Making a Splash | The Urban ‘Mermaid’ Who Swam 120 Miles Down the River Thames
"We wanted people to be more conscious about how they live”
“Are you a tramp moving home?” Barbara de Moubray was asked multiple times as she made her way down the River Thames, in a canoe she shared with a mermaid made from plastic bottles and a bag full of rubbish. Over her wetsuit she was wearing multiple coats and a pair of fluorescent yellow workwear trousers to stay warm.
But Barbara was not in fact a transient person moving house. She was accompanying her friend, Lindsey Cole, who was mermaiding 120 miles down the Thames to raise awareness of the dangers of single use plastics.
Lindsey swam down the river wearing two wetsuits, gloves, boots, a hood and a mermaid’s tail, while Barbara canoed alongside her picking rubbish from the water. And of course, transporting her creation, the life-sized mermaid made from 600 used plastic bottles.
“Are you a tramp moving home?”
“There were a few things that if we did it again we could have done better, but being just a two woman crew, it was really hard to get logistics totally right,” says Barbara, on reflection. “We should have really had a banner, or a flag or something saying who we were.”
But in the grand scheme of things, it was a minor blip. When you think of your standard charity challenge, the kind where you usually ask friends and family to give you money to say, shave your head or do a bungee jump, what Barbara and Lindsey had achieved when they completed their 22-day journey on the 24th of November at the Anglers pub in Teddington, just outside London, is all the more incredible when you weigh up all the effort that went into it.
It all started when Lindsey, a trained journalist, now part-time English teacher, writer and general adventurer was freediving in Bali.
Three kilometres off the coastline, she thought she’d been stung by a jellyfish, but realised she’d actually cut her hand on a piece of plastic. When she put her head above water, she saw the surrounding ocean was full of the stuff. Two years later, she’d moved to the French Alps and met artist Barbara, and the Urban Mermaid idea was underway.
“It starts at home.” Barbara explains. “We think we’re completely innocent of what’s going on in Indonesia but actually, a lot of what we produce goes there because we ship all of our waste off.”
“We wanted people to be more conscious about how they live”
So she and Lindsey set off on the 2nd November, armed with Samantha the mermaid, a roll of bin bags, and nothing but each other for support. The goal was to raise not money, but awareness.
“So many people do so many wonderful things for charity and people are asked to donate all the time,” says Lindsey. “For something like plastic pollution followers can do just as much by changing their own habits and using less plastic, or litter picking, or buying plastic alternatives. We wanted people to be more conscious about how they live.”
Supporters came and canoed, SUPed and swam alongside them, or picked litter from the banks of the river. They gave talks in schools, used as little plastic as they possibly could, promoted plastic alternatives and in the evenings were put up by hotels or stayed at the houses of their supporters. “It was an amazing experience,” Barbara says, “And partly because we met so many amazing communities along the way.”
The outcome has been positive, according to Lindsey. “A lot of followers have already contacted us to say they’ve bought a bamboo toothbrush, or they’re changing their habits. One guy who swam with us said he couldn’t swim with the cause and continue to get takeaway coffee cups, so he’s now got a reusable one.”
But it wasn’t always a smooth ride. After training all summer in the warm 17 degree waters of Spain, it took Lindsey a while to acclimatise to the five to seven degree waters of the Thames. To begin with she could only stay in the water for 45 minutes at a time. They also had to keep to a rigid schedule, work out the logistics of transporting Barbara’s car each day and battle ferocious headwinds in the first week that caused the river to flow backwards.
“It wasn’t until they saved a cow in Oxfordshire during their first week on the river that the media started to take more of an interest”
Then there was the planning. Barbara spent the summer “making [the mermaid] and remaking it, getting it all wrong and starting again.” She bought a British Canoe Licence, but wasn’t working anywhere near a suitable place to actually train for the trip, so she effectively went in blind.
Lindsey organised the logistics, informed the Environment Agency of their itinerary and drummed up media attention, although it wasn’t until they saved a cow in Oxfordshire during their first week on the river that the media started to take more of an interest.
While Barbara and Lindsey’s journey could be seen as a triumphant underdog story, it’s actually so much more. It goes to show that charity is about more than asking people to put their hands in their pockets, or being a huge personal physical challenge. It also proves that to make a statement you don’t need a huge support team, multi-person logistics or a specialised trainer.
The most important thing is just getting out there and doing it. Especially at a time when we’re starting to see the effects of single-use plastic all over the word, from litter cluttering the banks of the Thames to whales washing up on beaches with stomachs full of plastic.
“The Thames, surprisingly, was pretty clean.” Says Barbara. “There are a lot of people who do clear it up, like canoe clubs and paddle clubs which is amazing. But I reckon out of everything I saw I was only able to pick up around 10%.”
Which makes their message that much more important. And now the physical challenge is complete, the hard part could just be beginning. “I think it needs to carry on,” Believes Barbara. “The whole concept is about trying to say to people, we’ve got to be conscious of what we’re using. We’ve got to reduce using, we’ve got to lobby and campaign to say we don’t want the plastic bags that just hang shredded on the trees.”
Lindsey agrees. “We’re not scientists or product designers but we can encourage people to change their ways. It was a visual campaign and that’s exactly what we wanted to do – for people to stop and look and ask and then to think about how they can make a difference.”
And there’s a visual reminder of their campaign in a Teddington pub right now. She’s called Samantha the Mermaid and she’s filled with rubbish.
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