With the onset of winter, many American surfers are searching for a place to score warm, uncrowded waves for a brief respite from the cold-water beatings. One mainstay travel option for mainlanders is the Caribbean due to its proximity, warmth, and consistent surf come wintertime. In recent years, Bocas del Toro, a Caribbean island off Panama, has received considerable media coverage for its world-class waves, while the area’s surf-tourism continues to flourish.
Unfortunately, this attention has lead to rapid, unregulated development, posing a severe threat to the island’s waves and water quality. Bluff beach, made famous by the Hobgoods and the Drive-Thru crew, is having its sand excavated for development projects. One scientist from the University of Miami recently visited the island and reported seeing eight trucks making trips to Bluff in order to excavate sand for city development projects. This process leads to severe erosion and threatens to adversely affect the wave-quality of the island’s best beachbreak. After selling the sand in the city, the trucks returned with garbage to leave behind at the town dump.
Earlier this month the island’s newspaper, “The Bocas Breeze”, reported that surfers have been getting sick from entering the water at two of the islands best waves: Paunch and the aptly named Dumpers — located directly in front of the town dump. The limited options for convenient waste-disposal on the tiny island has lead to unregulated garbage disposal along the shoreline. The piles of burning trash have expanded, forming a small creek of black ooze that flows into the ocean, contaminating the water. Surfers who entered the water reported red and irritated skin, blurry vision, sickness, and vomiting.
Call me old-fashioned, but when I embark on a surf trip the only things I want to see barfing are the barrels. Presently, many visiting and local surfers no longer surf two of the islands best breaks, leaving perfect, polluted waves unridden due to the risk of severe ailment. The local contingent of surfers organized a protest to voice their concerns, but government officials have remained unresponsive.
Scott Balogh, operator of Bocas’ premiere surf resort, Red Frog Bungalows, explained that the islands surf-tourism finds itself in a bind. “If we put our garbage at the dump then we’ll be surfing in it,” says Balogh. “But if we choose not to, then what can we do with it? I don’t see the situation changing.”
Despite the presence of surf-tourism on the island and its contribution to the waste problem, the group has made little effort to put forth alternative waste disposal solutions or aid in the clean-up. A shameful reality when taking into consideration that this contingent stands to profit most from a pristine coast, but is still reluctant to hold itself accountable for contributing to the coast’s destruction.
Unfortunately, solutions to remedy the environmental issues in Bocas del Toro are costly, leaving even those financially invested in the island reluctant to take action. The story threatens an all-too-familiar ending. World-class surf break destroyed by man’s negligence. Let’s hope action is taken before it’s too late.