Surfer Activists: Wave Riders Unite for a Cleaner Ocean

Aug 19, 2010· 2 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

A year ago I spent a few days on a Tahitian beach watching the greatest surfers in the world wrestle with what is arguably the greatest wave in the world, Teahupo’o.

The Polynesian backdrop was the setting for filming of the first IMAX 3D surf movie, Ultimate Wave Tahiti, starring nine-time world surfing champ Kelly Slater, local hero Raimana Van Bastolaer, and some very dangerous-looking waves.

California surfers paddle out to protest a natural gas line. (Photo: Phil McCarten/Reuters)

The filming was intense, involving mounting heavy cameras onto surfboards and putting camera operators in the water, in the heart of the most dangerous surf breaks. The film’s focus was the surfers' passion for the wild ocean. It also explored how waves and beaches are formed.

One thing the film didn’t address is how various threats to the ocean impact surfers and the beaches and coastlines that obviously mean so much to them.

Since Gidget kick-started the industry in 1963, surfing has become big business (30 million around the world say they surf; 50 years ago, that number was 5,000). It spawned a culture once limited to California and Hawaiian beaches; a culture now adopted by tens of thousands of Jack Johnson-channeling, Quiksilver-Billabong mall-shoppers around the globe. That many of these board shorts-wearing kids live hundreds of miles from surf is irrelevant. Attitude is the selling ingredient.

Thankfully, increasing numbers of surfers are fighting over more than just perfect waves and getting involved in local water issues, led by the industry’s lead activist group, the California-based nonprofit Surfrider Foundation.

With 50,000 members and more than 60 local chapters in the U.S. (and affiliates in Australia, Brazil, Japan and France), the organization fights to keep beaches clean and open, mostly through grassroots efforts.

Its successes go back nearly 20 years, to its participation in the second-largest Clean Water Act suit in U.S. history, against a pair of Humboldt County, California, pulp mills charged with 40,000 pollution violations. Stopping sewage discharges, protesting dumps, restoring dunes, educating school kids about coastal pollution and beach ecology and using existing laws to stop various polluters are among Surfrider Foundation's growing list of victories.

On one day every year members of the foundation across the country organize what they call a “paddle out”—surfers on their boards paddling into the water simultaneously—to draw attention to national and local ocean pollutions. By partnering with other environmental groups across the U.S. and using its growing membership Surfrider, has come to represent the kind of good an industry watchdog group can accomplish.

Granted, not every surfer is an environmentalist. But top American surfer Rob Machado went out of his way in a recent interview to promote environmental good along the coastlines that made him and his buddies rich.

Talking with Planet Green, Machado made it clear that when he started surfing, increasing pollution was simply accepted. “We pay more attention now,” he said, citing examples ranging from the simple (picking up beach trash) to the complex/long-range (recycling programs and organic gardening in schools).

“I can almost understand where people are coming from [when they] throw trash in the ocean and [think] it’s gone, thinking it disappears, goes somewhere else. But in reality, it’s the complete opposite. It’s amazing how big an impact we humans have on the oceans [and] we need to take care of them better.”

Working with schools and kids seems to be Machado’s favorite outreach.

“I love watching how [kids] embrace the things we bring into school. I’ve been [at the school] and a kid will walk in with his parent and turn to his dad and say, ‘Hey, Dad, there’s no plastic at this school. You can’t bring that water bottle here.’

“If you start them at a young age like that, the possibilities are endless. As adults we have to make a conscious effort to change, but when kids are so young, if you just teach them right then it becomes how they are. It’s not a way, it’s the only way.”