Why Marine Protected Areas Benefit Surfers

Cabrillo MPA in Point Loma, San Diego.

Any North County or southern Baja vet most likely has run into Garth Murphy intensely evaluating surf conditions from shore and gracefully riding the best waves of the season. A California icon who partnered with Mike Doyle and Rusty Miller in their infamous and pioneering Surf Research company, Garth is the author of the epic novel of California, The Indian Lover, and the son of noted fisheries biologist Garth I. Murphy, who was La Jolla’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography‘s first PhD, and a professor at the University of Hawaii.

Garth, who has lived, surfed and advocated for coastal and marine protection in Hawaii, Australia and Baja California, was a member of the California Department of Fish and Game‘s Marine Life Protection Act Initiative (MLPAI) Regional Stakeholder Group.

As a result of that effort a new network of marine protected areas (MPAs) was established in Southern California with reserves at Swami’s, Black’s-Scripps, South La Jolla, Cabrillo-Point Loma and the Tijuana River Mouth. These MPAs conserve key marine ecosystems such as kelp beds, reefs, sea grass beds – the ecological features that provide the foundation for some of our very best waves.

Serge Dedina: Why should surfers care about marine conservation and creating MPAs in Southern California?

Garth Murphy: Because we have 300 wave-rich surf spots to choose from and over a million Southern California surfers average 20 surfs a year – for 20 million yearly immersions in what usually happens to be our ocean’s most bio-diverse coastal marine habitats. The Marine Life Protection Act recognizes traditional surfing as a compatible recreational use of the ocean resource, permitted in protected areas except at mammal haul-outs, bird roosts and estuaries. A network of Marine Protected Areas, by protecting and conserving complete coastal ecosystems and habitat, enhances the biodiversity and abundance of marine life, enriching our experience, while minimizing and controlling potential habitat-destructive human activities, which directly affect us.

Looking toward the San Diego-Scripps MPA and Black’s Beach in La Jolla.

Dedina: Why is preserving marine ecosystems of Southern California so important for surfers?

Murphy: Southern California surfers and marine life share natural coastal ocean habitats of every important class: estuaries and river mouths, beaches and inter-tidal zones, surf grass and eel grass beds on composite reefs like Cardiff; rare cobble reefs like Trestles, Rincon and Malibu; rocky reefs like Windansea and Laguna; submarine canyons like Blacks, and sand bars at Newport and Pacific Beach; as well as man-made habitats like the Piers at Huntington and Imperial Beach, rock jetties like the Wedge and Hollywood by the Sea, and artificial reefs.

As a boon to surfers, thick coastal kelp forest canopies, which shelter the greatest biodiversity of coastal marine species, also protect us from the afternoon winds, refining ocean surface texture and grooming the swells to extend our surfing hours and the carrying capacity of affected surf spots. Habitat-based marine protected areas preserve everything within their boundaries, including our cherished surf spots.

Dedina: What about water quality? Would marine reserves help our efforts to keep beaches free from polluted runoff?

Murphy: Coastal ocean water quality is not just a function of land pollution runoff. Over-exploitation and depletion or collapse of important food web components causes imbalances that degrade marine ecosystems and make the ocean more vulnerable to disease outbreaks and opportunistic invasive species like stinging jellyfish, algae blooms and toxic red tides, diminishing water quality and habitat suitability for marine life and surfers.

On the contrary, robust, bio-diverse marine ecosystems with intact food webs are resilient, resisting and adapting to environmental change and pollution, maintaining water and habitat quality. Estuaries are marine life nurseries, fresh/salt water interfaces that empty into many of our finest surf spots. We absorb that same water through our eyes, ears, nose and mouths on duck-dives and wipeouts. Rebuilding and maintaining bio-diverse estuaries with a full range of marine life creates healthier nurseries, and encourages upstream compliance with pollution regulations. The result is better water quality for all of us.

Dedina: So in the end, how does preserving our marine heritage in Southern California benefit surfers?

Murphy: The California surfing style evolved in a unique marine environment of glassy peeling waves. Stylish surfing and our beach lifestyle have become an important part of California history and culture –and media focus – generating an endless wave of glossy-color surf magazines, surf videos and feature films. The success of the $7-plus billion surfing industry, centered in Southern California, depends on maintaining the high cultural value of the traditional California surfing experience: as exciting, invigorating exercise, as a get-away, as a sport, a meditation, a dance, a family get-together and photo opportunity –enhanced by a vibrantly alive and healthy ocean.

The ocean is Earth’s largest and most accessible enduring wilderness. Regular contact with wilderness is a human, and especially American, cultural value, manifested today in the ocean by the popularity of surfing. A full and abundant spectrum of marine species – from whales to hermit crabs to phytoplankton – is an integral part of our ocean-wilderness experience.

Marine Protected Areas enhance ecosystem awareness by exposing us to a broad diversity of marine life. They encourage monitoring of potential problems and upstream compliance with complementary air and water quality regulations. The positive water quality and life-giving effects of marine protected areas are a valuable gift to the surfers and marine species who share them.

5 Ways to Save on Gas While Surfing

With gas averaging $4.72 a gallon in San Diego County, commuters and especially surfers are scrambling to reduce their fuel consumption. Surfers waste gas while driving non-stop coastal loops in search of the best waves and endlessly idle their vehicles during street end or beach parking lot surf checks.

Surfers love their gas guzzling bro-dude monster surf mobiles that boost macho core-scores but put a strain on bank accounts and produce smog alerts. Find a surfer and you can guarantee he’s packed his quiver in the back of a lifted 4×4 F-350 crew cab, which makes sense when hauling a trailer filled with sand toys to Glammis but not so much when it comes to driving a mile to the beach.

A typical SoCal surfer bro-mobile.

There are, however, some creative and innovative ways to save fuel, the planet and money in order to arrive at the beach for a surf. That’s because although for some conservatives, “conservation” is a dirty word, for this old-school cheapo, anything that directs less of my paycheck to the monolithic retrograde oil industry and all the dictators who love to sell us petroleum (e.g. Hugo Chavez), is a good thing.

Trade in Your Gas Guzzler

For everyone who bought their mega-truck on zero percent financing and now  pay $170 to fill it up, run to your nearest auto dealer and trade it in for a hybrid or electric vehicle. My 2010 Honda hybrid averages about 40 MPG and it fits four groms  With the money I save on gas I can afford to buy the groms tacos at Rubios after a run to Blacks. If the groms don’t like your new wheels with less legroom make them hitchike.


You know that really mean and grumpy silverback who screams at you everyday in the lineup even though you’ve surfed together for over twenty years and live down the street from him–well, next time he lovingly blasts you with an insult, pitch him on a carpool. As in, “Hey bro—look I know surfing makes you incomprehensibly angry, but why don’t I ease your pain by joining you on the beach commute and we’ll share some tasty waves together.” Paint a picture of all the fun you’ll have and even offer to let him bitch slap you around in front of his crew for spilling yerba mate on his ride. So make some new friends, save some money and bring peace and joy to your spot by bringing carpooling to your lineup.

Here’s my 1980s Schwinn girls ten speed beach cruiser with Carver Surf Racks.

Recover a Bike from the Trash and Ride it to the Beach

I come from a long-line of hardened dumpster divers or what eco-hipsters now call “freegans.” As a grom, my crew and I roamed the streets salvaging bikes, surfboards, wetsuits and anything else that could propel us to the beach and in the water (no one in IB had any money in the 70s). I continue that tradition with my kids and often depend on the largesse of my eighty-year old immigrant father—the Freegan King of California—for a parade of old bicycles we’ve cobbled together as urban surf machines (my kids first line of bikes proudly emerged from a dumpster run—we fixed them up together). I’m currently cruising a 80s’ Schwinn ten speed girl’s beach cruiser that my father either liberated from the street or found very cheap at a garage sale that I’ve outfitted with Carver Surf Racks (that cost more than all of our bikes combined), and a big basket  No more parking problems and I burn a few more calories during my daily surf commute. The Trestles locals are the fittest surfers in California and seem to have bike rack and trailer systems dialed. I have noticed more people switching to bike surf commutes in the past month than ever before. So search the streets and alleys of your local millionaire laden beach town (La Jolla is gold) and enjoy the gifts of our throwaway consumer society in order to save money, get in shape and improve air quality.

Take the Bus

The Southern California coastal region is chock filled with trolleys, trains and busses. A monthly pass costs anywhere from $72 for adults to $18 for seniors. So go ahead and make a few friends while swinging your longboard around the bus during the morning beach commute. Last year my kids and their friend Jake caught the ferry, two buses and the Coaster from Imperial Beach to San Clemente in order to spend a few days surfing Lowers, and it only took five hours one way. Time is money and since no one seems to have any money, spend your time wisely, meet new people, and cruise to the waves in our wonderful transit system.

Stop Surfing

Your significant other and mom are correct–surfing in an incredibly selfish and self-centered sport that accomplishes very little and interferes with your job, life, and relationships. So nix surfing, reduce your overhead, and spend more time at home with your spouse and children. Who knows, they might even remember who you are.

Oil Spill in Oaxaca Threatens Sea Turtles and Surfing Beaches


Photo via Mexican press.

Here’s what we’re involved with right now at WiLDCOAST:

A PEMEX oil spill in the port of Salina Cruz in Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca went uncontained for 11 days along Pacific Coast beaches, impacting more than 12 miles of coastline.

The spill has so far resulted in the deaths of 13 sea turtles and tarred beaches with oil revered by surfers worldwide for their wave quality.

“The beaches of southern Oaxaca are Mexico’s most important for nesting Olive Ridley sea turtles and surfing tourism,” said Dr. Eduardo Najera, the Mexico Director for WiLDCOAST. “We are requesting that Mexican federal authorities investigate the cause of the spill and require PEMEX to quickly and thoroughly clean up its mess.”


image of petroleum residue / Source: Mexican Press

Beaches impacted by the oil spill include Salinas del Marqués, Brasil, Brasilito, Azul, Punta Conejo, La Escondida-Guelaguichi, Playa Cangrejo, and Chipehua.

Conservationists are concerned that the petroleum could harm the 500,000 Olive Ridley sea turtles that lay their eggs on Morro Ayuta beach located north of the oil spill area.

Federal sea turtle monitors reported that clumps of oil have appeared along the more than 14-mile beach, considered among the world’s most important nesting beaches. More than 25,000 Olive Ridleys arrived on Morro Ayuta during the three days proceeding the oil spill.

During a recent tour of the region by WiLDCOAST, there was no evidence of any effort by PEMEX to clean up beaches and wildlife impacted by the spill.

“Pemex must be required to clean up and restore all of the ecosystems damaged by the oil spill to the fullest extent possible,” said Najera. “Indigenous communities, families and businesses that make their living from fishing, surfing and eco-tourism must be compensated for their losses as a result of damage from the spill.”

Coronado 4th of July Roughwater Swim

The start of the 18-under mile swim.

On July 4th, my sons and I competed in the 54th Annual Coronado Roughwater Swim. The one mile ocean swim race is a great time and yesterday was a challenging race. Due to a persistent and pesky southwest wind, lots of little waves didn’t make for an easy swim.

But we persevered. My oldest son Israel won the 18-under division. My youngest Daniel came in second in his 14-under division. I placed 3rd in the 41-Over division.

Israel winning the 18-under division.

A great showing and a run race.

Daniel placing second in the 14-under division.

Here I am at the start of the Open division. The woman in the blue to my right is a former Penn State swimmer and won the race!


Back in 2005 I became very ill from a thyroid and immune system disorder. It took me years to climb out of the hole of ill-health I fell into, so returning to form and doing well in local races is something that brings me great joy. I love competing in these races–everyone is stoked, fired up, passionate and having a great time. I’ve worked very hard to get back my health–it is an ongoing process and uphill at battles at times–but it is worth it!

The boys beat me by 2 and 3 minutes respectively. I had just finished my race and they had finished about ten minutes earlier and didn’t even seem tired. I was beat.

Fixing Problems Along the U.S.-Mexico Border

The Hormiguita Community Center. This building was made from recycled tires.

I spent the afternoon with Paloma Aguirre of WiLDCOAST and the executive team of San Diego Coastkeeper. We took a tour of the border to get a sense of what some of the issues we are dealing with and ended the day in Los Laureles Canyon in Tijuana, just south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Community members were buys fixing up the Center.

There Steven Wright and his team from 4-Walls International are working with WiLDCOAST, Tijuana Calidad de Vida and the community to develop a demonstration project on how to use waste tires for construction. They also have a native plant garden and are working on cleaning up their community.

They are using recycled tires and have a rain water catchment system.

The community project is an oasis of hope in the border region and is an inspiring place to be.


They have a native plant nursery supported by Mexico's Environment Agency.

San Diego Coastkeeper Board member Jo Brooks, SDCK Executive Director Gale Filter and Steven Wright of 4-Walls.

No matter where you are in Mexico there is always a dog that needs to be petted. This scruffy mutt found a hole in the fence and was begging for some love!

Remembering Peter Douglas, California’s Coastal Hero

On the day last week that I heard that Peter Douglas, the 26-year executive director of the California Coastal Commission, had passed away, I spent the morning surfing Upper Trestles.

On my dawn patrol down the trail that meanders along San Mateo Creek, I scanned for wildlife, and smiled when I came upon the sandy beach that delivers surfers into the cobblestone reef and waves at Upper Trestles, a masterpiece of natural engineering.

The surf was firing and the small crowd was friendly.

California bliss.

Greg Long and groms at the Del Mar Feb. 6, 2008, Coastal Commission on the fate of Trestles.

It was fortuitous that I happened to be at Trestles that morning.

Because if Peter had not lived and dreamed of a coastline in California that belonged to us all, there just might not be a San Mateo Creek or surf at Trestles.

“Peter Douglas is to the California Coast what John Muir was to the Sierra Nevadas,” said Surfrider Foundation CEO Jim Moriarty.

The watershed and wetlands of lower San Mateo Creek, part of a California State Park, would have been destroyed by a toll road.

Trestles as we know it would be gone.

The architect of Proposition 20, the citizen’s referendum that established the Coastal Commission, Peter was also one of the principal authors of the Coastal Act, arguably the greatest single piece of legislation worldwide that provides a blueprint for conserving and safeguarding our greatest public trust.

More groms at the Save Trestles hearings.

“Peter was one of the most humble, effective ocean heroes of all time,” said Wallace “J.” Nichols, the marine biologist who I co-founded WiLDCOAST with.

Without Peter, not only would we not have many of our most treasured public beaches, in many cases, we would not have access to much of our coastline.

“In the summer of 2003 our family trekked the entire coast of California,” said Nichols.  “The enduring beauty of that mega-transect, owes so much to the battles fought and won by Peter Douglas. His legacy provides unmeasurable emotional and cognitive benefits to the world each day through the beauty of our protected coast and ocean.”

Besides the fact that Peter was a force of nature, he was a dedicated public servant who took his mission to safeguard our coast for all very seriously despite the political fallout it caused him.

One of his many strengths was his capacity to treat people with respect and to make the commission meetings, known for their length and ability to test the patience of anyone, more humane.

“Peter Douglas always made it a priority for he and the Coastal Commission staff to listen to and respond to Surfrider members and local stakeholders,” said Pierce Flynn, former executive director of the Surfrider Foundation. “This ‘local listening’ was a key to Douglas’ and the Coastal Commission’s successes.”

As a first generation American raised on the public beaches of California, who proudly worked as a California Ocean Lifeguard, I thank Peter and the Coastal Commission every time I surf and enjoy the beach with my family.

What really motivated Peter was his absolute joy in the coast and ocean and his belief that everyone has a right to share in the richness of our coastal heritage.

“We had a late afternoon tour that extended into the early evening at South San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge with Peter,” said Andy Yuen, project leader
 for the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

“We were standing on the Refuge levees with the soft sunset glow reflecting off the ponds and San Diego Bay, birds wheeling overhead, and you could tell that Peter was completely jazzed that this special piece of San Diego Bay was conserved for wildlife.”

The California coastline is where we get to experience the joy of nature and the roar of the surf.

Where we share in the laughter of our children as they build their first sandcastle and play in the waves.

Where we spend hours around campfires telling stories and singing songs with our friends and family.

In California, the coast is our life. And our life is the coast.

We can thank Peter Douglas for that.

What it Takes to be a U.S. Navy SEAL

US Navy SEALS Fire Exercise

With the release of the film Act of Valor, and the recent success of SEAL Team members in killing Osama bin Laden and rescuing hostages from the clutches of Somali pirates, a lot of attention has been focused on our most elite U.S. special forces.

Having grown up in Imperial Beach, just down the beach from where SEALs train at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, I have observed their ocean training first-hand.

Although I work out or surf with a few current or former SEALs, I knew very little about what it takes to be a member of the world’s toughest team.

To get more of an idea of what it takes to become a SEAL and how they train, I checked in with an active-duty SEAL who has worked as a BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) instructor. In recognition and respect for the SEAL ethos not to seek recognition, he requested he remain anonymous.

Serge Dedina: Why did you become a SEAL?

SEAL: I joined for the excitement and the challenge. I liked the idea of getting paid to work out. I didn’t expect to stay in as long as I have. I have always said that I will get out when I quit having fun or didn’t enjoy the work anymore.

The caliber of men that you are associated with is a big draw as well, obviously due to the selection process to become a SEAL. The work is always challenging and the opportunity to lead SEALs is very rewarding. I also stay in with the commitment that I will stay in as long as I can effectively contribute to the war on terror with the hope that our kids won’t have to deal with it.

Dedina: With the Department of Defense looking to increase the presence and numbers of special forces, the Navy will want more SEALs. What type of recruit makes an outstanding SEAL candidate?

SEAL: In the last decade, there has been a great deal of research to determine what kind of background successful SEAL graduates have that would make them more likely to graduate so as to target those types of BUD/S candidates.

Studies have shown that those individuals that have participated in high school sports such as wrestling, swimming, water polo and track and field have a higher probability to make it through BUD/S training. Essentially, any type of endurance athlete has a greater probability to make it to graduation. Much of what we do requires a strong athletic ability with strong cardiovascular system.

Dedina: What are the physical requirements to become a SEAL?

SEAL: The Physical Screening Test (PST) is only a test to ensure you are fit enough to start physical training as part of the SEAL training process. The PST is strictly administered with no waiver allowed and no deviation from the format. The test is strictly enforced – no exceptions.

Dedina: How do SEAL instructors know how to push recruits to the edge without going over the edge?

SEAL: Having been through the exact same training themselves, as well as being recent combat veterans, the instructors have a keen sense of knowing the limits that the human body can take and regulate accordingly. There are always medical personnel on hand during all training evolutions to keep a close medical eye on the condition of students during training, especially during Hell Week.  They pick up on initial signs of potential injury and treat as appropriate to avoid aggravating further.

Dedina: Is training more advanced now for SEALs than it was a decade ago? It seems as though SEALs must have to master fairly advanced and high-tech equipment.

SEAL: Training is definitely more advanced now than a decade ago. This is largely because of the advanced technological equipment available and used by SEALs today, giving them the tactical advantage. To adapt to the complex nature of our missions today, tactics, techniques and procedures have also advanced to be able to more effectively find and fix our enemies that hide among the population.

Dedina: With the release of Act of Valor and the recent success of SEALs in killing Osama bin Laden and hostage rescues off of Africa, do you think SEALs run the risk of being viewed as modern day superheroes that can do anything? Could that help set the SEALs up for future failures if they somehow don’t continue to do the impossible?

SEAL: I don’t think the release of Act of Valor, taking out Bin Laden, or counter-piracy successes off Somalia will put SEALs at risk of being viewed as something they are not. If you talk to any SEAL today, you will find that they don’t view themselves that way. Most look at what they do as “just a job” that they enjoy because of the challenging work, patriotism, fighting terrorism to preserve democracy and our way of life, and the camaraderie from tightly knit teams.

Act of Valor was in the works before the bin Laden raid or the piracy hostage rescue. It was made with the permission and oversight of Naval Special Warfare Command and the Navy to be a recruiting tool as we continue to grow our force.

It was seen as an opportunity to portray SEALs accurately, unlike previous Hollywood productions, using real SEALs without divulging close held tactics, techniques and procedures as well as how their personal lives are affected by their chosen profession.

While we have been fortunate to enjoy many highly visible successes, there have been some missions in the last decade that were not so successful, where many SEALs have given the ultimate sacrifice. In the end, SEALs don’t look for the visibility or accolades for their work. In my humble opinion, the visibility comes from the press and their insatiable desire for sensational headlines and those seeking political gain.

Dedina: The most infamous part of SEAL training is “Hell Week”. Can you describe what that involves and what the purpose is of this week that I have heard described as “endless days of pain, cold, and misery.”

SEAL: The first three weeks of training prepares the students for Hell Week (fourth week) where they go through five and a half days of continuous training with only a maximum of four hours sleep. This is designed to test one’s physical and mental motivation. This week proves to those who make it that the human body can do ten times the amount of work the average man thinks possible. During this week the students learn the value of cool headedness, perseverance, and above all, teamwork.

Dedina: What does the basic SEAL training involve in terms of physical activity and combat preparation?

SEAL: The comprehensive SEAL training process prepares students for the extreme physical and mental challenges of SEAL missions. The standards of qualification require the kind of mental and physical fortitude that few possess. For those making the cut, immense challenges and constant training are a way of life.

The first phase of BUD/S assesses SEAL candidates in physical conditioning, water competency, teamwork and mental tenacity. Physical conditioning utilizes running, swimming and calisthenics and grows harder and harder as the weeks progress. Students participate in weekly four mile timed runs in boots and timed obstacle courses, swim distances up to two miles wearing fins in the ocean and learn small boat seamanship. The second phase of training is the diving phase of BUD/S that trains, develops and qualifies SEAL candidates as competent basic combat swimmers. Physical conditioning continues and becomes even more intensive.

Students learn two types of SCUBA: open circuit (compressed air) and closed circuit (100% Oxygen) including basic dive medicine and medical skills training.

Emphasis is placed on long-distance underwater dives with the goal of training students to become basic combat divers, using swimming and diving techniques as a means of transportation from their launch point to their combat objective. This is what separates SEALs from all other Special Operations forces.

The third phase of training is Land Warfare that trains, develops and qualifies SEAL candidates in basic weapons, demolition and small-unit tactics. Physical training continues and becomes even more strenuous as the run distance increases and the minimum passing times are lowered for the runs, swims and obstacle course. This third phase concentrates on teaching land navigation, small-unit tactics, patrolling techniques, rappelling, marksmanship and military explosives. The final three and a half weeks are spent on San Clemente Island, where students apply all the techniques they have acquired during training.

US Navy SEALS splash into the water in exercise

US Navy SEALS splash into the water in exercise (Photo credit: AN HONORABLE GERMAN)

Dedina: SEALs spend a considerable amount of time in the ocean. Is there specific ocean related training that occurs in terms of how to navigate large surf, rip currents, and/or storm conditions, or is it “sink or swim?”

SEAL: First phase of training involves an extensive amount of surf passage training; both individually as a swimmer and with Inflatable Boat Small (IBS) rubber boats, manned with seven students with paddles. Although there is initial classroom training in navigating surf, dealing with rip currents and storm conditions, the true learning/training to navigating the surf is through practical experience in the ocean. During hydrographic reconnaissance training in the first phase, the students learn about tides, currents and wave shape and duration to be able to include that in their hydro reports that go to the Amphibious Ready Group for potential beach landings.

Dedina: It appears that quite a few SEALs are surfers. Are surfers attracted to the SEALs or do you think that SEALs become surfers after spending so much time in the ocean?

SEAL: It has been my experience that more SEALs become surfers after they become a SEAL, most likely because of their increased familiarity with and exposure to the ocean. Many SEALs come from the Midwest and haven’t had that much exposure to the ocean. Being based in coastal communities also lends to SEALs wanting to surf.

US Navy SEALS being exfilled in a single hoist

US Navy SEALS being exfilled in a single hoist (Photo credit: AN HONORABLE GERMAN)

Dedina: According to the SEAL ethos, a SEAL’s training is never complete. How do you motivate team members to continue performing at the highest level over the course of their career?

SEAL: Many SEALs come and go in the teams. It is my experience that SEALs that choose to make a career in the Navy continue to be motivated because the teams attract men that fall into a “warrior class” type of individual. They live a lifestyle of fitness. By the time they start to get operational burnout because of a high op tempo, they take a shore duty job that will give them a break to recharge. Additionally, the more senior a SEAL gets, the more leadership positions they gravitate to where their experience is used to bring up younger SEALs.

The Baja Devil Beach Baby

This charming video illustrates how a young grom visits Baja but he trashes the beach and has a bad attitude. He is visited by the Baja Devil Beach Baby and mayhem and violence ensue.

Ocean Water Quality 101: Or Why You Shouldn’t Surf After it Rains

Tijuana River sewage plume.

With the recent storms that dropped more than an inch of rain along the coast in Southern California and more than an inch and a half in the mountains, rivers, gullies, streams and storm drains carried the runoff directly into the Pacific Ocean. Along most of our coast there is a significant risk associated with surfing after it has rained. Paloma Aguirre of WiLDCOAST, a longtime competitive bodyboarder, is working to clean up what is arguably the most polluted stretch of coastline in Southern California, the area around entrance to the Tijuana River just north of the U.S.-Mexico Border.

Paloma Aguirre of WiLDCOAST in the Tijuana River Valley.

However Paloma does not work alone to safeguard our coast. In San Diego she partners with the City of Imperial Beach, City of San Diego, County of San Diego, State of California, and the U.S. EPA, as well as organizations such as San Diego Coastkeeper, Surfrider Foundation-San Diego Chapter, I Love a Clean San Diego, Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, and Heal the Bay, to stop polluters, clean up beaches and watersheds, and educate the public about how to reduce our ocean pollution footprint.

Patch: It rained more than an inch along the coast over the weekend and an inch and a half in the mountains over the weekend. How does all that rain end up causing water quality problems along the coast?

Urban runoff in the Tijuana River Valley.

Paloma Aguirre: Urban runoff is the number one cause of ocean pollution after a significant rainfall. Impervious surfaces can increase runoff that can contain gasoline, motor oil and other pollutants from roadways and parking lots, as well as fertilizers nd pesticides from lawns.

Patch: Specifically, what illnesses are associated with rain-related runoff in the ocean?

Aguirre: Runoff can cause a large number of illnesses ranging from gastrointestinal infections to ear, eye, and skin infections.

Patch: What should ocean users and especially surfers do to keep themselves healthy during the rainy season in Southern California?

Aguirre: Ocean users and surfers should avoid entering the ocean for at least 72 hours following a rainfall event.

Patch: What are the trouble spots along the coast that surfers should be looking out for in terms of avoiding problem areas?

Aguirre: River mouths, jetties, bays, storm drains or any area where water enters the ocean usually have higher levels of bacteria. The County of San Diego provides current information on beach closures that can be found here.

Sewage pipe in the Tijuana that directs sewage into the Tijuana River Valley.

Patch: What are the consistently most polluted surf spots in San Diego County?

Aguirre: The most impacted beaches in all of San Diego County are Border Field State Park, the Tijuana Sloughs and Imperial Beach due to sewage contaminated water from the Tijuana River. It accounts for 85% of all of San Diego County’s beach closures.

Patch: You’ve been working with researchers at San Diego State University to get a better understanding of the health implications with contact with polluted water along the U.S.-Mexico border. What were the findings? And what did you and WiLDCOAST do to prevent ocean-related illnesses?

Aguirre: The study showed that there is a 1 in 10 chance of contracting Hepatitis A (among many other viral and bacterial infections) when coming in contact with polluted water from the Tijuana River. WiLDCOAST partnered with the Imperial Beach Health Center to provide free Hepatitis A vaccinations to local ocean users. The program is still available to ocean users Please call (619) 429-3733 and ask for a “Hepatitis A Vaccination for Imperial Beach Ocean Users.”  (Available to adults only)

Patch: What are the key things that everyone can do to reduce ocean pollution?

Aguirre: There are many things people can do in their daily lives that can prevent ocean pollution. Reduce the use of chemical fertilizers on lawns and gardens. When it rains it washes out to the ocean. Dispose of chemicals such as motor oils, paint and chemicals adequately to avoid runoff. Avoid leaving pet waste on the street; it can carry bacteria and viruses that can harm human and wildlife health.

Volunteers from YMCA Camp Surf clean up the beach at Border Field State Park.

Patch: There has been a lot of awareness about the plague of plastic and debris in the ocean? What are the sources of the “plastic plague” and specifically what can people do to reduce their impact on the environment.

Aguirre: Disposable plastics are the greatest source of plastic pollution. Plastic bags, straws, bottles, utensils, lids, cups, and so many others offer a small convenience but remain forever. It is important to follow the “4 R’s: in our daily lives to ensure a sustainable future: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Patch: You have been working with WiLDCOAST over the past few years to reduce the amount of ocean pollution along the U.S.-Mexico border and reduce the amount of plastic and waste tires flowing into the ocean from the Tijuana River. Talk about the extent of the problem and some of the solutions you have developed?

Cleaning up waste tires in Tijuana.

Aguirre: A recent report estimates that there are currently over 10 million plastic bottles and more than 5,000 ocean-bound waste tires in the Tijuana River Valley and Estuary. The City of Tijuana does not have enough resources to provide sufficient trash collection and sewage collection to unregulated urban developments. Because of the hydrology of the watershed, a lot of uncollected waste washes across the border when it rains. During the recent Tijuana River Action Month we worked to mobilize over 2,600 volunteers on the both sides of the border to clean up over 63,000 pounds of trash. And last week we collaborated with the City of Tijuana to remove 350 waste tires from Los Laureles Canyon before it rained.

Global Wave Conference Part III

The GWC speakers during Day 1

The Global Wave Conference ended last night in San Sebastian with a great discussion on working with UNESCO to at least recognize surfing as an official sport and attempting to create UNESCO Heritage Site designations for some surf spots.

Ben McCue, Katie Westfall of Save the Waves (formerly of Wildcoast) and French surf sociologist and author Taha Al Azzawi (the guru on French surf culture)

Stand out presentations during the conference included those by Save Our Surf (from Portugal), Surfers Against Sewage, Brad Farmer and the National Surfing Reserve Organization, Save the Wave’s discussion of World Surfing Reserves, the discussion by Surfrider Japan’s director on the Fukushima/Tsunami disaster and Michael’s (forget last name) passionate discussion on marine education in South Africa.

Ben McCue and English big wave charger and oceanographer Dr. Tony Butt (who now lives in Spain)

GWC 2011 was overall a small and inspiring meeting of passionate activists who are trying their best to preserve the world’s most iconic surf spots and and coastal areas.

Dean LaTourrette and Katie Westfall of Save the Waves and the Surfers Against Sewage team from the UK. The SAS crew is like The Clash of the save surf movement. These guys are seriously organized, edgy and BOOM--kick ass!!

My thanks to the Surfrider Foundation-Europe and the Surfrider Foundation (thanks Jim and Chad) for putting together and organizing the conference.

Andy from Surfers Against Sewage. These guys impressed everyone with their passion, organization, passion, leadership and energy.

I presented during the last panel of the conference. And since the surf was about somewhere in the 6’+ range, offshore and looking pretty fun directly in front of the conference center, I was itching to get and get a surf (Chad and Rick from Surfrider were smart and paddled out at lunch) and had no patience for extended discussions. Luckily Dean from Save the Waves kept restraining me and imploring me not to behave like a petulant child-like surfer. So I stayed rather than flee and luckily had plenty of time to get my butt kicked and catch a few big-faced waves.

Ben McCue, Spanish surfer Anna Gutierrez, Serge Dedina and Zach Plopper after our end of conference surf session in San Sebastian.

The ending surf session was awesome. Most of the conference participants paddled out. Everyone was stoked to catch a few waves with each other and we all noticed that even though it was offshore, overhead in the middle of one of the biggest surf towns in Europe, that we were pretty much the only surfers out in the water (and the malecon was packed!).

During the final dinner at the People Restaurant on the malecon in San Sebastian there was a lot of wine, a four-course meal that ended with duck, included fish there were many speeches made, the signing of a MOU on a napkin and lots of laughs. A perfect surfer ending to a serious conference!

The final dinner at People Restaurant in San Sebastian.

On a final note, I couldn’t think of better locations for surf conferences or conferences than Biarritz or San Sebastian. Both are beautiful with conference facilities overlooking great surf breaks, with great food, and nice people. What more could you ask for?

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