WELCOME TO THE BEATING HEART OF YOUR ADDICTION
WE ARE THE SPIT
THE TRADE WINDS
THE HOWLING GALE
WE ARE BACKWASH
When we go out to catch waves we're all familiar with evaluating conditions, including wind direction and speed, tides, swell period and size, crowd factor. For many, now the equation involves how polluted the sea is. Surfing in polluted seas is a fact of life, even in the remotest locations. The seas, after all, are becoming-plastic. After rain, certain spots are avoided, especially if they smell putrid and the water is discoloured. Mind you, most pollution is invisible-such as chemicals and bacteria. The choice to surf or not is weighed up with how good the waves are and if the risk is deemed worth it. Where I surf, the urban myth is to drink a can of coke after surfing to apparently kill off any bugs one may have swallowed. No-one is entirely sure this trick works.
It would seem that saving the seas is a no-brainer for surfers. Cleaner seas are arguably more aesthetically pleasing, and not getting ill after going surfing has to be a plus. It is common to assume that due to our intimate relationships with the sea we as surfers have a special affinity with nature so are more likely to be reflective about environmental issues.
However, there are paradoxes, conflicts, and contradictions.
Some of us do make an effort to reduce and contain pollution connected to surfing. Management plans are put in place to control surf tourism in some ecologically and culturally-sensitive locations. There is a small market for surfboards that are manufactured using non-toxic and recycled materials. A few companies make wetsuits from plant-based rubber in an appeal to the "ethical consumer." Activist organisations such as The Surfrider Foundation and Surfers Against Sewage work to protect sensitive coastal locations from development, and encourage surfers to desist in using plastics that are devastating sea life. A currently celebrated environmental strategy is to take part in two-minute beach clean-ups after each surf session. You would think surfers would make good stewards of the sea.
However, there is often a difference between what people say they want and do and what they feel they need and can do. The majority of us continue to be ambivalent about the relationship between surfing and pollution.
Most of us continue to use and then discard wetsuits and surfboards made of petrochemicals. It's argued that the eco-friendly alternatives are just that: "alternatives." Also, this equipment is believed to be more expensive and argued to not be up to the performance standards of the petrochemical-based equipment. It needn’t be more expensive (and arguably is not) and does perform.
It is worth bearing in mind that leisure does not simply result in pollution. Rather, pollution also enables and creates leisure. They are in a mutually-shaping relationship.
A few surfers I know have any interest in advocating for the cleaning up of uncrowded "secret spots" for fear of unwanted publicity. The pollution can create uncrowded surfing conditions, keeping away those "less committed" as they are “overly concerned” about their health. If you have to get ill to get uncrowded waves, so be it. Rumours are spread about locations still being dangerously polluted, even if they have been cleaned up. Some of the best surf spots have been created by the dumping of waste or altering the environment with man-made engineering e.g. dredging, building of concrete walls, arrangement of tetrapods. To return these surf-breaks to pre-development state of affairs is met with dismay. “But, but, the wave will be lost!” Any romantic notion of there being a stable and pristine nature is dismissed by some who have grown up knowing nothing but polluted seas, such a nature has never existed for them. When asked about "sustainability" and "conservation" the response is a sweeping hand to mark out an engineered, industrial (and post-industrial) seascape and the comment: "Of what?” Others would prefer their jobs back in industries that are being shut down, rather than cleaner water. They will have a conversation about sustaining the sea after putting food on the table, even if this may lead to polluting the seascape again.
At Fukushima, Japan the government tells people it's safe to come back to the coast and go into the sea after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The safety zone includes surfing locations not far from the Daiichi Power nuclear power plant, that is still being repaired six years after the disaster. Many surfers and their families left Fukushima post-disaster so that they would not become polluted by radioactivity. Surfers were some of the first people to return to the area. Some believe the testing that has judged the area as safe. Others are simply resigned to an uncertainty about how polluted the seas are, however they love surfing and the places they grew up surfing so they get on with living with what they have. Choices based on reason and emotion are having to be made each and every day to continue to surf seas that remain in a precarious relationship with nuclear energy.
We are transforming in our relationship to pollution, including in regards to surfing. Messy and shifting embodied, sensorial, emotional, intellectual, spatial, and technological assemblages with pollution are playing out. Pragmatic new ways of living with polluted seas are emerging. Uncomfortable as it may be, we have to take seriously how for some there is a resignation to the seas and themselves as already "becoming-pollution." They have to get on living with this state of affairs. Such resignation is a supreme challenge for any endeavour to sustain the seas as we are left facing tough questions, such as: What exactly are we “sustaining”? How far are people prepared to go to continue to surf in dying seas? And if they are willing to die with the seas just how effective are current awareness campaigns to save the seas going to be?
Image Courtesy of Duncan Elliott: https://www.instagram.com/duncanelliot
Backwash Issue Two is a surf anthology featuring Japan, the photography of Chris Burkard and Sergio Villalba, Hamish Laing and Woody Gooch. Kalani Lattanzi swims at Nazare, whilst Amy Kotch surfs barrels whilst pregnant and John Peck knee paddles out as he has done since 1958.Purchase