Tales from the human swan

Adventurer and conservationist Sacha Dench, who has made her home on Dartmoor, talks to Jane Rush about her award-winning expedition to help the Bewick’s swan and her forthcoming adventure to help the osprey.

Three small planes set off from the coast of Panama and out over the azure sea. Their destination is one of the jewel-like islands which make up the hundreds that form the San Blas archipelago. But with an approaching storm, two of the pilots decide to turn back. The third keeps going. On board are five passengers including a recently qualified biologist, Sacha Dench, who is on her first job. It should be a routine flight but the reckless decision of the young pilot turns it into a life-changing experience.

“We ended up getting sucked into this horrendous thunderstorm,” says Sacha. “I have never seen anything like it. We were thrown around the sky. The pilot had gone pale. He was completely silent and wasn’t talking to air traffic control or anything. He kept trying to dip down to try and find the island but the island was so tiny, the landing strip had had to be built so it went out either side of the island.

‘We kept trying to dip down below the cloud and find this one tiny landing strip on a tiny island. There was a local girl opposite me who had done the flight regularly. She was reading from her prayer book. And the guy next to me gripped my hand really tightly; he was a complete stranger!”

By this stage, they had reached the point of no return with only enough fuel to fly onward in hope. They waited in terrified silence as the pilot desperately looked for the island with lightening, hail and winds raging all around them.

Miraculously, after forty minutes, the landing strip was spotted and the plane could duck down out of the storm to land. Concluding the tale, Sacha recalls: “The pilot got out and lay flat on the ground with his arms out, like: oh my god we’ve actually made it!”

Seeing your pilot hug the earth in gratitude is not exactly a sight to inspire confidence; the whole episode had a deeply traumatising effect on the rational scientist.

“It left me with a debilitating fear of any kind of turbulence,” explains Sacha. “It didn’t stop me getting in a plane but any sort of bump….”

Yes, any sort of bump in a commercial airliner and Sacha would be babbling at the nearest fellow passenger and trap their hand in a vice-like grip. So how on earth did this bag of nerves transform into a fearless adventurer of the skies, flying solo at 3000 feet from Russia to the UK and winning the Britannia Trophy, an aviation award which has previously been awarded to the Red Arrows?

In fact, it was the flying phobia that eventually proved to be the catalyst. Years later, while working as Head of PR for the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, Sacha was looking into the Bewick’s swan, a migratory bird whose numbers have plummeted over the last twenty years. In her spare time, she had taken up paragliding in order to ‘rationalise the fear’ of flying.

The simplicity of the design and the direct connection with the air had won back her confidence in manned flight. Then she had spotted someone using a paramotor – effectively a paraglider with a propeller on the back – and everything fell into place. It was the solution to publicising the plight of the swan and to conquering her flying phobia once and for all.

The swans, which migrate from their breeding grounds in the Arctic circle to overwinter in Northern Europe and the UK, had been observed flying over the Channel and clocking up an impressive 70km an hour. Sacha suddenly wondered if it was possible to fly with them and bring their journey to life. The paramotor seemed the obvious way to accompany them and understand their migratory flight first hand.

In 2016, after lengthy preparations involving fuel drops across the wilderness of the Russian Tundra and making contact with its nomadic communities, Sacha set off alone in her paramotor with the back-up of a ground crew who were ready to step in and help with any technical problems. Her mission was to follow the Bewick’s swans as they flew more than 4000 miles back to the UK, and by doing so, raise awareness of the challenges they faced. The fortunes of six individual birds were also tracked via solar-powered GPS tags which had been attached to their necks.

It was not a trip for the faint hearted. Travelling at a few thousand feet where the air is perpetually chilly meant wearing an unfeasible number of layers, and enduring physical discomfort from puffy eyes to dehydration.

But the first leg of the journey involved following the coastline over the wild Arctic Tundra and had a more edifying side. In the distance she could see the teepees and reindeer of the nomads and in the sea to her right Beluga whales were swimming on their own migratory route. Sacha describes it as “magical”. The paramotor is an extremely basic aircraft with no room for many extras, so what was the most treasured item she had on board?

Sacha considers the question carefully: “Crossing the Arctic there were days without any ground crew of any kind. So what is your best friend on those long journeys? I would say my battery packs because a battery pack was my access to music. Music was definitely good for keeping you sane and just managing your mood no matter what happens.”

Less than halfway into the journey, Sacha snapped a ligament in her knee by twisting to face the wind for a take-off.

“I collapsed screaming, like I was giving birth to barbed wire,” declares Sacha.

The injury needed proper medical attention but when she turned up at the local Russian hospital it was more like the Marie Celeste – a ten storey building whose lights were off apart from the ground floor. There were no signs saying it was a hospital nor any paid staff of any consequence.

“There were two ladies in there,” recalls Sacha. “One of them was a doctor apparently, wearing bright coloured slippers and a white coat.”

It turned out that the woman who could operate the X-ray machine still lived locally and a phone call got her back to the hospital. She was not qualified to interpret the picture but luckily Sacha had her own medic with her and could confirm that there were no broken bones. The expedition could continue but there would have to be some changes.

“I had been told that when you are flying over the Tundra, the best present you can give people is string,” says Sacha, “I had tons of it thankfully.” It came in handy to modify the paramotor and in short order Sacha’s team had her airborne again, this time with a set of wheels tied on to make take-offs easier on her injured knee.

More jeopardy arrived in the form of the Russian Taiga. This huge expanse of pine forest breathes like a huge pair of lungs. A steam rises up and generates billowing low-level cloud that makes flying difficult.

Landing is out of the question because all the tracks through the forest are too narrow, so for a paramotor pilot the form is to circle around and try and pop up above it. Then there is a chance to see the land beyond and get your bearings. However, when Sacha tried this, there was just more cloud.

“I’d never before not been able to see the planet – it was just blue sky above and white clouds below,” explains Sacha.

‘It was otherworldly.”
Climbing higher and higher she suddenly found the swans who were also trying to avoid the poor visibility. They were flying alongside geese and ducks and luckily showed Sacha the right route to take.
On another occasion, technology suddenly made its presence felt as she whirred along, a thousand feet above northern Europe. Word was going round about the expedition and it suddenly went viral and created a twitter storm on her phone. If you are going to encounter a storm mid-flight then Sacha would be the first to agree, that is the one to go for.
While there were many hours in the air, Sacha also had plenty of opportunities to meet people on the ground. Without exception they were delighted to see her and offer support. There was a group of small Russian girls who ran up to the paramotor and exclaimed “Wow can girls fly?” There was a hunter who generously conceded to hold back from shooting swans. “They don’t taste very good
anyway,” he admitted. And then there was the gas station owner who mimed a flying swan by flapping his arms before donating free fuel.

Despite the mishaps, Sacha made it back to Gloucestershire unscathed and five of the tagged swans did too. The sixth, named Charlotte, died en route, possibly falling victim to a power-line. Her death highlights the danger for these migratory birds but the overall picture is complex.

Sacha stresses the importance of their disappearing habitat; coastal wetlands are being reclaimed for housing and farming. Even where they do exist there is a further problem, that of pesticides degrading the water quality. This in turn impacts the small invertebrates and the plant life the birds feed on. As if this wasn’t enough, the swans, alongside other species, have to run the gauntlet of both nomadic hunters and hunting tourism.

“One in three birds have lead shot in their bodies,” Sacha reveals.

Although these brushes with the hunters do not kill them in the short term, they are still at risk of developing lead poisoning and of course others will have been killed outright by better-aimed guns.

The ten-week flight was undoubtedly an heroic effort and as Sacha remarks,

“I realise I’m quite different to a lot of people.”

What is the recipe for a woman who is happy to camp alone on the Tundra with wolves howling in the distance and a bear-scarer in her luggage? Well, for a start she is Australian by birth and her childhood is from the Crocodile Dundee style of parenting. She grew up on ranches with miles of open space around her. She and her mates would go off on camping trips for days and if they got lost would find the river and follow it until they found someone’s house. She could fish and surf and climb trees.
When she was older she could ride a motorbike and free dive,
holding her breathe for over six minutes to swim down to unimaginable depths. Recently she bought a house on Dartmoor where she has had family links for many years, but don’t be fooled into thinking that settling in this peaceful part of the country means she is ready for a more sedate existence.

“It’s the place that feels most like home in Europe,” Sacha says, “This is my forever permanent home, although I have lots of
expeditions planned.”

The next one is just around the corner. Next year Sacha is hoping
to have fundraised ‘The Flight of the Osprey’ through her own
newly-formed charity called Conservation Without Borders.

The expedition will take four months to follow the migrating ospreys from Scotland to Ghana and cover over 6000 miles. Although the bird is not endangered worldwide, and is holding its own in Scotland, numbers are small throughout the rest of the country. It had
effectively died out until the middle of last century but then breeding pairs arrived from the continent and kick-started the population. However, for some reason they are not as widespread as they could be. Sacha hopes the project will throw some light on this.

“On the osprey journey we will be sampling the wetlands, the invertebrates and the fish for pesticides, micro-plastics and human pharmaceuticals. If I could change one thing it would be the damage to the invertebrates and our water just by the way we live our current lives.”

And if there is someone who has a chance of getting that critical change to happen, it is the indomitable Sacha Dench.

Sacha will be officially launching The Flight of the Osprey
initiative at this year’s British Birdwatching Fair in Rutland which runs 16-18th August. www.birdfair.org.uk. There will also be a
special fundraising event in September on Dartmoor. Information will be available later this year at www.sachadench.com.

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Author: Jane Rush

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