Surfers and Sustaining the Seas

‘Leisure does not simply result in pollution. Rather, pollution also enables and creates leisure. They are in a mutually-shaping relationship.’ Clifton Evers discusses the paradoxes, conflicts, and contradictions in the relationship between surfers, pollution, and the sea.

Image by David Whittaker via Pexels

When surfers go out to catch waves, they evaluate conditions, including wind direction and speed, tides, swell period and size, crowd factor, and now how polluted it is. Surfing in polluted seas is a fact of life, even in the remotest locations. After the rain, certain spots are avoided, especially if they smell putrid and the water is discoloured. Mind you, most of the pollution is invisible-such as due to chemicals and bacteria. The choice to surf or not is weighed up with how good the waves are and if the risk is deemed worth it. Where I surf, the urban myth is to drink a can of coke after surfing to apparently kill off any bugs one may have swallowed. No-one is entirely convinced, or sure this trick works.

It would seem that saving the seas is a no-brainer for surfers. Cleaner seas are arguably more aesthetically pleasing, and not getting ill after going surfing has to be a plus. It is common to assume that due to their intimate relationships with the sea surfers have a special affinity with nature so are more likely to be reflexive about environmental issues.

However, in our team’s (Newcastle University and Wakayama University) current study of pollution and sea-going leisure on the industrial coastline of North-East England United Kingdom and Fukushima, Japan we have found it’s more complicated than one might imagine. There are paradoxes, conflicts, and contradictions.

Some surfers do make an effort to reduce and contain pollution connected to surfing. Management plans are put in place to control surf tourism in some ecologically and culturally-sensitive locations.  There is a small market for surfboards that are manufactured using non-toxic and recycled materials. A few companies make wetsuits from plant-based rubber in an appeal to the “ethical consumer.” Activist organisations such as The Surfrider Foundation and Surfers Against Sewage work to protect sensitive coastal locations from development, and encourage surfers to desist in using plastics that are devastating sea life. A currently celebrated environmental strategy is to take part in two-minute beach clean-ups after each surf session. Academics are suggesting that surfers will make good stewards of the sea.

However, there is often a difference between what people say they want and do and what they feel they need and can do. The majority of surfers are ambivalent about the relationship between surfing and pollution.

Most surfers continue to use and then discard wetsuits and surfboards made of petrochemicals. It’s argued that the eco-friendly alternatives are just that: “alternatives.” Also, this equipment is believed to be more expensive and argued to not be up to the performance standards of the petrochemical-based equipment.

It is worth bearing in mind that leisure does not simply result in pollution. Rather, pollution also enables and creates leisure. They are in a mutually-shaping relationship.

Few surfers at a study site in England – the county borough of Teeside – had any interest in advocating for the cleaning up of uncrowded “secret spots” for fear of unwanted publicity. The pollution can create uncrowded surfing conditions, keeping away those “less committed” surfers concerned about their health. If you have to get ill to get uncrowded waves, so be it. Rumours are spread about locations still being dangerously polluted, even though they have been cleaned up. One of the best surf spots in Teeside was created by the dumping of waste iron ore slag in an estuary. Any romantic notion of there being a stable and pristine nature is dismissed by some locals who have grown up with polluted seas; such a nature has never existed for them. When asked about “sustainability” and “conservation” the response by one participant was with a sweeping hand to mark out an industrial (and post-industrial) seascape and the comment: “Of what? Then again, at this site, the closing of a steel mill has led to a cleaner river and sea. Although it is worth bearing in mind the trumpeting of success is based on comparisons to the records that show in the 1970s it was the most polluted river and estuary in Europe. Some local surfers would prefer their jobs back rather than cleaner water. They will have a conversation about sustaining the sea after putting food on the table, even if this may lead to polluting the seascape again.

At the study site in the Fukushima precinct, Japan the government tells people it’s safe to come back to the coast and go into the sea after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The safety zone includes surfing locations not far from the Daiichi Power nuclear power plant, that still being repaired six years after the disaster. Many surfers and their families left Fukushima post-disaster for good so that they would not become polluted by radioactivity. Other surfers were some of the first people to return to the area and are resigned to an uncertainty about how polluted the seas are. Most testing has been on land. A deliberate choice has been made to accept, re-enter, and continue to surf seas that remain in a precarious relationship with nuclear energy.

What is emerging from the research is that people are transforming their relationship to pollution, including in regards to leisure. Messy and shifting embodied, sensorial, emotional, intellectual, spatial, and technological assemblages with pollution are playing out. Pragmatic new ways of living with polluted seas are emerging. For some, there is a resignation to the seas and themselves as already “becoming-pollution.” They have to get on living with this state of affairs. Such resignation is a supreme challenge for any endeavour to sustain the seas as we are left facing tough questions, such as: How far are people prepared to go to continue their leisure in dying seas? And if they are willing to die with the seas just how effective can any management-orientated solution be?  Would a focus on salvaging nonhuman lives nudge people away from the creeping resignation about their own unsustainable fate?

On Monday 11 December 2017, Clifton will be presenting at ‘Caring (better) for the Seas’ – a public lecture brought to you in partnership with Sydney Ideas and part of the Sustaining the Seas Conference. For more information, and to register, click here.

Dr Clifton Evers is a lecturer at Newcastle University, UK. He researches media, leisure, sport, belonging, and place-making. He is currently focusing on affective assemblages of care using creative methods such as Go-Pro filming. Clifton will present his recent ethnographic research on coastal surf and fishing communities in the UK.