In highly unique expedition, an audacious adventurer is attempting a world first journey of discovery to draw attention to the desperate plight of a threatened species of swan—by flying the full route of the birds’ perilous migration path using only a paramotor—and her efforts have attracted the support of an enthusiastic flock of famous naturalists, celebrities and explorers, including Sir David Attenborough, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
In September, Sacha Dench from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) will follow the migration of the Bewick’s swan, from the birds’ breeding ground in the frozen depths of arctic Russia to their over-wintering hang-outs in the UK. The incredible journey will take her across 11 countries, and she will be doing the entire 7,500-kilometre flight in a paramotor—dangling under a fabric wing shaped like a parachute, with a motorised rotor on her back providing propulsion.
As she flies at the same height and speed of the swans, Sacha will record the experience on high-tech cameras. She will also have to contend with sub-zero temperatures and a range of other serious threats and dangers, including huge storms, hazardous sea crossings and potential encounters with polar bears. It is, by any measure, a daring and dangerous expedition, but so, Sacha says, is the annual flight of the birds—and that’s the whole point.
Bewick’s swan, Europe’s smallest species of swan, is dying off at an alarming rate. Over the last two decades the global population has almost halved, with the total number now down to just 18,000, and Sacha is determined to literally follow in their wingbeats to try and find out first hand what is causing this devastating depletion in their ranks. En route she will meet and engage with the communities that live along the birds’ flight path, including hunters, reindeer herders and farmers, to see if they can shed any light on the plight of the swans. Conservation and education organisations across the continent are also engaging with the project to collectively create a knowledge base of the swan’s movements and the threats it faces.
The mission is like nothing else ever attempted, and with her plan to share both the wonders and the worries of the swans’ annual adventure, Sacha has already raised the profile of the threatened bird and attracted some seriously high profile support.
‘This expedition is marvellously imaginative and adventurous, and a fitting project in WWT’s 70th anniversary,’ said Sir David Attenborough. ‘Peter Scott did similar in his day and inspired the world. That swans should fly from Russia to come here is surely a kind of parable–we can live in harmony with nature and it’s up to us to do so.’
Sacha recently found out she has a family connection to Dame Judi Dench. The actor, who plays M in James Bond and is therefore somewhat acquainted with acts of derring-do and strange gadgets, is looking forward to following her intrepid relative as she soars through the air of Europe. ‘Flight of the Swans is absolutely fascinating, full of adventure and passion, she said. ‘I’m proud to support it. We need to work together if we’re to help these beautiful birds.’
Other celebs and some leading lights of the adventure community have backed the project too, including Pen Hadow, Kate Humble, Ann Daniels and, very importantly, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who has provided an important grant.
‘I’m delighted that the Transglobe Expedition Trust is supporting the Flight of the Swans with one of our biggest ever grants,’ the highly experienced explorer enthused. ‘My fellow trustees and I were very impressed by the ambitious and innovative plans for such a worthwhile project.’
Already an accomplished adventurer and champion free diver, Sacha has completed several trial flights over the last few months, testing out clothing and equipment designed to keep her safe during the extreme conditions she expects to face in September.
‘The practice sessions have taught me quite a bit,’ she told Love Nature. ‘And I think I’ve uncovered all the things I need to solve. It’s just all getting very real now and I can see how the many strands will come together.’
‘Each winter, I’m fortunate enough that a small flock of a couple of hundred Bewick’s swans returns to my workplace – WWT’s Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire, UK. To get there they need safe passage all the way from the northernmost wilds of Russia, and for the last two decades fewer and fewer have made it. It’s crucial that we act now before it’s too late.’
Find out more about this amazing expedition, and discover how to support the Bewick’s swan at www.flightoftheswans.org