Oceans Under Siege

The biggest issue of all: the health of our oceans

| posted on July 21, 2014
Teahupoo, Tahiti. Photo: Grambeau

Teahupoo, Tahiti. Photo: Grambeau

FROM THE BIG ISSUE | This year we devoted the Big Issue to the biggest issue facing surfers today: the health of our oceans. Was it a risk? Maybe. Was it necessary? Absolutely. Below is the editor’s letter from the issue:

For many of us, surfing is an escape from reality, a brief time to forget about the troubles of the world. Unfortunately, reality is inescapable. You can try to dull it out, you can try to ignore it, you can even deny it, but it’s not going away. Reality just keeps on, well, being real. That’s why we’ve devoted this year’s Big Issue to the biggest issue facing surfers (and indeed the entire planet): the health of our oceans.

I know—I can hear the collective groan, even from way up here on my high horse. I know you don’t want to hear it. But you have to. We all have to. Climate change is happening. According to published reports, 97 percent of climate scientists agree global warming is happening. Ninety-five percent of those scientists believe that humans are the dominant cause. To put that in context, that’s the same percentage of doctors who believe that cigarette smoking contributes to lung cancer.

In the case of ocean pollution, we shouldn’t need climate scientists to tell us something is horribly wrong. As surfers, we’re on the front lines, floating around in the soup. When surfing after a rainstorm can—and does—cause us to become so sick that we can’t surf for days, sometimes weeks, alarm bells should be ringing.

Those bells are ringing here at the SURFER offices. But frankly, surfing should be the least of our worries. Surfing is a luxury. The implications for the planet and humanity are far more severe than not being able to paddle out tomorrow morning at your local beachbreak.

But this is a surf magazine, and the area where the ocean meets the land is our point of contact, a place that, by default, we should care about, even if it is in the most selfish of ways. Which is why we’ve devoted every facet of this issue—our largest and most widely read—to looking at these global, far-reaching, and seemingly unsolvable problems through the prism of surfing and the people who ride waves. The results are simultaneously compelling, inspiring, and, at times, utterly terrifying.

To begin, Lewis Samuels examines how our perception of “normal” is changing each and every day (“Shifting Baselines,” pg. 50). We also sent Kimball Taylor to northeast Japan to interview locals about life after the 2011 tsunami and the ongoing catastrophic meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (“After the Wave,” pg. 124). We look at Hawaii’s growing GMO concern through the eyes of Kauai’s Dustin Barca (“Barca’s Fight,” pg. 140), and we examine the effect of rising sea levels on North Carolina’s Outer Banks (“A Line in the Sand,” pg. 166). But perhaps the most disturbing of all, for surfers, is Brad Melekian’s sobering reflection on our collision course with a future where surfing is simply no longer an option (“Our Endless Numbered Days,” pg. 192).

Of course, most of you are already aware of these problems, and many of you are going out of your way to do your part. I applaud you for that. But there are others who refuse to believe any of this is happening. I’m anticipating a backlash from the vocal, uninformed minority, but I don’t care. Readers will email me insisting that SURFER stop being political, and that we stop taking sides in this “debate.” That we’re liberal media, duped or brainwashed by propaganda created by the “Church of Global Warming.” A whole host of logical fallacies will be used to discredit this very real problem.

How do I know this? Because it happens every time we publish stories that show even an inkling of concern for the environment or the health of our oceans. This feedback speaks to mankind’s unbelievable ability to act against its own self interests and to our inability to see what’s right in front of us.

If you think the burning of fossil fuels has no effect on the atmosphere, you’re delusional. If you think that the millions of tons of waste we produce each day have no effect on our environment, I’ll go as far as saying you’re a fool. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill back in 2010—now a distant memory as far as news coverage is concerned—spewed 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Part of the cleanup solution was to pour another chemical, Corexit, in unprecedented quantities into the ocean. Where does all this noxious shit go? It doesn’t just magically disappear. Instead it spreads around the globe and shows up in our surf zones and makes its way into our food. It ruins livelihoods, destroys communities, and kills wildlife. The same goes for the radioactive water leaked from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and the carbon dioxide that billows from smokestacks and car exhausts. This stuff matters to everyone, especially surfers. And if you define yourself as someone who is passionate about riding waves, someone who loves spending time in the ocean, and you don’t care, who will?

Climate change is not a debate. It’s not some political talking point. Our oceans are under siege. Simply choosing not to believe it won’t make it go away. Sticking our heads in the sand (or going surfing) won’t make the oceans less toxic or our lineups less polluted. In some cases, it will have the opposite effect (“The Hypocritical Oath,” pg. 72). I’m not trying to win your vote. I don’t have a hidden agenda, except my own survival and the hope that my child and his friends will be able to surf and enjoy the ocean in the same way I do. But that seems increasingly unlikely. On our current path, surfers are on the endangered-species list—just like everything else on the planet.

Brendon Thomas


  • Stephen Déplanque

    Denial is easier than taking actions. Can’t wait to read the big issue, that will surely keep me behaving responsibly towards our ocean.

  • Dave94598

    With the passing of Jacques Yves Cousteau interest in ocean preservation has waned. Still many trying, but visibility is low. Sad, very sad.

    • jbinsb

      Kind of a general statement. There is currently a tremendous amount of meaningful effort being put into marine conservation on the part of scientists, fishermen, NGOs, governments, foundations and even businesses. Not sure what you mean by or what facts you can bring to bear to support the assertion that “ocean preservation has waned.” And while “interest” in the form of watching a National Geo special might be nice, it’s not nearly as valuable as real, informed, science-based action in the interest of healthy oceans. There are many more outlets now than when Cousteau was alive where you can get fantastic detailed, up-to-date information about the state of our oceans. So while big-canvas shows like Cousteau’s old TV specials grabbed a lot of eyeballs in one night, I would suggest that more people who are prepared to take meaningful action are finding more useful information in the current media landscape than they did when Cousteau was talking to us in his memorable films.

  • surfanon

    You’re being duped by the liberal scare-media apparatus. Just kidding, I am actually going to go put down money to read this issue (something I stopped doing a long time ago because of the vacuousness of surf magazines). Hopefully you don’t disappoint by cheerleading for ‘green consumerism,’ private charities, and other non-solutions like you have done in the past.

  • Mark Gregory

    Disappointing to see internet hoax statistics quoted as being real here. Not saying there aren’t issues, but the FUD is strong with this one.

  • Ryanwiggins


  • gern blanston

    After almost 40 years of surfing I can definitively say that for the last 10 years I am more likely to get sick from surfing.

  • Patrick Watson

    Like surfanon, but without the sarcasm, I will buy this issue and read it, something I stopped doing a long time ago. I think it’s OK to do some cheerleading for green consumerism and I’m currently working with a non-profit to produce some pretty futuristic artwork directly related to this issue.

  • Shiblome Deltoit

    This goes along with the antitrust legislation, similar to the FAA giving the dirty sanchez to the Israelis, while Ukaranians just farted.

  • surfanon

    I agree with you regarding the efforts of different brands. Some companies do exhibit an actually serious commitment to producing more sustainable products. They deserve to be given credit while the frauds should be called out. However, my gripe with green consumerism is that it’s not a significant solution to the larger environmental crisis. Consumer capitalism has created this mess, we can’t begin to fix it until we fundamentally rethink the logics upon which our markets function. For example, capitalism is predicated on valuing growth, but actually we need to address the prospects of an economy not based on endless growth. Furthermore, green consumerism is based on the assumption that the economy can be fundamentally changed by individual consumer choices (e.g. if we all buy local we can change the food system). While consumer choices do indeed have an impact on markets, that power is quite limited when compared to corporate productive and marketing power. Collective political action is needed to shift markets.

    • Axel

      Awesome, thanks! I have similar thoughts; specifically, I think we should re-evaluate our (society’s) values of consumerism and capitalism. The way I see it many people buy things that they don’t really need, myself included. A professor that taught at my school used the term ‘mutual coercion’ – a way to achieve sustainability by having a set of morals that are mutually agreed upon in society. It might not be realistic because its difficult for people to agree upon anything nowadays, let alone society in its entirety. However, I think the idea is a great foundation that could facilitate an awareness of people’s lifestyles and their impact on the environment. Thanks for sharing…

  • Rj LaMendola

    The wave of my dreams. Give me a sec to tell about this dream. Currently I am in the Midwest staying at my aunt’s house doing physical therapy 4hrs everyday to strengthen and heal this horrible spinal fusion so I can go back home to California. I was visiting my family here for a few days and was heading to my grandparents 60th anniversary in my mom’s civic when I was hit head on by a reckless driver in an SUV who failed to yeild shattering my lower back and killing my mother in the accident last month. My mom was my everything. And let me tell you being stuck holding my broken spine off the seat as they pulled her and my other family members out while they proceeded to dissect the car around me for over an hour telling me not to let go because my spine was sticking out of my back will not leave my head. that day has forever Changed my life. Agonizing pain, flashbacks, and mental heartache have made this road to recovery a difficult one. After graduating Brooks Institute of photography overweight and unhealthy a few years ago I lost both my uncles (moms two brothers) one to mesothelioma and the other by a drunk driver. Losing them inspired me to change my life, to be aware to get healthy changing my diet and started running, swimming, freediving, surfing, and just enjoying life. Life was becoming perfect. The ocean was always my life and my dream but over the last few years she has really became so much more that words cannot even describe. I haven’t updated my website since I graduated but have also stayed busy with my photography shooting both advertising work, some fashion editorials and my personal stuff surf photography. Since then I ran the LA marathon in honor of my uncles and have surfed every morning big or small to keep myself together. Running the beach and surfing are the only things I can do do feel close to them. Recently I qualified to be a California state lifegaurd in hopes of giving back to the ocean and keeping her safe but after this accident the doctors say I may never run again and that surfing is also unlikely. The ocean is my life, it’s my sanctuary. All they can say is that I’m lucky to be alive and Its a miracle I’m not paralyzed but that’s not enough for me.. I miss my mom and my uncles and i will continue following my dreams and nothing will stop me from that. I hope to one day do my part by photographing and writing to make a difference in the ocean and to continue having it in my life because it is my everything. I will satay positive and continue to dream big because life is too short to not see what this world and our ocean has to offer.

  • gannysesh

    Are you comparing cycles that span tens-hundreds of thousands of years to today’s cycle that began about a century ago?

  • shannon

    I don’t like the polarization of opinions on this issue.looking after the planet is our duty.

    • TJPhoto40

      You’re absolutely right. We are the stewards of our planet whether we like that responsibility or not. As with the oceans, also with our treatment of the land where we spend most of our time and grow much of our food. We are seriously damaging our soil, water and food production with so much wrong-headed agricultural practice.

  • TJPhoto40

    I want to applaud the editors and writers for your courage and commitment with this special issue, which is a powerful series of articles on such an important topic. I could not be more proud or pleased with the magazine for producing such heartfelt, informative and inspirational stories that have a call to action explicit in virtually all of them.

    I hope you won’t receive too many of the moronic comments of those who ignorantly deny climate change, are oblivious to what’s happening to our oceans, or are too lazy or cynical to be moved by such great articles. I prefer to believe that most of us are better than that.

  • TJPhoto40

    Don’t believe every ignorant nay-sayer either. You obviously aren’t well informed, but you feel free to offer opinions anyway.

    • Chris

      It’s true the earth has gone through “cycles” but your ignorance lies in the cause of these cycles. All major climate changes in the past have been caused naturally over millions of years. The global warming we are experiencing today is not natural and is 100% the fault of humans..

      • TJPhoto40

        You’re replying to the wrong person, Chris. I agree with you, so your beef is with SF, the poster I was responding to. That person is the “ignorant nay-sayer” I was referring to.

  • Chris Williamson

    Anyone who says something is not a debate generally does not have fact or truth on their side. Their is plenty of debate by many actual scientists on this subject and most not working for the IPCC or some other government funded research group do not agree with your consensus. Truly disappointing to read this dribble in Surfer and disheartening because it diminishes trust and the magazines ability to bring attention and change to real issues, real challenges and real threats. In other words you will now be tuned out on most issues other then where the best right point break is because of this ill informed, badly researched and self righteous propaganda piece. And maybe even worse than that it undermines and subverts the true spirit and freedom of the aloha spirit that is and always has been surfing. Very disappointing to see mindless, group think nonsense like this in Surfer!

    • the dude abides

      There is no motivation for a government (or government-funded groups) to manufacture a myth as economically costly as human-caused climate change. Calling into question government-funding is absurd. Research groups that are not funded by the government are funded (typically) by corporations, who have their own vested interests. Apply your same “critical” eye to that, as well.

    • jbinsb

      I doubt you work with scientists (I do) or that you understand much about models or their results or how the results are tested. Is there a debate about how gravity works to keep us from flying off the planet into space? No, but you would probably not say I don’t have “facts or truth” on my side for saying that. The IPCC, while nominally “government funded” through the government(s)-funded UN, is made up of a couple of thousand independent scientists who work for universities and research centers all over the world. Scientists are inherently conservative. They stand to gain nothing by publishing results that overstate what the data support. A large majority of the 5% or so of scientists in the climate change denial camp, however, do have something to gain, as most of them are or have been funded by energy companies and others with an economic interest in keeping the debate alive. And those companies have used the same tactics (create doubt in the science) as the tobacco industry used to defend itself from the clear, scientifcally verified truth that smoking causes cancer, emphyzema, heart disease, etc. And in some cases energy companies have used the same PR companies that spun those mistruths for years on behalf of tobacco companies. Do you believe there is still a debate as to the health effects of smoking? I imagine not. Not even the cigarette companies argue that anymore. Does that mean you don’t have “fact or truth on your side?” Hardly. So your argument is false on its face. And in terms of the IPCC reports, because of the political-economic agendas of participating nations, they too tend to understate, rather than overstate, the level of agreement about climate change, the threat it poses and, generally, what the findings by hundreds of top scientists, from ecologists and microbiologists, to economists, poltical scientists, and those involved in life-cycle assessments (the carbon and other footprints of products and services from resource extraction to fate at end of useful life) have found. So fact up before you bark. You’re speaking from a know-nothing position, and it shows.

  • Pep

    I there, reading that I asked to myself: “how much derivative of Oil or chemics staff do we bring with him each time is get into the water (surfboard, wetsuit, etc…)? do we can really say that we are the “only one” that do care about the ocean or it is just a bla bla bla and then we are part of this shit?…

  • Pep

    I there, reading that I asked to myself: “how much derivative of Oil or chemics staff do we bring with us each time we get into the water (surfboard, wetsuit, etc…)? do we can really say that we are the “only one” that do care about the ocean or it is just a bla bla bla and then we are part of this shit?…

  • nick

    Reptileons are as much if not more so the culprits of the pollution of the oceans, humans do there dirty work wile reptileons control the global industrys and work as overt and covert third party culprits,

  • jbinsb

    I agree with you that pro surfers making surgical strikes (remember Kelly flying in by helicopter somewhere) and other surfers who jet all over could stand a dose of carbon reality and commitment. (Just because the waves are pumping and you can, should you?). As far as Gore’s science, you’re mistaken. I work at a graduate school at UC Santa Barbara where creating solutions to environmental problems is the essential thrust of the mission statement, and I’ve seen many reports since “An Inconvenient Truth” came out in 2007 showing that the vast majority of the science in the film was correct. Now, would I argue against the validity of Gore’s meg-mansion? Indeed, I would and have.

  • jbinsb

    Man, that is some incomprehensible writing.

  • jbinsb

    In a word: NO. Go read — more than just one article on some web page. Learn about science. Visit some sites dedicated to climate change.

  • Michael

    Most engaging & important issue I can remember reading; a real watershed moment for the future of surf culture. I’m proud to see a line being drawn in the sand by a major surfing publication about the science behind what’s called “climate change” – now lets move onto solutions. And there is no silver bullet for a challenge this big, we need silver buck-shot. All the solutions, big and small count, and are needed. Green consumerism – yep. Environmental NGOs doing their thing – check. Collective political action – you bet.

    And while corp powers do yield a lot of power, individuals ultimately give corps what they need & crave most of all…our money and loyalty. If enough people vote with their dollars on a daily basis, change does happen. Things that suck will give way to things that don’t if we want, so choose wisely.