Surfing Hurricane Carlotta

Hurricane Carlotta was located off the west co...

Hurricane Carlotta was located off the west coast of Mexico near 15.6N 105.1W with maximum sustained winds estimated at 130 knots, gusts to 160 knots. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the morning of June 13, three of my WiLDCOAST colleagues and I set out in search of waves on the southern coast of Oaxaca.

Our planned conservation activities for the day had been cancelled due to the rainfall and wind forecast due to the presence of Hurricane Carlotta off of the coast.

Burrito in Puerto.

Unfortunately the wind was sideshore and the surf was blown out. This wasn’t a case where the Hurricane was creating great waves.

However, we made the most of the 2-4’ point waves. After all, the water was 82 degrees, and every once in a while a fun wave would line up.

After a few hours, a couple of surfers from Cancun showed up. They were staying in adobe and thatch huts a couple of miles down the beach.

“You guys know about the storm coming,” I asked them.

“What storm,” they replied.

Burrito barrel riding in Puerto.

“There’s a hurricane coming,” I said. “You might want to seek higher ground.”

On the way back to Huatulco, we stopped in at Barra de la Cruz, famous for its world-class right point. My son Israel, 16, spent the week there with local surfer Pablo Narvaez and his family.

“Israel’s at the beach surfing,” said Pablo when we arrived at his two-story bamboo and wood house. “The surf is small anyway.”

A few minutes later Pablo and I arrived at the beach facing the point and were shocked to see 6-8’ shorebreak on the inside with 10-12’ waves hitting the point. The wind was howling.

“I surfed earlier,” said Israel who had spent the week living on stalks of bananas picked from the local huerta and grilled fish. “And then it started getting really gnarly.”

We chatted with Pablo for a bit. “In 1997, Hurricane Paulina really hit us hard,” he said.

I hoped Carlotta wouldn’t be so bad.

When we returned to Huatulco I was happy to find my good friend Daren Johnson and his son Josh waiting for us at the friendly Hotel Mision de los Arcos. They had been staying at some rustic huts at a spot further south.

That afternoon the National Hurricane Center had upgraded Carlotta to a Category 2 hurricane. Winds were expected to reach up to 120 miles per hour.

Later that evening, Israel and I gathered at a café on the Huatulco plaza with Daren, Josh and my WiLDCOAST colleagues Eduardo Najera, Ben McCue, and Zach Plopper along with a Swiss surfer-engineer who we had met earlier in the week while surfing.

The wind started howling and the rain started pouring. An electrical post exploded across the street.

After a round of tlayudas, we hit up the local ice-cream shop for paletas and headed back to our hotel to wait out the storm.

“Since I have experienced a big hurricane in the past (Wilma, category 5, biggest hurricane in Cancún history) I wasn’t that worried. However, I forgot about the mountains and rivers that were behind us,” said Eduardo.

The following morning the rain and the wind had stopped. We decided to check the surf. Cleanup crews were removing fallen trees from the roads. But overall in Huatulco, the damage seemed minimal.

“Despite hours of build up and uncertainty Carlotta whipped through overnight fortunately not wreaking too much havoc in the Huatulco-Salina Cruz region,” said Zach.

At the point from the day before we were surprised to see that the tremendous storm surf had dissipated. However, the waves resulted in local beaches losing up to six feet of sand, making it difficult for sea turtles to nest at some areas.

Further north it was a different story.

“The hurricane was really intense. My buddies and I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Anthony “Burrito” Zambrano, of Imperial Beach who had been in Puerto Escondido.

“The rain started around 6 o clock then it started getting really windy. The windows were whistling, the lights went out and our room got flooded with water, like 2 inches deep. We heard things getting blown around. The shingles from a bunch of houses and hotels got blown right off their roofs.”

“Over 30,000 homes where affected from Puerto Escondido to Puerto Angel. Mazunte and the surrounding area was a mess,” said Dr. Carlos Rodriguez, a veterinarian with the Mexican Sea Turtle Center in Mazunte.

“Roads where closed so nobody could leave their towns. In places like Mazunte, the community has really pulled together. But in other communities like La Escobilla, Vainilla, Barra del Potrero, Santa Elena and their surroundings aren’t as lucky. Families lost their roofs, food, clothes and didn’t have electricity for 10 days so there was no way to communicate.”

On July 8th, Mazunte will hold a concert to raise money for the reconstruction effort.

“It has been a tough two weeks but the communities are very positive they can pull through this mess,” said Dr. Rodriguez. “But there is still a lot of work to be done.”

Diane Castenada of WiLDCOAST has organized a fundraising effort to support those in need. Go here to donate.

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The Coastal Wonders of Oaxaca

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Mazunte is a small fishing village about an hour north of Huatulco in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Its white sand beaches and tranquil waters obscure its deadly past.

“Up until 19990, when Mexico banned the legal sea turtle fishery,” said Manuel Rodriguez Gomez, the congenial Director of the Mexican Sea Turtle Center, “More than 2,000 sea turtles were killed each day in Mazunte.”

Today, Manuel and his team of biologists, manage a beautiful sea turtle aquarium and museum, as well as conserve some of the world’s most important sea turtle nesting beaches.

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“It is amazing to me that a little more than twenty years ago fishing communities in Oaxaca that made their living from killing sea turtles are the ones who are now investing their efforts in protecting these amazing animals,” said Manuel.

I traveled to this unique corner of Mexico to hold an ocean film festival and meet some of the leaders who have made the sea turtle recovery and other coastal conservation success stories possible.

I brought along my surfboard in the hopes of catching waves at Puerto Escondido and Barra de la Cruz.

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Mazunte was a stop on my way north from Huatulco to Puerto Escondido where WiLDCOAST, the conservation organization I run, was holding the first night of the film festival tour.

Known as the “Mexican Pipeline” Puerto Escondido is a balmy pleasant town that reminded me of Rosarito Beach back in the 1970s.

The beach at Zicatela, where south swells funnel into shallow waters to create arguably one of the world’s heaviest beach breaks, is lined with palapas, restaurants, surf shops and hotels.

During south swell season some of the world’s best surfers such as Greg and Rusty Long descend on Puerto to catch dredging barrels with elevator drops.

During our event in the town’s main plaza just north of Zicatela, about 250 people, enjoyed our ocean films and learning more about preserving sea turtles.

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Sergio Flores of WiLDCOAST and Manuel Rodriguez of the Mexican Sea Turtle Center.

“We need to take care of our beaches,” said longtime Puerto surfer Roger Ramirez at the event who runs the the Oasis Surf Academy along with his lovely Uruguayan wife Sol.

The surfers of Puerto are fighting efforts to develop nearby Punta Colorada, a world-class bodyboarding beach.

The next morning, I wandered down to Zicatela. The wind was offshore but the surf was 1-2’ and closed out. I still enjoyed surfing the warm water micro-barrels.

“It needs to be a bit bigger,” said Jason, a surfer from San Diego who knows Puerto well. “But there is swell on the way. So maybe we’ll get lucky. “

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The following day I found myself at a remote beach south of Huatulco surfing dredging barrels at a right-hand point with a few local surfers and my WiLDCOAST colleague Ben McCue.

The first south of the season had arrived.

Later that afternoon we drove into the village of Barra de la Cruz, about 45 minutes south of Huatulco for the final leg of our film festival.

“You have time for a surf,” said Pablo Narvaez, a leader in this indigenous village that is host to one of the world’s most perfect waves and a critical beach for the recovery for endangered leatherback sea turtles.

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That's me surfing Barra.

“But the sand isn’t right yet,” said Pablo. “We’ll need a few more swells to drag the sand from the beach out onto the point.”

At the beach, Ben and I threw on our trunks and jumped into the water to  share a few head high point waves with an eclectic group of local surfers and visitors from Brazil and Ireland.

About an hour later, we caught up with Pablo and the town’s leaders as we screened films for about 200 local children and their parents.

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Pablo pointing making a point with me and Ben McCue in Barra de la Cruz.

“We aren’t interested in development,” said Pablo. “We went through all that after the 2006 Rip Curl Search Pro we hosted. People made offers to buy our beach. We’re beyond that though.”

The community of Barra de la Cruz is run in the old ways. The beach has been left undeveloped. Residents volunteer their time to staff a small surfside palapa restaurant.

Surfers pay a twenty-peso entrance fee to use the beach and clean bathrooms with showers. Revenues from surfing tourism are reinvested back into the community.

“We are not interested in money,” said Pablo. “We are only interested in receiving training to help us run our eco-businesses. Money only brings us problems. But if we have strong businesses, we’ll have a strong community.”

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The coast beyond Barra.

During my dawn patrol the next day the surf was even bigger. The right point I surfed the previous morning was firing.

I snagged a few hollow rights for a quick session before my return flight home inspired by the beauty of coastal Oaxaca and the determination of its people.

Thanks to the Ayuntamiento de Puerto Escondido, Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga, Parque Nacional Huatulco, and the community of Barra de la Cruz for their hospitality.

Salina Cruz (Oaxaca) Surf Companies Protest Surfing Magazine Article

According to this post on ESPN by surf scribe Kimball Taylor, Salina Cruz surf companies are angry about a funny article about surfing in Oaxaca.

In an email dated September 22, Cesar Ramirez — a local surfer and a cornerstone of the surf tour business in Salina Cruz — asked flatly, “What was the guy who wrote the article thinking?”

The email went on to explain the delicate relationship forged by local surfers, businesses, tour guides, and the foreign surfers they hosted. It posited the rhetorical question of why the name of Salina Cruz hadn’t been spilled in such dramatic fashion before then. “Maybe for respect or friendship,” Ramirez answered. “All was good until today. Somebody with no balls to write his [own] name wrote the s—-iest article a surfer can write … Did it without respect and in the lowest form of professional ethics.”

The interesting aspect of this email, however, was that it carried weight:

“I hearby advise everyone that there has been a meeting between the local surfers in Salina Cruz including all the surf camps and as a result to this disgusting article … as of now, for 2 years foreign photographers and videographers are not welcome in Salina Cruz, doesn’t matter what surf team or what magazine they work for.”

Of the enforcement tools listed, the first was a legal one: an inspection of a photographer’s Mexican work visa — something few, if any, surf photographers obtain. The second tool was a bit more mercurial, depending on, “if we are in a good mood.”

Here is my comment on the ESPN site:

It is unfortunate that surf operators in Salina Cruz chose to proclaim a “fatwa” against international media coverage of surfing in southern Oaxaca. The irony of course is that it is the surf companies themselves that promote Salina Cruz as a destination through their websites that even include maps and site information.

Mexican tourism and surfing companies can’t have it both ways–they can’t complain about the unfair media coverage of violence in Mexico that has literally killed tourism and then threaten the only journalists and media companies who are promoting Mexico as a positive and beautiful place to visit.

I find it regrettable that these local operators would actually threaten physical violence against journalists which is a federal crime in Mexico. Few other countries direct as much violence against journalists as Mexico. This surfing “fatwa” is really a product of the unfortunate history of authoritarian rule and political culture in Mexico that has resulted in the deaths of many reporters.

The key issue in southern Oaxaca to remember, is that an indigenous community such as Barra de la Cruz has developed a very interesting and so-far positive tourism management plan that benefits the community rather than outside surf companies.

Other Chontal communities along the coast are following suit. It is important that visiting surfers respect the real locals on this coast–the historically marginalized and poverty stricken Chontal communities who view small-scale surfing tourism as a way to promote sustainable and community development and keep out Huatulco-style mega-projects.

What is lamentable is that local surf companies don’t see the real threat here–from Mexican agencies such as FONATUR that is continuing its ongoing campaign of destroying Mexico’s pristine coast to build mega-resorts that no one will come to.

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