded "Well we can't not right!?". So off we went. I will always remember that night. Walking down Grímsey's one road, joined by decidedly merry locals and hundreds of angry arctic terns as three men on tiny horses galloped past us towards the never-ending sunset. We'd stumbled across their "Solstice Festival" and our ship doubled the size of the party. It was so much fun to be involved in some local antics. Cringing hard as the guitarist discovered I was from the UK so serenaded me… with a song I'd never heard in my life! Awkward!
The next day we walked the length of the island to visit the Arctic Circle marker and our resident "Pirate Therapist" would guide us through a ceremony to connect with the surrounding nature and think about our futures. It was a beautiful spot and the sea cliffs with their bustling bird life really called out to me. I'd only managed fast scribbles at this point so I craved a "proper" sit down and paint. Although it felt strange not remaining with the group, I was connecting with nature in my own way and I felt brave sticking up for what I wanted to do. It ended up being my favourite painting of the whole trip.
Grimsey sea cliffs. Gloriously loud and smelly Prints available.
I'd let everyone have a head start back to the Ópal so I put on a speed walk to catch up. I ended up so far ahead that I had time for a cheeky Icelandic hotdog. Or two! Waiting back on the ship, I found out that the reason nobody had caught up with me was because they were busy cleaning a beach! Oops! Nobody told me! I'd just been sat there filling my face with hotdogs instead of saving the planet! Hahaha.
We set off for Eyjafjörður, the longest fjord in Iceland, and along the way we lowered the Manta Trawl to collect some microplastic samples. To keep the data as consistent as possible, we would take three, thirty minute trawls, in a zigzag pattern, always remaining at the same speed. I realised this would be a great opportunity to try out a few styles of illustration on the same object. Challenged by the fact that as I sat on the edge of the Ópal, not only was the subject of my drawing moving up, down, left, right and rotating with the waves… so was I! In different directions! It really is a miracle that I didn't get sea sick and I loved the challenge.
As we continued our journey, morale was high. So far we had been blessed by calm seas and gorgeous weather. Something that's decidedly rare in Iceland, plonked right in the middle of the Atlantic. "Who wants to do some sailing!?" cried our Skipper Heimer, as the wind finally picked up a little. It was all hands on deck as we learnt how to raise the sails. It felt great to be part of a team and the sails looked glorious, lit up by a golden sun that would last for hours.
Nature being nature however, didn't want to play by the rules, and as soon as we got the sails up, we had to put them down again! Which took even longer! Oh well. At least we got a tiny bit of sailing experience! We continued to dance our way into Eyjafjörður, celebrating the new Hope Spot and the outstanding beauty of a non-stop sunset. The snowy mountains illuminated in various shades of pink and orange.
Sheltered in Hrisey for the night, I noticed that if you walked around the opposite side of the harbour, the opposing sea wall gave a fantastic view of the Ópal with the sun setting behind it. By this point, I'd really been pushing my luck with my mental health, staying up until 2-3am every night to make the most of the constant daylight, and living off caffine. It was a potentially bad move but I had to push through. So while everybody slept, I donned my overalls and half froze myself to do a 2am painting. I learnt some valuable lessons as the cold, wet air meant my ink sketch never quite dried. When I applied the watercolour on top it smudged everywhere, trashing my intricate drawing and making all the colours murky. ARGH! I patiently redrew the ENTIRE ship over the top of the painting and called it a night at 3am. Not my best work but an important experience for future!
2am soggy ship drawing! Prints available.
The wind direction meant we would spend another day in Hrisey. Taking part in a sharing circle and cleaning beaches. At first I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of waste on the beach we had chosen but it must have just gotten lucky with the currents. On the way back, we discovered a CRAZY amount of trash buried deep in the sea walls. Apparently the waves get so large around here that the gigantic boulders would be thrown around, trapping trash and making it super difficult to extract it. We declared war on a giant fishing net which required the entire crew. Super satisfying to collect the thing and use the zodiac to take it back to the ship, but saddening to think of just how much was left behind. It would take a small army to properly clear that place.
Raíssa of Piratas Do Amor also facilitated a workshop, helping us create our own internal compasses. Looking at what we value in life, where we find joy and how we want to make a difference in the world. The common threads that came up for me were the outdoors, exploring, creating and telling stories. I realised that there isn't a lot of point experiencing the world if you're not passing on your experiences. Which I guess I'm doing write now as I write this!
Our last day of sailing would take us back to Húsavík via Iceland's stunning northern coast. We drifted past imposing, majestic mountains whilst being led through a meditation class. Encouraged to study the wilderness in front of us and see what came up internally, I found myself overwhelmed. The combination of intense natural beauty, the towering mountains, sailing on the Ópal and creating artwork to tell the tale just made sense. At that moment everything was perfect. I was exactly where I needed to be and a shiver raced through every part of my body. I bawled my eyes out, partly through happiness, partly through the sheer relief of knowing I'd finally found myself.
We stopped off at a beautiful waterfall. Giving into the irresistible urge to skinny dip! It felt a little weird knowing the photographers had zoom lenses. They'd need them under the circumstances! But I revelled in the freedom of it all. The water was so cold it immediately gave you brain freeze straight through your skull. I thought you had to eat ice cream for that! (In hind sight it was actually super dangerous if stones were in the water. Don't do this!)
Flatey Church comes with free angry Arctic Terns! Prints available.
After one last stop on the island of Flatey (It's an island and it's flat. Speaking Icelandic is easy!) it was time to return to Húsavík. I felt a strange cocktail of emotions. We still had three days on land remaining but I was sad to end the sailing section of the expedition. At the same time I was elated. Considering I'd entered this trip with 15 complete strangers, we had made strong connections and it felt like we'd all been friends for four months, not four days. What a crazy, dreamy experience!
Husavik! Prints available.
Back on land, and still sleeping on the Ópal, we spent the next few days processing the microplastic samples and trash that we'd collected from the islands. Sorting everything into different materials and sizes to add to ongoing data logs in that area. The Húsavík Whale Museum gave us a private tour which really tested my sketching on the move and we were treated to a few conservation based lectures. Happy Whale being my favourite as you can identify whale flukes like QR codes!! The best use of AI ever! Some more beach clean ups took us to some beautiful remote parts of the coast and we were given a tour of the shipyard.
Conservation lectures on plastics in Fulmars, the Hope Spot & Happy Whale
One of the most striking moments of the whole trip for me was the "closing ceremony". In amongst the end of expedition beers and partying, Raíssa had made a small stone circle. We were invited to step inside one by one and upon doing so we had to introduce ourselves from the future. We could pick when. Most of us chose ten years. Where were we? What had we done? What difference had we made in the world?
"I'm standing on the deck of a sailing expedition, obviously. I've seen some beautiful things. I've been to amazing places. I have a reputation as THE guy to take on expeditions as an artist. I've created art in places where there has never been art before…But I also share my stories. I realised long ago that there was no point having these experiences without sharing them with those who aren't so lucky"
Wow! Well then. I better get on with it then.
I also declared myself a "sexy combination of Indiana Jones and Jack Sparrow" but that's perhaps less relevant to saving the planet hahaha.
Finally, and arguably even more importantly, we then stood outside of the circle and introduced ourselves again from the present. What about Ocean Mission's Hope Expedition had been the seed that led to being where I was ten years in the future?
Well that's easy. I'm writing this blog after spending a week sketching at the Royal Geographical Society. With my first citizen science expedition under my belt I could hold my head up high, knowing who I am, what I believe in, and where I wanted to be. It's already led to some incredible connections and opportunities and none of this would have happened if I didn't spend a week on board the Ópal for Ocean Mission's Hope Expedition and for that I will be eternally grateful.
If you're reading this and you're wondering how to get involved. Citizen science programs are a surprisingly accessible way to give your travel some purpose. They don't require any prior knowledge or experience. Just some curiositiy and a passion to get stuck in. You'll meet amazing people, see amazing things AND do some good in the process. What's not to love!?
I'm off to go be an Expedition Artist. Maybe I'll see you out there.
Thanks for reading!