In these seemingly enlightened times, it’s hard to believe that Snapper Rocks was once home to a captive dolphin show, the dolphins housed in a claustrophobic concrete pool just yards from where the original Snapper crew surfed. Bib and Bub as they’d been named—I’m sure they referred to each other as something else in dolphinese—had been minding their own business swimming around in the Tweed River one day in 1956 when they suddenly found themselves in a net and hauled aboard a fishing boat. Before they knew it, they found themselves tail-walking for sardines to warm applause. Surely they were the unluckiest marine mammals in all the world. Here they were trapped in a small swimming pool with all that Pacific…just…over…there. They could, however, have been even unluckier. The owner of the pool, Jack Evans, kept his sharks in a different pool, and his plans to obtain a killer whale—which he planned on keeping in the same pool as the dolphins—failed to come to fruition when he couldn’t find one. Bib and Bub and the Jack Evans Porpoise Pool might be long gone, but the ruins of the former porpoise gulag lie just out of shot of the cameras shooting the surf contest here this week. It’s one aspect of the rich local history that is in no danger of being over-celebrated.
This morning at Snapper Rocks a pod of dolphins, descended from creatures far luckier than Bib and Bub, cruised past the old pool and straight through the middle of the girl’s Quarterfinals. It was a made-for-TV moment as the dolphins cruised around Snapper Rocks and into Rainbow Bay. Only the passing unicorn was missing, and the producers couldn’t cut to the frolicking fish quickly enough to capture the feel-good moment and beam it around the world.
Yesterday women’s surfing had its Free Willy moment as it jumped out of the tank and swam free. Who’d have thought that actually giving the girls the best waves might produce their best surfing? Crazy, huh? But while it was hardly revolutionary thinking, it was historical and long overdue. And while it was hardly altruistic – the reason the guys didn’t surf is a firming forecast for the final days of the event –it was nonetheless a brave call. That swell is still hypothetical, and the girls may yet turn out to be the best waves of the entire waiting period. Snapper absolutely pumped yesterday and out paddled the girls, something unthinkable only three or four years ago. What was once the sideshow became the main act, and hats off to the sisterhood of the ASP for having the balls to lobby the call. It was the very thing the girls have been deprived of—opportunity—and that’s all anyone can ever ask of life.
But once given the dancefloor the girls now had to dance. There was pressure. Anyone who has caught a wave at Snapper among the crowd knows the feeling of being watched as you surf down the line, all those eyes willing you to fall, all those eyes critiquing your every turn, all those eyes burning holes in you. Well guess what? That anxiety grows far, far more crushing when you’re surfing Snapper by yourself, and that was especially so for the girls yesterday with the predicament they found themselves in. The guys were watching. The beach was watching. The world was watching. No one wanted this experiment to fail, but no one was entirely sure it was going to work, either. If they screwed this up who knows when the chance might present itself again.
Instead the girls surfed out of their skin and put together a day that will redefine the nature of women’s surfing. “It was insane,” offered Steph Gilmore. “It was epic to be given that opportunity to surf the best waves of the event and all the girls put on a show. All the girls lifted. We felt it.” Singling out one girl isn’t fair, but I’m about to do it…her name is Carissa Moore. As an exercise I went back and watched the four men’s Round 2 heats held yesterday morning, and superimposed Carissa’s near-perfect heat on top of them. It might be apples to oranges, different waves and all, but on the surfing I saw Carissa won two of them with a third that could have gone either way. Steph said it best. “Shit, that was scary.” There were harbingers everywhere. On Australian television the girls out-rated the guys. Joel Parkinson sat and watched heat after heat. Alana Blanchard paddled out in something bigger than a string bikini. Things shifted tectonically yesterday, although I’m not joining the race to anoint this the greatest day of women’s surfing ever. I reckon Easter Saturday at Bells last year, in far trickier waves, was a greater collective performance for the girls, but in many ways yesterday had its genesis back then anyway. Nonetheless, it was groundbreaking and grand and far more important. The girls now have people believing in them, and the people who really believe in them are the people in charge and they were watching on too.
But this thing of great beauty was immediately supplanted by a shit fight of colossal scale once the last hooter sounded. The dolphins quickly turned into sharks. The closing hour of light at Snapper Rocks yesterday, when the gates were opened and the freesurfers of every denomination, color, and creed poured into the lineup, became a feeding frenzy. If you had a door clicker you wouldn’t have counted all the heads bobbing up and down the bank between Snapper and Greenmount, as most door clickers stop at 999. The surf was smoking and the fadings merciless. Kelly got faded, Mick got faded and almost had his head liberated from his shoulders. The guys being faded then faded back. People had to come and dig Rabbit Bartholomew out of the sandbank later at low tide after one collision. The smitings were biblically awful, a collective madness drifted across the lineup like a red fog, and the wounded hobbled up the beach to awaiting meat wagons. The sun mercifully set, but even in the dark three white trails could be seen following each other across a wave like comets on a black wave face.
This morning the swell energy had dissipated and the tempo of the lineup was suitably, thankfully subdued. They called the girls on at 7.30 a.m., which surprised me a little. Probably surprised a few of the girls too, but after one day (and unlike the guys) they haven’t yet been conditioned to entirely getting their own way on Tour just yet, so dutifully out they went. The day never really, however, hit the dizzying heights of yesterday. The waves were trickier to read and it seemed like there was a performance/emotional hangover from the events of the previous day.
Carissa actually got lucky in her Quarterfinal with Malia Manuel, as the Nirvanic nines of yesterday were replaced by scratchy sixes. Up until today Carissa has been so dominant, so like nothing we’ve ever seen, that in my mind I’ve been trying to imagine a scenario where Carissa doesn’t win this contest. It hasn’t been an easy exercise. About the only one I’ve come up with so far is a small, broken Snapper lineup, in concert with Steph Gilmore’s selecting her to death with local knowledge. The final everyone wants, Steph and Carissa, will now however be a semifinal, and the feeling is that semi will decide the Roxy Pro. After the girls were called off this afternoon, that semifinal will now be wedged somewhere among the 27 remaining guys heats. There’s swell coming, the trades being squeezed between an embryonic cyclone and a Tasman high, but just who is going to get the best of the swell we’ll wait and see. I guess we’ll really see who’s wearing the pants in the new ASP if it gets down to Kirra again on the final day of the waiting period with both the guys and girls’ finals still in play. That scenario could indeed happen. Pro surfing’s new owners want the big finish to their first event, and they just might get it.
As I close this out, I’m looking out my window at a contract fishing boat, alongside a police cruiser, retrieving a 10-foot juvenile great white shark from a drumline just 550 yards off Rainbow Bay. I know this because someone took a ski out earlier and filmed the last moments of the wretched creature. Above the scene predictably was a news chopper shooting tonight’s lead story, ready to inflame the shark culling debate despite the same boat having dragged a similar shark out of the water here last year during the contest with ne’er an eyebrow raised. It’s funny how our morbid curiosity never seems to be quenched. While Bib and Bub were swimming in their concrete pool back in the ‘60s, sharks netted out in the bay here at Kirra were being skull-dragged onto the beach, gutted, iced, roped off, and an orderly queue formed with tourists happily paying two shillings to gawk at the poor beasties.