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3 Ways This Surf-Loving Coalition Is Trying to Save Our Oceans

Surfing offers people an almost spiritual connection to the water. #globalgoals

This fall, the United Nations is preparing to launch its 17 Sustainable Development Goals—an extraordinary action plan to solve the world’s biggest problems by 2030. Over the coming months, we’ll be connecting with The Local Globalists: 17 nonprofit founders, entrepreneurs, and social innovators who are working every day, wherever they are, to turn one of the U.N.’s #globalgoals into reality.


Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.

If you want to save the world’s oceans, put down the sad, guilt-inspiring acoustic guitar soundtrack and instead give people a real connection to the majesty of surfing and fishing, and to the beauty of our planet’s largest ecosystem.

At least that’s the approach of Nik Strong-Cvetich, executive director of the nonprofit Save the Waves Coalition, which works with coastal communities around the world to protect and manage their coastlines and natural resources, tackling issues like coastal development, water quality, climate change/sea level rise, coral reefs impact, and more. “Overall,” he says, “our mission is to preserve and protect the coastal environment with a focus on the surf zone. The surf zone is a very special ecosystem, [and we can use] surfing as an entry point into this larger dialogue about the need for coastal conservation.”

For a vivid illustration of this, check out their beautiful and inspiring short film The Fisherman’s Son, a portrait of the extraordinary life and surfing career of Ramon Navarro, Chile’s first professional surfer. The film describes a Save the Waves success story in which Navarro was instrumental: Together they worked to block construction of a pipeline in a popular surf spot in Pichilemu, close to Navarro’s home, that would have spewed sewage directly into the ocean. Far from being a sappy or cloying beg for people to donate money or take political action, the film shows unbelievable footage of Navarro in utter harmony with the sea, diving for fish with his father and riding massive waves. Navarro’s exhilarating, inspirational surfing becomes the vehicle through which audiences can appreciate the ocean’s beauty and power, and understand how local people and sea life depend on its health for their lives and livelihoods. “From a sustainable development point,” Strong-Cvetich says, “surfing is actually a pretty low-impact form of tourism. In places where your coastal economy is based on fishing and tourism, surfing doesn’t denigrate the resources.”

Save the Waves uses three main programs to accomplish its goals. World Surfing Reserves is a UNESCO-style program that “proactively identifies, designates, and preserves outstanding waves, surf zones, and surrounding environments around the world,” in the words of its website. A program called Surfonomics helps local communities determine the economic value of their surf spots and supports them in protecting these valuable resources. “We measure how many folks are coming, how much are they spending, what are they spending on,” Strong-Cvetich says, adding that they then present their findings to local decision makers. “I think most governments don’t understand that these hippies actually bring in a lot of money to a community,” he says. The third program that the group maintains is Endangered Waves, which supports communities whose coasts are threatened by providing them with Save the Waves’ contacts, experience, and media reach.

“We have a list of surf spots around the world that are endangered or facing an environmental threat,” Strong-Cvetich says. “We keep people informed and take on campaigns. We have three campaigns running right now.” They are Lobos por Siempre, a campaign to protect Chile’s Punta de Lobos as a private reserve and create a land trust; Save San Miguel, aimed at helping to create the first state park in the Mexican state of Baja California; and Clean Cowells, focused on cleaning up the California surf spot of Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz, which Heal the Bay says has the worst water quality in the state.

Save the Waves also uses video to get their message out. “We have a film festival, which enables us to tell these stories and have direct outreach to people who are interested in travel and surf and the environment.” Strong-Cvetich says. “There’s two types of people—data people and story people. When it comes down to it, it’s all information—stories are actually data, and data is one way of telling a story. The film festival is a really engaging way to have people understand the stories we’re working on.” This year, the festival is traveling to seven international locations, including venues in California, Mexico, and Chile.

Save the Waves has had many successes. In the Peruvian beachside town of Huanchaco, they helped stop illegal dumping, and on the Portuguese island of Madeira they helped stop developments that would have destroyed a surf zone. “In my mind,” Strong-Cvetich says, “surfers are the canaries in the coal mine, and they detect things that are going awry on the coastal environment before anyone else does.” This is why he’s thinking of creating an app for surfers to report coastal threats. “If there’s an oil spill,” Strong-Cvetich says, “a surfer can take a picture of it and be able to geo-tag it, populate it on the map, and all of a sudden we have this very powerful group of people that are on the front lines to be able to make a difference.”

Why is surfing such a compelling way to inspire people to environmental action? Strong-Cvetich feels that surfing offers people an almost spiritual connection with the water. He muses, “You can go diving and interact with the ocean, but you’re kind of like an alien, right? You have this life support system and you’re looking through the glass, sort of like you’re not supposed to be there. Whereas with surfing you are interacting with the ocean as it meets the land. You’re moving forward and backward and laterally and up and down, and that sensation of moving through space and being able to go all those directions puts you really in tune with your surroundings. You’re harnessing the power of the ocean to move in a way that you don’t get to move in your on-the-ground life. You’re paying really close attention to the elements around you and you start to learn the characteristics of the place, what all the factors are that make it different from another place. You have an appreciation for what makes those little nuances, which builds a natural constituency for the protection of those places.”

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