Whitsand Bay:
A Matter of Life and Death

Whitsand view

Whitsand bay, three miles south-west of Torpoint across the Rame peninsula, has been described as one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in the world, with long stretches of golden sand and wonderful views from the high cliffs with their bright yellow gorse flowers.

Despite the difficult access, the restricted parking, the lack of toilets, the dangerous rip currents and the long climb back up the cliff, this coast is popular with those who enjoy a ‘day at the beach’ with a more natural, less commercial feel. Generations of Torpointers have grown up thinking of places like The Grotto as ‘their’ beach, and thousands of visitors have come to love the bay too.

Whitsand bay has some of the best surfing on the south coast, and has always also been a great place for sea angling. Undersea diving has also become popular, with two well-known wrecks, one of them expressly obtained and scuppered there to provide an artificial reef.

Particularly at the western end of the Bay, near Polhawn, where the natural reefs provide shelter and a variety of habitats, the undersea environment in Whitsand Bay has always shown snorkellers and scuba divers a rich diversity of marine life – fish, crustaceans, sea-anemones, shellfish, even sea-hares.

Death and Burial

Always until now, that is. Recent years have seen a terrible deterioration in underwater conditions in the bay. Sea creatures are dying, the marine vegetation is poisoned, and the once-thriving ecology of the seabed is being buried under industrial pollution. There has even been talk of human health being threatened.

All this is due to the increasingly massive dumping of waste silt dredged up from the Tamar and the Hamoaze. In addition to its tendency to choke the life of the seabed through sheer volume, this silt is poisonous. It contains heavy metals and other toxic waste left over from the Tamar valley’s industrial mining days, as well as modern rubbish emanating from the dockyard.

During the dredging for the ‘Remote Ammunitioning Facility Tamar’ (an MOD project later abandoned at a cost of £25 million), 250,000 tonnes of this stuff was scraped up, carried by barge out past Rame head, and then carried back around it into Whitsand bay to be dumped.

Since then more and more of the silt, and the rubbish it contains, has been added, bringing the threat of death not only to marine animals and plants, but also to the bay’s status as an underwater tourist attraction. The westcountry has, in effect, invested in an undersea wildlife park, and is using it as a rubbish dump.

As local people became aware of the problem, they started to try and do something about it. However, this is a difficult task, as those responsible for the dumping have always maintained that the silt is harmless, being dispersed by tidal currents – despite hard evidence to the contrary. So the problem has continued for some years, as this 2002 BBC report of the devastation shows. Three years after that report was aired, the MOD was granted permission to quadruple the amount of dumping…

The struggle to get the dumping stopped has involved anglers, divers, conservationists, councillors and MPs, and has had cross-party local support. A website was set up (www.WhitsandBay.org), and petitions have been organised, the latest one being this one. Local opposition to the dumping is increasing all the time, as even people with no interest in marine ecology become concerned at the prospect of poisonous silt polluting bathing beaches and threatening the health of bathers.

A Certain Hope for Resurrection

The newly-elected Conservative MP for our area, Sheryll Murray, has been a leading member in the campaign for some years. Last month (April 2010), a certain amount of hope arose when the then shadow fisheries minister Richard Benyon promised her that under the Conservatives, a full inquiry would have to be carried out before any new dumping licenses were granted. Sadly, however, despite that good news, the current dredging of Millbay looks set to add 76 thousand tons of Plymouth’s waste to the problem.

If Whitsand bay is to be saved from further damage, and the process of its resurrection to healthy life is to begin, the campaign pressure must be kept up. This can be done by demonstrating as much public support as possible.

If you care about Whitsand bay, and would like to help ensure that its undersea life will be there in perpetuity for future generations, click here and sign the petition. And get anyone else you can to sign it too.

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A Matter of Life and Death”

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