“Natural surf breaks should be treated as world heritage sites, and should never be destroyed no matter what the reason… We really can’t allow any existing surf breaks to be taken down, for whatever reason.” – Yvon Chouinard.
Waves are everywhere. They form a part of every single aspect of our lives, every day. The sound hitting our ears, light hitting our eyes, the heat from the sun, the changing weather patterns, the radio signals spewed out by our phones and routers; even the motion of our cars in a traffic jam, and, of course, oceanic swells – all are waves of some sort.
To surfers, waves are much more important than they are for the rest of the population. They rule our lives. Without waves, the concept of being a surfer would be totally meaningless. So, obviously, we don’t want other people taking the waves away from us.
Trying to protect surf spots is a constant struggle. A struggle against people who don’t recognise surfing waves as anything useful
There are several ways in which surfing waves can be destroyed or degraded, some easier and more permanent than others. For example, the most common and most problematical is when somebody builds a solid structure like a concrete breakwater or sea wall, which can totally and permanently destroy a surf spot.
Another example is altering the morphology of a sand-bottomed spot. This can happen if some solid structure is built somewhere else along the coast, altering the natural currents and sediment movements, which can ruin a good beachbreak.
A similar one is dredging a rivermouth. Waves that break on rivermouth sandbars tend to be very sensitive to changes in the shape of the bar, and removing the sand from the bar is a sure way to ruin the wave.
Then, there is pollution of the water. This can make surfing anything from uncomfortable to life-threatening. It alters the waves chemically, not physically, so you might still be able to see them breaking perfectly, but you can’t get in the water to surf them.
Lastly, there is access denial. The waves themselves might remain undamaged and unpolluted, but somebody decides that we are not allowed to surf them, because the area has been claimed as private territory.
Trying to protect surf spots is a constant struggle. A struggle against people who don’t recognise surfing waves as anything useful. Greedy capitalists who don’t appreciate things that money can’t buy. People who still believe that nature belongs to man, and it is there for our benefit, for us to exploit. People who value things that destroy our natural resources above those natural resources themselves.
Surfers around the world, including myself, have been trying to stop other people destroying the waves for many years. But things really got off the ground in the early 2000s, after the nightmare that happened on the island of Madeira.
Before a famous article was published in 1994, featuring Evan Slater and Ross Williams, the world was mostly unaware that Madeira had world-class waves. The handful of European and American surfers who had been going there had been pretty hush-hush about it. So, when the government began a program of coastal engineering that destroyed two world-class waves and seriously damaged one, it was too late to protest.
Jardim do Mar was once considered the best big-wave pointbreak on the planet. Now, thanks to an artificial shoreline and hundreds of giant concrete blocks, it is plagued with backwash and extremely dangerous to surf.
Lugar de Baixo was a long, perfect, hollow pointbreak. Now, thanks to a row of large rocks fixed to the shoreline, it has so much backwash that it is hardly worth surfing.
Perhaps, if it hadn’t been for Madeira, the global wave protection movement that exists nowadays might not have got off the ground.
Ponta Delgada was a long, freight-train barrel that could hold waves of ten feet or more. Now, a concrete pier sticks straight out through the middle of the wave.
The international surfing community tried to stop those spots being destroyed, but they failed. A number of factors including a corrupt, dictatorial government, a relatively weak international wave-protection network, and a reluctance on the part of the surfers to say too much about it for fear of overcrowding, meant that they were ruined before anyone could do anything about it.
But there was a positive outcome, of sorts. Perhaps, if it hadn’t been for Madeira, the global wave protection movement that exists nowadays might not have got off the ground. After Californian Surfer and photographer Will Henry saw what was going on there, he founded Save the Waves (here) and made a film called Lost Jewel of the Atlantic.
“That was the reason why Save the Waves formed”, he says, “to try and convince the Madeiran government that a surfing wave was something worth preserving.”
The struggle on Madeira, although ultimately unsuccessful, was really the seed from which the current global network of wave protection organisations grew. Nowadays, surf spots around the world have more protection than ever before.
Of course, there are still many spots under threat; in some case, entire coastlines or even whole countries. Two of the most serious cases I am currently working on are the Maldives and the West Coast of South Africa.
The Maldives consist of hundreds of small, low-lying islands, strung out over 26 atolls in the Indian Ocean. There are dozens of high-quality, consistent and user-friendly surf spots; the water is warm, and the wind is always offshore somewhere. Indeed, many people would consider the Maldives a perfect surfing paradise.
But there is a problem. Many of the islands are being expanded artificially to accommodate luxury resorts, which involves concrete structures extending out from the land to the sea. The developers rarely think about the surfing waves that might be affected by them. But many of these resorts will be populated by high-budget travelling surfers, whose very reason to go there is to enjoy the major attraction being offered: the world-class wave that breaks out in front. If the resort owners destroy the very thing that brings people there in the first place, they won’t have much business.
If you have been to the Maldives you might have surfed Chickens, and its sister wave, Cokes, just across the channel. Both of these waves are now being seriously affected by backwash, from a sea wall built to protect a resort from the waves (see here). At present, we are trying to find a way of removing that wall and putting something else there that won’t produce backwash.
The irony of destroying two of the best waves in the Maldives to protect a hotel whose clients are going to surf those waves, is just mindboggling. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We know that in the Maldives there are at least 20 other surf spots under threat.
Save the Waves has launched a campaign to save the Maldives. The campaign is designed to raise global awareness and to show the politicians and developers how valuable the Maldives is as a surfing destination. Please have a look (here) and if you can offer any help, please tell us.
The West Coast of South Africa, like the Maldives, contains dozens of world-class surf spots. But unlike the Maldives, the West Coast is a dry, inhospitable area with unpredictable conditions. It has freezing temperatures and fog, no drinking water, no electricity and no cellphone reception. But its very rawness makes it that much more special: One of the few places left on Earth where, with the right knowledge and a stroke of luck, you can get big, perfect surf all to yourself.
The West Coast also contains a lot of minerals. Most famously, diamonds, but also other elements used in modern electronic devices and batteries. An Australian mining company called Mineral Commodities Ltd has started a mammoth operation to extract these minerals. They are starting with a 50-kilometre stretch but have plans to mine the whole coast up to the border with Namibia – a distance of more than 500 km. The company is famous for non-compliance with environmental laws, lack of transparency and lack of engagement with local communities.
The mining will devastate this pristine area and it will seriously affect the surf. The sediment disruption will alter the coastal morphodynamics in unpredictable and irreversible ways; which is really important because many of the spots are world-class beachbreaks. But even if that doesn’t happen, access to the coast will be made impossible by the mining activities (and don’t forget, in this neck of the woods you are more likely to get a bullet in the back than a polite slap on the wrist).
It’s not all gloom and doom. Even though there are still a lot of waves under threat, things are improving.
An action group called Protect the West Coast (here) has been set up. The idea is to raise awareness in the surfing world and beyond, raise official objections, appeals, complaints, legal action and to perform direct protest action. So please check it out and sign the petition. More about it in my article here.
I’ve also been working on several other campaigns, smaller but no less important. These include;
*Barbuda, a tiny island in the Caribbean where a group of unscrupulous billionaires has decided to build a giant resort in the middle of a nature reserve, even though the local population has voted against it. This will affect the coastal morphology of the island, the biodiversity and a world-class pointbreak.
*Several places where offshore and onshore windfarms are being proposed, including Galicia and the Netherlands, which can interfere with the waves, cause access problems or make surfing dangerous. The big difficulty here is convincing people that natural elements like surfing waves don’t necessarily have to be sacrificed to generate clean electricity. More about this in my articles here and here.
*Several places along the Spanish coast where breakwaters and other concrete structures are being proposed, either in an attempt to stop a sandy beach from being eroded (which invariably results in more erosion, not less), or to protect a property that shouldn’t have been built so close to the beach. These structures will waste vast amounts of money, cause more erosion in the long run, and affect good surfing waves. Examples here and here.
Of course, it’s not all gloom and doom. Even though there are still a lot of waves under threat, things are improving. Here are a couple of cases that we have recently won:
Mangamaunu is a world-class cobblestone pointbreak in spectacular surroundings on the east coast of New Zealand. It is one of the best waves in New Zealand. A road and railway line run along the coast, fairly close to the break. In 2016, these were seriously damaged due to an earthquake, and needed to be repaired immediately. But it wasn’t those repairs that almost caused the death of the wave at Mangamaunu. It was a cycle path running along the shore.
The plans for the cycle path included hard structures called ‘revetments’ to protect it from the waves. When the Surfbreak Protection Society learned about this, they asked their technical advisory team to study what the consequences would be for the wave at Mangamaunu. The answer was that the wave would be affected by backwash, and the structures would also cause unpredictable morphological changes down the coast.
In New Zealand, building structures like these seems like total insanity. You see, New Zealand has the world’s best legal protection against the mistreatment of natural elements, including surf spots. They have a unique law called the Resource Management Act, based on the concept that natural elements have a higher value than man-made objects.
As well as restoring the road and railway, the developers decided to add a cycle path along the coast. They knew that normally it wouldn’t have had a hope in hell of getting through the Resource Management Act, but they were hoping that it could be approved because the earthquake was a special emergency situation.
The Surfbreak Protection Society filed a request to take the matter all the way up to the New Zealand High Court, because the cycle path wasn’t part of the restoration – it was an extra earner that the developers were trying to slip in. The developers knew that if it came to a high court hearing, they would lose. So, they eventually agreed not to build the cycleway as long as the Surfbreak Protection Society dropped the case, which they did.
The case of Mangamaunu shows that, even in New Zealand, people still try to get away with sacrificing natural resources in the name of greed and selfishness. But it also shows how widespread community awareness and proper laws to protect those resources can really work when put to the test.
Doughmore Strand, on the west coast of Ireland, is a great surfing beach in pristine natural surroundings. Backed by dunes, it is located inside a nature reserve called the Carrowmore Dunes Special Area of Conservation. It is located on of one of the most energetic and mobile coastlines in the world, and is a fantastic example a dune system and flood plain that evolved over millions of years to absorb all that energy by flexing and morphing according to the conditions.
So who do you think would be stupid enough to build a golf course right on top of those dunes?
You guessed it, Donald Trump.
Obviously, the natural behaviour of the beach-dune system means that the golf course is unstable. So, instead of moving the golf course, Trump’s company decided to try to protect it with a sea wall. A sea wall that would have caused numerous problems including severe backwash, erosion at the foot of the wall leading to disappearance of the beach, and erosion along the coast leading to the prospect of further coastal interventions. And it probably would have failed to protect the golf course anyway.
To stop the wall, a large campaign got underway in 2016, spearheaded by Save the Waves. But even after 100,000 signatures and 700 letters of objection, the project was still approved by Clare County Council.
An appeal was sent to Ireland’s national planning appeal board, An Bord Pleanála, and the struggle went on for another two years. In early March 2020, just when we had almost lost hope, An Bord Pleanála formally rejected the plan, based on the adverse impacts to the dune ecosystem.
They pointed out that one of the main objectives of the Carrowmore Dunes Special Area of Conservation is to maintain the natural circulation of sediment and organic matter without any physical obstructions. The board wasn’t satisfied that this simple condition would be met if the wall were built. More about it here.
A lot of surfers think that we, the ‘surf activists’, will save the waves for them, so they don’t need to do anything (especially if there is good surf). But the more surfers take part, the greater chance of a surf spot being saved. That’s a no-brainer
Lastly, if you want to help to stop people destroying surf spots, it is useful to think about how they actually get saved, when they do.
It all starts with something very easy: your own realisation that surfing waves are important and need to be protected. Surf spots, especially good ones, are unique natural phenomena just like mountains, waterfalls and duck-billed platypuses. They provide us with happiness, keep us healthy and bring us close to Nature.
Then, you have to convince the rest of the surfing population. A lot of surfers think that we, the ‘surf activists’, will save the waves for them, so they don’t need to do anything (especially if there is good surf). But the more surfers take part, the greater chance of a surf spot being saved. That’s a no-brainer.
If large enough numbers of surfers do get on board, the information will spill over into the non-surfing population, which, in turn, could mean articles in the mainstream press possibly reaching millions of people. This might lead to support from larger non-surfing organisations and NGOs, who might have a lot more power and influence than a bunch of surfers.
In rare cases (like Doughmore) somebody with the power to stop a surf spot being destroyed recognises the intrinsic value of the natural environment. But we shouldn’t automatically assume that somebody that intelligent is out there. Most of the time, campaigns have been won not because people suddenly realise how important the natural environment is. No, they have been won because the shareholders or banks that finance the schemes that destroy our waves decide that it is a bad investment. All that campaigning and bad publicity scares them off, and they might lose the only thing that is precious to them: money. If we can make that happen, we still have a result.
Finally, proper laws are gradually being put into place to protect surf spots. Laws that recognise surfing waves as valuable natural resources that can be used freely and sustainably. Surfing waves are just like the soil, rivers and atmosphere; but instead of just keeping us alive, they provide us with wellbeing and happiness. Smartphones and plastic bottles are also supposed to make people happy, but, far from being part of the natural environment, they exist at the cost of it.
New Zealand has been pioneering the concept of environmental personhood. Environmental personhood means that a natural entity such as a river or a mountain can be represented by a lawyer to denounce an act committed against it by a human being or company. At the time of writing, the Te Urewera National Park, the Whanganui River and Mount Taranaki have been granted the same legal rights as living humans. They have been declared to be no longer ‘owned’ by the government or by anyone else; they are simply ‘owned by themselves’.
Maybe one day, surf spots around the world will also be ‘owned by themselves’, and, maybe one day they will be able to take coastal engineers to court for threatening them with violence and permanent disability.
Cover shot by Guy Williment for this feature.