Joe Surf: He's a warrior for the water

At first glance, one might see "Eco-Warrior" and think it's this summer's blockbuster with DiCaprio or Pitt or Affleck.

No, it's just little ol' James Pribram trying to save the world.

Don't think he can do it? Don't tell that to Maira Khan, whom Pribram rescued last month when Khan was swept off the rocks and into the ocean at Pearl Street Beach in Laguna.

Pribram was on the balcony of his parents' home when he saw the 6-foot wave crash into Khan, who had her back to the ocean as she posed for a picture. Oh, and she can't swim. Pribram yelled for his mom to dial 911 and rushed into the water to save her.

She calls him her hero. Can't argue with that. Pribram was happy to help, but his vision is much grander than one rescue.

He really is the Eco Warrior, having created the Eco-Warrior Project in 2006 in an effort to save the planet's oceans and beaches. It all started back in 1997, when Pribram was living every grom's dream as a professional surfer.

He started surfing when he was 6 — the natural thing to do when you live so close to the beach that sand is a type of flooring in your home. By the time he was 11, he was winning local contests. He was a member of the National Scholastic Surfing Assn. team for two years, taking fourth at nationals one year, and turned pro at age 18 in 1990 after finishing up at Laguna Beach High School. But seven years later, his career — and life — took a hard right.

He was giving a friend a surfing lesson one summer day at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point when he suffered a small scratch on his wrist that quickly got worse. It swelled up and became so painful he made a trip to the emergency room.

The trip saved his life.

Pribram had contracted Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, an antibiotic-resistant strain of staph infection, which would have killed him if he had waited a few more hours before seeing a doctor.

That kind of ticked him off, and it got him thinking.

"I remember that day like it was yesterday," said Pribram, now 40. "It was a beautiful August day and it hadn't rained in months. The next thing I know I'm in the hospital strapped up with multiple IVs. It changed the way I looked at the ocean.

"It was kind of like surfing for me. My two paths in life really chose me more than I chose them."

Pribram continuing surfing competitively through 2001, and even had his best year that year, reaching the semifinals of the Billabong Pro in Costa Rica and the quarterfinals of the Billabong Pro in Panama.

By then, though, his environmental efforts had really started to take hold and he had started his own business, the Aloha School of Surfing in Laguna. In 1999, he spoke in front of the Laguna Beach City Council about the pollution in Aliso Creek. Then, toward the end of the speech, he said something that struck many people.

"I said, 'What good is the beach if you can't enjoy the ocean?'" Pribram recalled. "That quote was in the papers the next day and that was really the beginning of my transformation to Eco-Warrior."

Pribram's efforts were getting noticed outside of Laguna as well, way outside. He's won a variety of environmental awards, but none, he says, as big as the John Kelly Environmental Award given out by the Surfrider Foundation, and he's proud to see his name alongside fellow award-winners like Kelly Slater, Rob Machado and Dave Rastovich.

Pribram obviously cares about the environment, but he's a little shy of the "environmentalist" tag. He says his is more of a "blue" movement than "green."

"People get turned off by the term 'environmentalist,'" he said. "It's an old-fashioned stereotype. You think of the Volkswagen bus-driving guy who chains himself to a tree. I don't want to get mixed in with the environmentalists who say they want cleaner oceans and less pollution, they scream it and shout it, they demand it, but they don't offer solutions."

Pribram got the Eco-Warrior Project started in 2006 thanks to support from Ocean Pacific, which decided to sponsor him even though he wasn't competing professionally anymore. With the initial support of OP, and now his current sponsors, O'Neill, XS Energy Drink and Boost Mobile, Pribram is able to travel the world and take on the environmental fight — "fight" sometimes being the operative word.

In 2007, Pribram, Rastovich and others went to Taiji, Japan, a small fishing village made famous by the award-winning documentary "The Cove." Pribram and his crew paddled on their boards into the cove, armed with nothing but cameras, to protest the sale and mass slaughter of dolphins there. They made their point, but they had to leave town quickly afterward.

"That was probably the scariest moment," Pribram said. "That's when I first realized there are some real consequences to the things I do. We were hiding the in stairwells of our hotel and we heard the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) were after us."

And of course, there was that cruise to South Africa last year. OK, not really a cruise. It was a sailing trip from Brazil to South Africa through the South Atlantic Ocean to find the South Atlantic Gyre, otherwise known as a gigantic floating island of plastic debris and trash.

Turns out there isn't an "island" of trash as much as billions of small particles of plastic and trash spread throughout the ocean, making it even more difficult to clean up. On the trip, Pribram was slammed by an 18-foot swell in the rough seas only seconds after he was clipped in.

"If I didn't get clipped in when I did, I'm going overboard," Pribram said. "Two thousand miles out to sea in the South Atlantic, I'm not coming back."

Pribram also has made a few trips to the Gulf Coast since last year's tragic oil spill.

As passionate as he is about his life's mission, Pribram lives for days like Monday this week, when he went for a surf with his buddy and former pro surfer Brandy Faber at his favorite surf spot in the world, Pearl Street Beach, right in front of his parents' house.

"There we were, splitting a peak, him taking a left, me taking a right," Pribram said. "We were laughing, saying here we are, 40 years old and still out here surfing."

Pribram loves Laguna, and Laguna loves him back. He was named the Laguna Beach Athlete of the Year for 2011, calling it the best award he's ever received. And when he's not taking on the world's evils, he's in Laguna at his parents' house, having tea with Mom and Dad every afternoon.

But the Eco-Warrior's work is never done. His next mission is a trip to the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, where his presence has been requested by Norm Hann in Hann's fight against the Canadian government's plan to open up the waters there to oil tanker traffic.

"I think I'm making a difference," Pribram said. "The way I know is from the letters and e-mails I get from fans across the world. They say they appreciate what I'm doing for the environment and thank me for, in some cases, putting my life on the line for the environment.

"That support I get, when things get tough, is what keeps me doing what I'm doing."

JOE HAAKENSON is an Orange County-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World