Guardians of the Ocean
Guardians of the Ocean
by Sam Bleakley
Cover: Cownose Rays Photograph: Sandra Critelli
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The surfing culture connects young people to the wider environment in a profound way and nurtures an ecological conscience that is having positive repercussions.
Wherever the turbulent Atlantic greets the UK’s rugged coastline, sometimes with a kiss, mostly with a slap, there is now a thriving surf culture – an estimated 500,000 souls aware of the delicate balance between the natural ecology of the sea and human interaction. No surfer wants to paddle out in polluted waters, or watch passively as a much-loved area of pristine coastline is ‘developed’ as a marina, and every surfer I have met craves the experience of surfing with dolphins, or to see basking sharks.
I have surfed with dolphins, seals, sharks and sea snakes. I have sensed the sudden suspension of time – sought by all meditative techniques – deep inside the ‘tube’, as the water curtain falls to a god’s applause. I have nearly drowned from the power of waves, and have saved another from drowning. I have seen men and women healed through surfing.
I have ducked under the bow wave produced by a passing liner while paddling in open ocean, and have regularly bathed in the rainbows that peel off the back of waves combed by offshore winds. When I take off on a wave, poised on a sliver against a shifting ocean that stretches to the horizon, I feel both fish and bird, caught between gravity and levity.
On each occasion of bliss, fear and plain contentment, I have been educated into the ways of the sea – the complex relationships between winds, currents, beach shapes, wave types and lunar-tidal movement. This awareness of surfers offers a powerful collective knowledge – but how do we harness this holistic knowing of the nature and beauty of the sea and transform it into action for collective good?
Surfers are naturally friends of the ocean and they have an ecological imperative to protect this complex and vital ecosystem. They are already ‘badged’, stained by salt residues, but, as ever, there are contradictions at work. Surfers are infamous for protecting ‘their’ local break from visitors, but of course, no group of people ‘owns’ the ocean in this way, and surfers must face this fact. The admirable surfers who refuse to follow this unnecessarily aggressive behaviour allow the wave and conditions to shape their responses.
American psychologist James Gibson described ‘perception’ not as humans acting on the environment, but as the environment educating us. The natural world works on us and we respond to its lessons. Once we appreciate this, we are no longer eager to shape the world to our desires, but, rather, we appreciate how the natural world educates us into her presence and beauty. In surfing, those who try to impose themselves on the wave often ‘wipe out’ and fall. As the poet Wallace Stevens said, “the world is presence, not force.”
IN THE LATE 1950s, when surfing first boomed in California, surfers were considered not just to be archetypal rebels, but ‘work-shy’ and ‘dropouts’, of no use to the frantic post-World War II American economy. A half-century later, little seems to have changed. The stereotype, however, is off-beam: most people who surf do so in their spare time and have jobs, pay their taxes, and raise families. For a lucky few like me, surfing is a full-time profession. Importantly, devoted and long-time surfers develop expert knowledge that even the best coastal geographers lack: an intuitive, holistic environmental knowing.
Many people within the surfing culture are actively addressing the ecological issues connected to the activity. It was surfers who first noticed how much raw sewage floated around Britain’s coastline, and protested vociferously about it. In 1990, the environmental action group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) was formed in Cornwall. Their efforts to clean up coastal waters spread nationally, as SAS made often flamboyant, but well researched, representations – even to the European Parliament. Following ten years of campaigning, water companies finally started to invest in comprehensive sewage treatment schemes, and today SAS can be proud of the number of Britain’s Blue Flags – a European-wide strategy that rewards clean bathing waters.
The surfboard industry has a
toxic past, heavily reliant on oil-based chemicals grafted from the aerospace industry in the 1960s. Polyurethane foam and fibreglass, although carcinogenic, was cheap and versatile, had cosmetic appeal, tolerated thermal ranges and was easy to construct, giving rise to effective and constantly evolving surfboard designs. Eventually, however, the leading American manufacturer of foam surfboards was closed down because the product had broken even the relatively lax environmental laws of that time. The reaction has been a new wave of small-scale, ecologically sensitive production – with surfboards made of hemp, balsa, bamboo and paulownia wood, reflecting the Polynesian roots of wave riding where Hawaiians carved their own boards from this species of tree.
As a professional surfer who makes a living from travel writing, I have been blessed to surf the oceans of the world, but I have also been saddened to see beaches openly used as dumps, littered with plastics. We are all familiar with the news of species depletion by over-fishing, of the death of coral reefs and the problems of oil spills and sewage pollution. What is not so widely broadcast is the increasing amount of waste dumped by ships. A recent, extreme winter storm caused hundreds of saline and glucose drips to be washed up on beaches in south-west Britain. The contents were relatively harmless, but the plastics are deadly. These may have been thrown overboard from a container ship, simply abandoned as waste, as they were close to their expiry date. Seeing this kind of ecological catastrophe at first hand has been the catalyst for many surfers to become environmental activists.
SURFERS WILL CONTINUE to make further, considered actions towards protecting the environment they love, and they are, as a group, well equipped to do so. Surfing continues to attract young people who turn away from technology-driven entertainment to the challenge and fun of the waves. We must insist that the technologies that sustain surfing – board and wetsuit manufacture – continue to explore sustainable futures. Surfers must square their intense hunger for the pristine wave in life-enhancing waters with the ecological challenges we all face. It is no longer simply surfers against sewage, but surfers for sustainability – and for public health, spearheaded by the ‘blue gym’ movement that calls young people in particular to reconnect with ocean-based activities rather than slump in front of the computer screen.