Over the last month or so, we’ve been discussing issues affecting the ocean in our World Ocean – Ocean Wave series. 

We delved into marine plastic pollutionocean acidification and biodiversity loss, which are known as “wicked problems” in the sustainability world – and all of which affect different species and ecosystems in different ways. But what about waves? Are the waves we love to surf also under threat from anthropogenic (caused by humans) factors? Unfortunately, yes.

Thankfully there are organisations out there fully committed and working hard every day so that our waves are protected – but before we give a shout out to these heroes… let’s shed some more light on the problems that are impacting the health, quality and existence of surf breaks.

Wave Extinction

You might not know that some of the greatest surfing waves have already become extinct. There are many reasons why waves become threatened or completely wiped out – it turns out the most common is coastal development.

Magic Seaweed (the surf forecasting site) recently released an article introducing “8 INSANE WAVES THAT ARE NOW ALL BUT EXTINCT” and the prime causes behind these waves disappearing were jetties, harbours, breakwaters and even a natural gas terminal being built. We can put these into one big category: human development. And with our construction encroaching onto the surf coastlines of France, Mexico, California and many other countries around the world, we’re losing out on the natural phenomenon of waves, along with the tourism, industry, income and health benefits surfing these waves provide.

Back in 2010 Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) released the WAR report – a play on words and reminder to policy and government that “Waves Are Resources” and should be valued. It coincided with their highly successful campaign “Protect Our Waves” – where many professional surfers joined with SAS to highlight the need to give surfing communities a stronger voice in protecting local surf spots from developers, sewage pollution and increasing levels of litter.

The petition received 55,000 signatures and SAS headed to 10 Downing Street, resulting in one of their biggest community campaigns ever and the formation of the All Party Parliamentary Group.

You can read the WAR report over on the SAS site.

Save The Waves

In the meantime US non profit organisation Save The Waves has gone from strength to strength, not only in campaigning to protect specific waves but in creating frameworks that implement policy to ensure surf breaks are better covered by conservation measures. They envision a world where surf ecosystems are valued and protected, and where surfing provides a vehicle for long-term coastal conservation. Here are the key conservation measures they use…

World Surf Reserves (WSR): for world-class breaks that enable and support environmental, cultural and economic attributes, the WSR network recognises and protects these special places with the help of a local stewardship council. There are now 11 World Surf Reserves across Australia, Costa Rica, USA, Mexico, Peru, Brazil and Chile. You can even find the Ericeira WSR in Portugal.

Surf Protect Area Network (SPANs): the SPA network combines legal protection and sustainable community development to leverage protection for critical coastal ecosystems on a global level.
Save the Waves have partnered with Conservation International to make sure marine and coastal areas around surfing locations are conserved by local communities and governments.

Across the globe, there are thousands of areas where world class surfing waves and globally important marine biological diversity overlap. Save The Waves recently conducted a study showing that: 90% of the world’s top surf sites are located in global biodiversity hotspots for marine conservation and are ripe for new protected areas. The map below shows 50 globally important surfing areas overlaid with biodiversity hotspots.


Source: Save The Waves

There are plenty of ways to get involved with Save the Waves – for a start check out their online film festival – but perhaps the easiest and most productive is by downloading the Save The Waves App… this way if you come across something threatening the waves YOU love, YOU can take action. There are three simple steps:

  1. Capture what’s happening when you see an issue or threat at your local surf spot or beach.
  2. Choose an issue from the threat category menu. Write a short description to provide more detail.
  3. Geotag your location and upload it to the app! Your post will alert Save The Waves and the public to the threat.

Save the Waves are also part of the global coalition working toward protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030 but are committed to reaching a more specific goal too – protecting 1000 waves by 2030.

They say:

“Protecting waves is about so much more than surfing. There’s an entire surf ecosystem. And it’s about more than surfers. From a conservation priority perspective, we are focused on places around the world where iconic surfing waves overlap with biodiversity hotspots and habitats that are critically important for marine conservation.”

Head over to the 1,000 waves campaign page to learn more about their work to project precious surf ecosystems, for now and generations to come.

Ocean Literacy & Surfing

Whilst we have been talking about the big issues and heroes surrounding ocean sustainability, we thought you might be interested in the work going on closer to home as we bring this journal series to a close.

Back in 2018 I (Natalie) began studying a Masters in Sustainability, taking the opportunity to learn theoretic tools to apply to the sustainability problems facing the ocean, and help work toward solutions. I have always been inspired by surfing, waves and surf ecosystems, and as I learnt more about systems thinking, a lightbulb went off – surfers are constantly adapting to changing conditions, patterns and moving water; they read and respond to ecological data in order to process feedback loops and generate outcomes where they experience more stoke. Surfers are systems thinkers!

Of course, this was just a hypothesis so I decided to test that assumption with a mixed-methods (qualitative and quantitative) research project. The framework I used in the social data collection to measure surfers ocean awareness was ocean literacy: specifically, the seven principles.

In June 2021, my first scientific research paper was published within a special issue on surfing and sustainability in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health which is available online for you to check out: Ocean Literacy and Surfing: Understanding How Interactions in Coastal Ecosystems Inform Blue Space User’s Awareness of the Ocean.

Together with Soul & Surf, Ed Templeton, local (Portuguese/Italian) film makers, Ben Townsend of Penny Farthing Music and staff/volunteers we made a film exploring the research for the Finisterre Sea 7 summit. The Convergence Zone is where waves impart their watery wisdom to humans, where this abundance of immersive opportunities create an increase in ocean awareness. The convergence zone is where surfing and ocean literacy unite.

When you come to Soul & Surf to learn to surf with us, we not only teach you the technicalities of surfing, but we communicate the bigger picture too. We teach ocean literacy because we feel that ocean literate surfers are more likely to care about these issues – and the more surfers care the more likely we are to do something, and the more impact we will have.

Ocean literacy is about understanding our influence on the ocean and the ocean’s influence on us, something we need to understand urgently in order to protect the blue spaces that keep our living planet and humanity thriving. What better way to do that but with a community of like-minded souls, in some of the most diverse and abundantly wavey places in the world (PortugalIndia and Sri Lanka).

See you in the surf???