She also somehow finds the time to study an MSc in Sustainability and talk to us about her research.


Sophie Dingwall/ eXXpedition

Could you tell us a little bit about your study and why it is so important?

For the last 20 years, surfing all over the world, I have come across plastic waste in the marine environment.  It’s been a long journey to understand where it has come from, why it is there and how we can begin to solve this problem.

Plastic production is actually on the rise. This is despite many nations and communities committing to address it – and despite the prevalence of ocean plastics.

I was increasingly concerned about these global issues, so began an MSc in Sustainability with The Eden Project and Anglia Ruskin University in 2018 to learn more.  Due to the breadth of the course, I chose to focus on marine plastic pollution.

My final research project involves bringing together my volunteer experience aboard eXXpedition Round the World (collecting microplastic data in the North Atlantic), being a rep for Surfers Against Sewage, and my academic work so far, which is rooted in systems thinking.

Can you talk us through the outline of your study?

I have started off by looking into current scientific papers on surfing, plastic pollution, ocean science and human health.

My objective is to understand and explore:

  1. Surfing as a mechanism to directly receive “blue health” benefits
  2. Whether surfing offers a level of “ocean literacy”
  3. And whether surfing is an opportunity to monitor surf breaks for microplastics, with surfers providing data on the changing states of these places.

My project contains several studies, using mixed methods to obtain both qualitative and quantitative data.

The first is a survey to conduct a statistical analysis of surfer responses, which is investigating the general mechanisms of surfing such as location, ocean awareness and barriers.

A voluntary focus group will then obtain more informative and complex answers, from participants within diverse surfing communities.

I am also hoping to conduct a pilot project in which I collect microplastic samples from surf spots in Portugal.  This involves adapting a manta trawl (see image below) to tow behind a surfboard, in and around (small) waves.

This will determine the level of microplastic accumulation - and also to see if this method works to collect samples, which could then be scaled up.


Beach cleans in Kerala

Why Surfers?

As a surfer, a marine activist and a citizen scientist I have a deep appreciation of diverse ocean habitats. I am curious to know if surfing has the power to increase other people’s knowledge, understanding and love of the ocean.

My thought is that surfers could be custodians of their coastlines - they have an intrinsic understanding of their local surf breaks, and through longterm exposure witness changes as they happen.  This knowledge could well be valuable to other groups such as policy makers, marine conservation groups and the general public.

It will be interesting to see if the data supports this theory. Strategies could be created to help these groups communicate about marine conservation, depending on the outcome.

This is the potential of inter-disciplinary research, which reaches across different social and environmental sectors.

How can we get involved?

The more data I collect the better representation of the population of surfers, so it would be great if you could fill in the survey and share with as many people as possible - especially people in your local surf community.

On the eXXpedition we learnt to identify and appreciate our own “superpowers” - for me that was surfing. So if you’re a surfer, you already have a connection to the ocean and that is powerful. 

I’d encourage exploring that connection on a deeper level and considering the ways in which surfing can be a catalyst for social and environmental change you are also passionate about.

How can we as surfers become activists?

Activism is all about being active!  It sounds simple, but it involves doing something beyond listening or learning. 

It can be engaging in difficult conversations, demonstrations, creating art, creating movements, forming alliances.

The surf community is an incredible way to unite with others who are passionate and motivated towards a common cause.  Climate crisis, inequality, plastic pollution, mental health and coastalisation are all issues that affect surf communities and need our collective efforts to help initiate change.

I mentioned the systems thinking approach - this has been devised to tackle issues around sustainability.  As surfers we are already systems thinkers - piecing together lots of moving parts such as tide, wind, swell and break, in order to have the best surfing experience. Therefore, applying systems thinking outside of the water is a really good way to broach complex issues. 

Be creative and dynamic; and look for inspiration in nature to help provide the answers - networking, relationships, feedback.

Who else would you recommend we and our followers support?

Here are a few of my favourite surfing humans who also happen to be leading voices on environmental issues:

  • Easkey Britton (Oceans and human health)
  • Cliff Kapono (Surfer health)
  • Greg Long (Environmental Advocate)
  • Lauren Hill/the Sea Kin (Feminism)
  • Belinda Baggs (Climate change)
  • Liz Clarke (Sailing solo for the planet)
  • Groundswell Community Project (Surf therapy)
  • Surf Sisters for Science (Water rights)
  • Surfers Against Sewage (Plastic Pollution)
  • SurfRider Foundation (Water quality)
  • WSL Pure and the 30x30 campaign to protect 30% of the Planets’ Ocean by 2030.

Get in touch with Nat if you'd like to be involved in her study - you can also follow her on Instagram.


Plastic production is actually on the rise