• Emily

My Conservation Hero

This week it is Open the Door Festival at Glasgow Women’s Library, a museum, library and archive where I'm lucky enough to work. Open the Door is an annual women’s writing festival and this year the focus is eco-feminism and the environment.


I'm excited to be talking about my debut novel The Girl Who Lost Her Shadow as part of this fantastic programme. You might have already read some of my other blogs on sea creatures and communication, but this week I want to talk specifically about one of my conservation heroes, and a small but significant character in the book - the freshwater pearl mussel. I'll also be doing a Twitter and Instagram takeover @womenslibrary at 10.30am on Friday 22nd May so do join me then!


The Girl Who Lost Her Shadow is set on a small fictional Scottish island that looks a little bit like Mull and a little bit like the Isle of Arran. On this island, surrounded by a choppy changeable ocean, two sisters, Gail and Kay, dream of being marine biologists when they grow up. They swim in the sea, inspect rock pools, dissect dead starfish and have shiny posters of squid and blue whales on their bedroom walls.


At the beginning of the story, Kay’s shadow disappears, and Gail sets off across the island to get it back, a journey that takes her deep into caves, through dark tunnels and dense forests, and right to the edge of vast waterfalls. Soon after she sets off, she discovers a shell tucked away inside a tunnel, with a map folded up inside. The map shows the wild southern tip of the island, and the shell is huge, much bigger than her hand.


Gail realises that what she is holding is the shell from a freshwater pearl mussel. Have you heard of freshwater pearl mussels? I hadn’t heard of them before I started thinking and researching for this book. Here is what I’ve learned:


  • They look similar to marine mussels but they can grow much larger (bigger than your hand!)

  • They can live for more than 100 years which makes them one of the longest living invertebrates

  • They live in fresh fast-flowing rivers

  • It’s illegal to disturb, injure, take or kill a freshwater pearl mussel

  • Very occasionally, they might have a pearl inside them

  • And, shockingly, they're on the brink of extinction in Scotland


Holding the shell, Gail remembers what Kay has told her: freshwater mussels are being poached on the island, killed illegally for their pearls. She thinks the map will lead her to the poachers. And although the island is large and she is small, Gail is determined that not only will she get Kay’s shadow back, she’ll save the freshwater mussels.


I wanted to write about these mussels because they are on the edge of extinction in Scotland and I had no idea. Here is a picture of them.



They aren’t especially beautiful and they aren’t at all furry or fluffy. They don’t have big eyes or wild stripy tails, but they are under threat and deserve our protection and Gail recognises this with a fierce determination.


As I developed my story, I learned things about the characters, like Gail and Kay, that didn’t always make their way into the final book. Writing about the sisters’ passion for nature and marine protection, I thought a lot about who their heroes would be. There are so many incredible people working in conservation locally in Scotland and around the world today, many of them as young as Gail. But it is Asha de Vos (who gets a blink-and-you-miss-her fan girl mention in the book) who I decided was the voice of care and passion talking in Gail’s (and my own) ear.


I came across Asha de Vos in the very early days of this story, when I was still leafing through National Geographic magazines looking at pictures of goblin sharks and making strange notes about shadows and eels. She is 100% one of my biggest heroes. She is a Sri Lankan marine biologist, ocean educator, and pioneer of blue whale research within the northern Indian Ocean. She established Oceanswell which is Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education organization, and is home to the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project. She is passionate about blue whales and wants everyone to feel empowered to look after our oceans. She is a wonderful storyteller and you can hear her talk about whales for Earth Day 2020 here. She is a changemaker, opening the door for so many young marine biologists and I want to celebrate her this Open the Door festival.


If you’re interested in marine biology and conservation, find out more about Asha de Vos here. And if you visit the Oceanswell website you can watch videos about amazing angler fish, or the intriguing potato-like Osedax.


I think Asha de Vos is a huge inspiration and I often wonder what I’d ask her if I met her. Who are your conservation heroes? And what would you like to ask if you met them?


There are lots of ways to get involved in the Open the Door discussion on social media @womenslibrary or on the website womenslibrary.co.uk. Or get in touch to find out more!