You’re on the beach, board in hand, are you a Barney or a gurfer? A spongebob or a switchfoot? Are the conditions rico or sharky? Do you quasimodo your way into the Pope’s living room? Surfers, like any subculture, have their own inside language. Shorthand to separate the dudes from the shubies.

But even a shibby surfer probably knows enough to avoid the Pasadena brown trout, the Bondi Cigar, and the New Jersey Seashell. Trout and cigar being floating turds and the seashell a seaborne tampon applicator.

As sports go, few rival surfing for being tied to the natural world. Sun, surf, sand, one board and a keen eye for the rhythms of the waves is all it takes.

Photo by Wandering Angel on Flickr

But in truth it’s not really that simple and clear. Just like when a Bondi Cigar crests over your wave, things can get muddy.

From Oahu,Hawaii to Venice Beach in California to Tofino, B.C to County Donegal in Ireland, surfers are barometers for ocean health. They’re in the water first, out there the longest, often first to see a spill, and according to new research, they swallow more of the sea, and whatever happens to be in it, than any other recreational water user. In other words: if the ocean is going to make anyone sick, surfers are first in line.

if the ocean is going to make anyone sick, surfers are first in line

Ignorance is not bliss

With such an intimate relationship between sea and surfer, you’d think the surfing community would be at the forefront of ocean protection. But according to Peter Neushul and Peter Westwick, authors of The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing, surfers as a group have only lately, and reluctantly, stepped up.

Neushul, a history of science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and surfer for the last 30 years says, “As a group, surfers have not not been educating themselves, not organizing. Pick up a surfer magazine and thumb through it. It’s a lot of pictures. Our mission with the book is to warn people that you’re not going to be surfing much longer if you don’t deal with these things.”

“These things,” for the surfing professors are the litany of oil spills, sewage outflows, coastal engineering, development, overcrowding, and climate change impacts familiar to anyone who studies ocean health.

Surfer’s “apathy”

Neushul and Westwick’s history of surfing details what can best be called surfers’ apathy to the environment through the 50s and 60s. When the environmental movement in that era fought landmark cases, won a few battles to establish environmental laws and codes, surfers for the most part were not involved.

For Neushul and Westwick, the images of surfers as “free-wheeling one with nature zen-like creatures” helps explain why they opted out of the mainstream environmental movement in those years.
Surfers saw themselves as waterborne rugged individualists, alone, in nature, doing their own thing.

They were sea-going cowboys.

“Like cowboys, yeah, and one day the cowboys looked up and all the buffalo were gone.”

Catching more than a wave

When Westwick started surfing 35 years ago, there was no talk of climate change, skin cancer, water quality standards or the checklist the of environmental woes we carry to the beach these days.

“I remember surfing in high school. We had no idea of water quality. We’d surf El Nino winters. The creeks flushed out and you’re surfing chocolate brown waves. We thought we were just getting colds but it was probably more nasty infections. But who knew? We were young and bulletproof.”

He’s still surprised today at just how little his current crop of college students – half of them surfers by his count – know about what happens when they flush their toilets. Westwick’s UCSB campus is lucky enough to have a top surf beach, Campus Point, just minutes from his classroom. They also happen to be unlucky enough to be a quarter mile from the Goleta beach outfall pipe in the Pacific Ocean.

Westwick showed his class a video shot by a scuba team. “Solid waste coming out, 24/7, next to the beach where you’re surfing every day. The kids were disgusted. They just hadn’t thought about what happens with the flush.”

Campus point surfer. Photo by DieselDemon on Flickr.

Neushul has gotten sick even in Hawaii, the modern birthplace of  SUP (stand-up paddleboarding). He won’t dip a toe anywhere without looking at a map. “I want to know where the shit from the local community is going.”

Beach bums

Westwick and Neushul note that more surfing organizations are stepping up, including Hawaii’s Save Our Surf, Heal the Ocean in Santa Barbara and Surfers Against Sewage in the UK.
Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) recently joined a ground-breaking study with Cornwall’s University of Exeter. The “Beach Bums” project asks surfers to (warning: there’s no delicate way to put this) offer up rectal swabs.

Anne Leonard and her team  from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at Exeter University are trying to measure whether or not antibiotic resistant pathogens are making their way from the sewers into the guts of English surfers.

For Leonard, the coastal zone, “…is an underestimated, under-appreciated route for antibiotic resistant pathogen transmission.” If resistant pathogens are in us, they’re going into the sewers, and often then into the water system.

“Some of the public assumes sea salt breaks these things down, but we don’t know enough to say that. It’s complicated. UV radiation will kill some bacteria, salt and temperature will kill others. These bacteria evolved to live in us, at a certain salinity, etc., but that doesn’t mean they don’t survive long enough outside us to make it from you to the water treatment plant to the sea to someone else’s mouth.”

Cold weather cowboys

Leonard still sees some of the cowboy attitude in surfers in the UK.

Surfers want to hit the big waves, and those are most likely after a winter storm. That’s also the time when pathogens are most likely to be in the water. Bacteria pollution often increases after heavy storms, snow melts or other excessive runoff.

Photo by Don McCullough

Winter surfing is extra-risky because surfers are usually in the dark when it comes to water quality. The majority of water quality monitoring programs in North America end in the fall.

A changing tide

Half a world away, a surf group from Victoria, B.C. monitors local water quality. Surfrider Vancouver Island is a chapter of the famed Surfrider Foundation. This Swim Guide Affiliate is focused on protecting and preserving the northern surf haven, Vancouver Island. Here, most of the good waves break just an hour outside town at places like Jordan River beach.

Surfrider’s Blue Water Youth Task Force also watches over the surfer-less waves in Victoria. They have good reason.The seaside provincial capital is one of the few places in the industrialized world where a major city still dumps raw sewage into the ocean. Victoria releases about 130-million litres of the septic stew a day.

Surfrider’s Krysia Zurakowski leads groups of volunteer water quality monitors where local government falls short. The City of Victoria monitors beach quality during the summer months, but not in the winter when surfers are chasing the big waves.

Their work – and the work of many other surfing organizations – shows how engaged volunteers and nonprofits help create a swimmable future. Even Neushul, author of headlines like “Coastal Politics, Environmental Politics, and Surf Apathy” sees improvement.

“They are learning. Surfing culture has certainly improved over 60 years.”

Now, with the growth of citizen science, apps like Swim Guide that alert you to beach quality, and an exponential growth in connectivity, there’s no excuse for surfers and environmentalists to remain strangers.

Good news for dudes and barneys.

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