I remember changing into my wetsuit on the sidewalk in the twilight, watching lanky egrets stand statuesque in the Oneonta Slough, a winding offshoot of the Tijuana River that fronts the southern stretch of coastal Imperial Beach, California. The quiet of that predawn hour, coupled with the stillness of the marshland, gave the normally tedious act of climbing into neoprene an almost meditative quality.
This was a ritual my friends and I repeated frequently, as we’d become deeply enamored with the powerful lefts that tore across the nearby beach on south swells. We’d paddle out along the vast, empty beach fronting the slough, where we’d get into a leg-burning rotation of riding a dozen or so lefts up the beach, then jogging back to whichever peak we started at to do it all over again.
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There was a catch to surfing IB, however: Despite the seemingly pristine nature of the beach and surrounding marshland, it was often contaminated by urban runoff and sewage from the Tijuana River. Returning home surfed out and satisfied from a session, only to get a sinus infection or low-grade fever within 24 hours, was par for the course.
According to the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health, the stretch of coast from the Imperial Beach Pier down to the Mexican border has been closed due to contamination more than 1,800 times since 2006. (For comparison, nearby La Jolla beaches have been closed 10 times in that same time frame.) The worst of Imperial Beach’s pollution woes happened in February, when, according to an investigation by the International Boundary and Water Commission, a sewer pipe in Mexico broke, allowing 28 million gallons of sewage to enter the Tijuana River and local lineups shortly thereafter. The same investigation revealed that up to 256 million gallons of wastewater from Tijuana may also have entered the river system.
Watching aerial footage of the effluent entering the ocean, curving in the current like an enormous brown snake, was a sobering moment. I realized that it would be a long time before I considered paddling out at what was once my favorite wave in San Diego, and it brought the subtle vulnerability of surf spots into sharp focus.
Surfers often think of breaks as static, inert entities, but, in truth, surf spots are in a constant state of flux, and the story of a wave can occasionally take on a dramatic arc resembling life. Each break has a beginning, both in the geological sense and in terms of when surfers first pioneer it. Each spot also undergoes changes over time, whether it’s a fluke swell creating a once-in-a-decade sandbar, an earthquake altering a section of reef, a toxic-waste spill rendering the wave temporarily unsurfable or a lineup becoming vastly more populated as it gains acclaim among surfers. You could say that, in a way, surf spots lead lives just as dynamic as those who ride them.
This issue is all about the lives of waves — how we affect them and how they affect us. Features editor Justin Housman recently traveled to Nazaré to better understand how an obscure Portuguese fishing town became the coliseum of modern big-wave surfing, and how that shift has affected the town and its residents (“Embracing Colossus”). Managing editor Ashtyn Douglas trekked to the South Pacific to report on the unique challenges facing the coastline and inhabitants of the Solomon Islands as accelerated sea-level rise rapidly encroaches on their land (“The Drowning Isles”). And senior writer Kimball Taylor pieced together the incredible story of Harry’s, a former secret slab in Northern Baja that was revealed to the world only on the eve of its destruction by a San Diego–based energy company (“Of Waves and White Elephants”).
As surfers, our lives and the lives of the waves we ride are deeply intertwined. We’re acutely aware of changes occurring in our lineups and the implications that those changes have both in the natural environment and within coastal communities.
In the case of Imperial Beach and the surrounding areas, surfer-led groups like Surfrider, Wildcoast and the Coronado Surfing Association reacted to recent contamination by organizing marches and cleanup efforts in Imperial Beach, encouraging residents to contact their representatives and demanding that the International Boundary and Water Commission investigate the origin of the spill. While their fight to clean up Imperial beach is far from over, it’s important for all surfers to follow their example and do what we can to protect our waves and coastal communities, both at home and abroad. Because while waves may have lives of their own, they do not have voices — unless we speak for them.
TODD PRODANOVICH, Editor
[Above photo: Imperial Beach, San Diego, California. Photo by Wallis]