Making Political Waves : Environmental Disasters Make Activists Out of Laid-Back Surfers


When gunky black waves began crashing onto the shores of Huntington Beach after last month’s oil spill, Bill Kasper felt as blue as the next surfer.

But rather than kick back, the 27-year-old Costa Mesa house painter decided to fight back. Kasper--along with several hundred other wave-riding fanatics--called the Surf-rider Foundation to find out how to volunteer to help save oil-soaked brown pelicans, western grebes and other fellow denizens of the sea.

“This is intolerable, really,” lamented Kasper, garbed in a paint-blotched jacket and Vuarnet sunglasses, as he surveyed the besieged beach. “I feel pretty helpless, but what else can I do, really?”

Long viewed as hedonistic free spirits, surfers are becoming increasingly involved in mainstream efforts to protect their salty playground from the twin threats of pollution and overdevelopment. From San Diego to Humboldt County, some concerned surfers have even exchanged their wet suits for lawsuits--filing court actions, attending government hearings and participating in public demonstrations to help save prime surfing spots.


“Basically, the surfing community has come to a crossroads,” says Mike Harrelson, a member of the board of directors of the Surfrider Foundation. “For many years, it was felt that a ‘surfing organization’ was an oxymoron. But over the years, surfers have seen a decline in available surfing opportunities, in the cleanliness of the water, and in access to the ocean.

“They say, ‘If we don’t do anything about this, no one else will.’ ”

Since its inception in 1984, the Huntington Beach-based Surfrider Foundation has sprouted into a 4,000-member nonprofit advocacy organization, which, along with other environmental interest groups, has taken on the Army Corps of Engineers, influential developers and municipal governments.

Oceans away, a once-prestigious competition in South Africa has been boycotted since 1985 by professional wave riders from Southern California to Australia, who have organized Surfers Against Apartheid.


This summer, a first-ever symposium is planned for Malibu in which surfers, businessmen and developers are slated to sit down to reflect on issues of mutual concern.

Not only are surfers increasingly making political waves, they are even getting involved in wave-making.

Working with a grant from the Patagonia Inc. clothing firm, the Surfrider Foundation is studying the possibility of building the world’s first permanent artificial surfing reef off the Ventura County coast at Emma Wood State Beach.

In one model, 300 feet of concrete blocks would be lashed together with chains and placed 100 yards offshore at depths of 7 to 15 feet. The reef’s contours would prevent waves from quickly folding over themselves--lengthening them in a long, gliding effect.

Besides providing added surfing opportunities, the reef project could serve as a bargaining chip in battles with developers. When surfing areas would be spoiled by new development, surfers could seek cash reparations or new multimillion-dollar reefs.

Longtime surfing enthusiasts attribute their increased consciousness to deteriorating beach conditions, particularly in Southern California. In the last month alone, the Orange County coastline was stained by a nearly 400,000-gallon spill of crude from an oil tanker’s hull; and an 18-mile stretch of Santa Monica Bay was shut down by an 8-million-gallon sewage spill during heavy rains.

While sewage spills have been infrequent since 1987, officials, including Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, are now warning swimmers and surfers to stay out of the water for at least two to three days after any rainstorm due to the oil, litter, bacteria and heavy metal residue in storm-drain runoff.

After riding the waves in polluted areas, surfers most often complain of skin rashes and sore throats. Long-range effects from contaminants are uncertain, surfing activists say.


Ironically, the environmental woes come at a time when the sport’s popularity is riding the crest of a wave. In the pre-Gidget era, surfing was viewed by most people outside California as a cult recreation. Today, surfers are said to number in the millions--braving the waves from Malibu to Brooklyn, as well as in man-made surfing pools at inland water theme parks.

Surf-wear industry leaders, who estimate annual sales of more than $1.5 billion for clothing, surfboards and other items, attribute the success to the perception of a sunny, sexy California beach lifestyle.

“These guys sell all these goods based on the romantic image of the beach,” says Glenn Hening, whose newly organized Geo Surf organization is sponsoring the Malibu symposium. “But the quality of the experience for Joe Average surfer has declined in the past 10 years.”

So the surf-wear firms, keen to protect their economic interests, are mirroring the environmental concerns of surfers in the latest fashions. At one recent show, a Robin Piccone model sashayed down the runway garbed in a hot-pink swimsuit on which “Keep Our Water Clean” was crudely painted. Completing the outfit was a beach coat fashioned from plastic six-pack rings. Medical syringes dangled from the rings.

“These guys understand that if you can’t go to the beach without getting hepatitis from pollution, or without stepping on broken glass or getting skin cancer from the sky, it’s not going to do any good for them,” said Rob Caughlan, president of the Surfrider Foundation’s board of directors.

Organizations such as the nonprofit Surfrider and Geo Surf, a for-profit firm, are attempting to tap into the wealth of the surf-wear industry for funds to further their programs.

Geo Surf, an information and licensing company, was formed last year by Ventura educator Hening and graphic designer John Van Hamersveld, whose Day-Glo poster for the seminal 1964 surfing film “The Endless Summer” is etched in the consciousness of generations of beach lovers. Hening says the firm will serve as a consulting agency for companies hoping to break into the surf market. If successful, he said, a share of the profits will be funneled into pro-environmental causes.

Surfrider--while boasting a far lower profile than such advocacy groups as Greenpeace or the Sierra Club--is the heart and soul of surfing activism.


Founded by a handful of Malibu-based surfers, including Hening, the foundation had 200 members after its first year and a money-flow problem that made it impossible for Tom Pratte, the first executive director, to cash his paychecks.

“We flew by the seat of our trunks,” recalled Pratte, who holds a degree in coastal resource planning from Humboldt State, “and we were flying very close to the ground.”

Since then, the foundation has grown steadily in membership and influence, relying on free legal help from environmental law firms, Pratte’s abilities as a spokesman and expert witness at public hearings, and the special style that surfers can bring to any event.

At one public hearing on off-shore drilling, Caughlan recalls, a handful of surfers showed up and they were quickly able to stoke the crowd by chanting, “No way dude, we don’t want your crude.”

In 1985, Surfrider undertook a successful court battle to block an Army Corps of Engineers plan to construct a milelong breakwater off Imperial Beach in San Diego County. The project, Pratte said, would have caused severe beach erosion.

Next, the foundation, along with other environmental groups, successfully took on an Army Corps plan to build a breakwater and marina at Bolsa Chica, one of the last long stretches of virgin beach and wetlands, just north of Huntington Beach.

Last year, the foundation was successful in negotiating public access with private landowners to the historic Hammond’s Reef surfing beach in Santa Barbara.

Surfrider is engaged in a lawsuit against two pulp mill operators in Humboldt County who have allegedly pumped pollutants into the ocean. The foundation has also been monitoring a sewage plant in San Diego, a Chevron USA rock jetty in El Segundo and plans for a hydropower plant in Honolii, Hawaii.

Surfrider has grown to the degree where hardball personnel decisions are being made. Late last year, Pratte was forced out of his job by the foundation’s board of directors, a victim of the changing times.

“When the organization was small and it was a one-man show, Tom was able to handle it all,” said Caughlan. “But as we got bigger, he just wanted to get involved with everything and it ended up in a bottleneck.”

Pratte, who said he preferred not to comment on his departure, has taken a post as Orange County coordinator for the Forests Forever ballot initiative, but says he will continue to work on coast-related issues.

Research oceanographer Scott A. Jenkins, the new director of Surfrider, has big plans for the foundation, typified by a Blue Water Task Force--a sort of surfing neighborhood watch program.

Jenkins, a lecturer at prestigious Scripps Institute, said the task force will “organize surfers into watchdog groups in which they will be educated on symptoms . . . of water quality violations.

“When they find such symptoms, they will gather water samples and send them back to Surfrider Foundation headquarters where we will arrange for tests for toxins,” Jenkins said. “When tests come up positive, we will proceed to litigation.”

Jenkins, who holds a doctorate in physical oceanography, also intends to broaden the foundation’s national visibility.

At present, 80% of Surfrider’s members are from California, primarily, he said, because most of the organization’s battles have been over surf sites in either California or Hawaii. “We’re going to expand our agenda to the East Coast (and elsewhere),” he said. “Our fundamental purpose is to preserve the natural state of the coastal zone. That means all the coastal zone.”

Certainly, there is much potential to be tapped.

With 4,000 members (yearly dues are $10 and up), the foundation represents only a minute percentage of surfers. For many surfers, particularly the younger ones, the only issue worth fighting about still seems to be who rides what wave.

“On a summer weekend, there are 4,000 surfers at Huntington Beach alone,” emphasized Kasper, who was wearing a Surfrider Foundation T-shirt as he hunted recently for oil-soaked birds.

Moreover, some of the largest surf-wear fashion firms contribute no more than $1,000 a year to the foundation and other environmental efforts. And many smaller surfer-run businesses that would wither away with unsurfable beaches seem concerned with environmental issues only as a profit-making device: to wit, several Huntington Beach surf shops hawked “Crude is Rude, Dude” T-shirts in the wake of the oil spill.

One of the shop owners, George Draper of George’s Surf Center, declared that business “was the quietest it’s been in 23 years.” Nonetheless, he added that he is not interested in participating in any type of organized environmental activity.

“If I see paper on the ground, I’ll pick it up and put it in a trash can,” he said. “But I’m just a free spirit.”

Even Hening acknowledges that the idea of organizing surfers is somewhat akin to taming wild beasts.

“Surfers don’t have the internal vocabulary to be activists,” Hening said. “Their whole language was escape: “Get me out of here . . . I’m going surfing.”

“But if surfers don’t lead the charge in terms of beach environmentalism, who will? Sandcastle builders?”