surfers ruining the earth

Are surfers ruining one of the most beautiful islands on earth? Photo: Inna Katsen

The Inertia

By my third trip to Bali, I was starting to feel the guilt. Watching yet another set of condos go up right above Padang Padang, more plastics in the line-up, another 200 surf billboards spackled around Kuta, more drunken Balinese kids mimicking the styles they saw in surf mags, I started wondering: are surfers ruining one of the most beautiful islands on earth? “Kuta’s fuggin surf Vegas hell,” a Kiwi friend lamented who’d been coming to Bali for decades, echoing the sentiment you hear from so many surfers. “It’s the Darkside. And it’s spreadin’ like a disease.”

I still had a blast in Bali. It’s still a beautiful place. But the changes there, and in so many surf destinations, are enough to make you question the surf travel obsession, The Search.

After that trip I sold my car and bought a scooter. I was determined to eat local, surf local, and start an organic garden. I was going to be a surf locavore, pure and pristine. That lasted, oh, six months. Eventually, the spring slop broke me and a friend lured me into some adventure in Mexico.

I wish I could be a locavore. But I love travel like I love water. And this has got me thinking: where’s the middle way? How do 20 million surfers around the world not turn to the Darkside and transform everywhere into fuggin surf Vegas hell?

Traveling less, lighter, and closer helps. But maybe there are other ways too. Right around the time I got back from Bali, I met Alex Fang, the founder of Surf for Life, an organization that is building schools in surf towns around Central America. The mission of Surf for Life is to make surf towns better than they were rather than just creating more bars, bungalows and trash. Alex convinced me to come down for week to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, where we spent our days – after a morning of surf, of course – refurbishing an elementary school and making plans to build the first high school. The waves were junk that week, but we left with full hearts. We made lasting friendships with the locals and got to see the kids playing on a basketball court that we made. Then we got to go surf with them. I can’t remember a better feeling than that. Granted, all the environmental impacts of our travel were still there, but if anything is going to allow these coastal communities to develop in a smart and sustainable way, it’s educating the youth, which starts with schools.

Maybe this is just a way to let me travel guilt free, but I think it’s something of a middle way. The bottom line is that surfers are going to travel a lot, and this is going to change the coasts a lot, for better or worse. Even during this economic downturn, the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association reports that the surf industry continues to grow in double-digit percentages. Surfers have much more impact than we think we do and our numbers are growing all the time. Kids in poor surf towns always look to the ‘cool’ wealthy surf travelers and mimic their styles and lifestyles. Puerto Viejo, for example, is smack in the middle of the Central American cocaine trade and I watched a number of foreign surfers come down and do nothing but party all night, then act like idiots in the line-up, and the kids think that’s what surfing is about: getting high and localizing the local point break. Sweet.

I don’t want to be on a high horse here. I haven’t always been an ideal ambassador of surfing. But I was so convinced by my experience with Surf for Life that I recently organized a group of friends — Holly Beck, Danny Hess, Cyrus Sutton, Jay Nelson, Andy Olive, Alex Fang, Mark Lukach, Lara and Mike Madden, Erin Kunkel, and Brian Lam — to break ground on a new high school this September in El Cuco, El Salvador, a small fishing/surf town that is fast changing into a surf hub. I’ll be updating this blog on our progress and some surf footage from the area.

If you want to help us meet our goal of $25,000 – the full cost of the entire high school – you can donate here.  For every $100 you donate before August 25th, we’ll enter 10 raffle tickets in your name to win a custom Danny Hess board, one of the most sustainable (and best made) boards out there. They’re unreal and they last.

There are so many good organizations and individuals out there: Save the Waves, Surfrider, Surfers for Cetaceans, Waves of Development, to name a few. I’d love to hear what other people are doing to find balance in their surf travel. Our project is pretty humble and I don’t have any illusions that it will change much, or that it’s even the “best” thing to do. But hopefully it will at least keep us from turning completely to the Darkside.


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