Between the Northern Baja cities of Rosarito and Ensenada lies a stretch of coast wholly unrelated to either municipality. For the traveler heading south on Mexican Federal Highway 1, on crossing a bridge at the south end of La Fonda, this stark region of agave and yucca appears to ascend, rising to a small rancho called Salsipuedes and ending in a slow descent as one approaches the last tollbooth before the port of Ensenada. Visitors have called it the Big Sur of Baja California, as corniced summits of red rock cascade into headlands and on to the sea itself. Like its Alta California counterpart, the highway feels tenuously secured to occasional perches, a thread floating between the peaks above and the depths below. The feeling of vulnerability this inspires is not without merit. The terrain is sheer and unstable. Massive sections have detached, taking out lengths of Highway 1 before crumbling to the water's edge.
Surfers have made pilgrimages along this coast to points farther south for 60 years. In the 1960s, old-timers have claimed, intrepid surfers would slide a few at Punta San Miguel (the site of the Baja Surf Club Invitational, and now within view of the Ensenada tollbooth), pack up, head north and eventually dip their boards into the breakers of Rincon all in a single day. Traffic, development and the border industrial complex have made such a feat all but impossible today.
Those same forces may have allowed the Costa Azul region to remain raw while other parts of Baja have been tamed. The terrain's inhospitality, of course, certainly lent another layer of protection. The name of the zone's extremely fickle pointbreak translates to "get out if you can."
The dramatic scale of the coast seemed to obscure potential waves in plain view. Although members of the La Jolla Surf Club day-tripped to Todos Santos in 1965, visible just 8 miles off the coast, its big-wave break, Killers, wasn't regularly challenged until the mid-'80s.
Two decades later, that feeling of untapped discovery may as well have been riding shotgun with photographer Jason Murray and surfers Rusty and Greg Long as they made their initial forays into the region. Rusty was just a year out of high school. His younger brother Greg was months away from winning the NSSA National Open Men's title at Trestles, an event that would change both of their lives. Rusty described himself and his brother as "ambitious surfers." They weren't yet the big-wave chargers they'd become, but Murray, a former photo editor at SURFER, says, "They were headed that way."
A lookout is nestled in a particularly daunting curve on the highway. Rusty says they'd stop there, pull out the binoculars and glass not only the known spots, but another prominent feature up coast. "This was the most exposed headland," Rusty says. "We could look up and see whitewater exploding off of it."
"We always wondered what was beyond Salsipuedes," says Murray. "There just didn't seem to be any way to access it."
Who knows how many passing surfers wondered the same thing? But for this crew, an answer was not too far off. A 15-foot swell loomed in the forecast, and the Longs, who were edging their way up the big-wave spectrum, planned a "two-day strike" on Killers. Their father, Steve Long, and his good friend Captain Bob Harrington volunteered to boat from Southern California down to Ensenada. The plan was to meet the boys at the marina there and then head the 8 miles out to Todos Santos. On the way down, Steve and Harrington navigated close to the coast. Just a few miles out from Ensenada, they made a point of investigating the headland that had lit the boys' imaginations. Off of a black tongue of rock projecting into the ocean, on a stretch of coast virtually off the map, Steve and Harrington spotted the backs of waves roiling upon what looked to be a legitimate break. Steve had spent his career as a state lifeguard at Trestles; he knew what a promising setup looked like. And, on closer inspection, this one was impressive — spitting and exploding onto exposed rock. The swell was a bit jumbled, however, and it was hard to assess the wave from behind. But it looked to have potential. Harrington and Steve took GPS coordinates.
Rusty and Greg surfed Killers from Harrington's boat as planned. They wanted to get comfortable paddling into big waves even in the tow-in era. But as the swell backed down, the crew hatched a scheme to return to Ensenada, employ the GPS device in Murray's vehicle and pinpoint their father's coordinates from land. Other than the coordinates, Murray says, all they really had was a hunch.
"We crept all along that coast, poking around," Murray remembers. They were able to find a track that paralleled the highway. When this ended, they found themselves at a creek bed. There were indications that vehicles had used this dry arroyo at some point. "It wasn't even a road — just a dirt-and-cobblestone path." This access eventually opened up on what Murray describes as "pastoral meadows," with agave spears springing up as far as the eye could see. "The kind of raw, old-time Mexico that had been removed from the rest of Northern Baja," he says. "It was just so pristine."
The road, Rusty remembers, was "as bad as any Baja road I've ever traveled." There was a hill that required a running start and "just pinning the engine" to get up. "It definitely had the wilderness feel," he says. "It felt like you were out there."
Nearing the ocean, they spotted a ranch house on a rise. A fishing camp lay along the shoreline. It was helter-skelter, comprised of a dozen or more rough structures built by itinerant fishermen as well as lobster traps, foam floats, engine parts and gear.
Then the surfers spotted the wave. The swell was still 12 feet on the buoys. "It was just kegging," Murray says. A right-hand slab at the top of the reef eventually connected to a reeling point-like section. "The way the wave broke suggested that it was coming from deep water. It was spitting and doing all of the things you'd want a wave to do." Rocks protruded extremely close to the takeoff zone. After suiting up, the surfers realized the challenge of even getting out. There didn't seem to be access points. The reef was covered with spiny urchins. Rusty thought, "You could get hurt surfing this wave."
"I'd be lying if I said it was perfect," says Murray.
Rusty describes their first session as sketchy. "We were really cautious," he says. If they fell at any point, they were sure to end up on the rocks.
Slab surfing was becoming the vanguard at that time. And this wave was not only a slab, but a pointbreak as well. Rusty figured it was the only wave like it in all of the Californias. Rather than an identifying or regional moniker, the crew decided to name the wave after the boat captain who'd helped discover it: Harry's.
They agreed to keeps its existence an absolute secret.
For decades, energy companies had sought viable West Coast locations to build liquid natural gas (LNG) receiving stations. The idea was to ship cheap natural gas in condensed liquid form from countries like Indonesia and Papua New Guinea across the Pacific to California, Oregon or Washington. The liquid could be heated into a gas and then injected into domestic pipelines for distribution. Historically, these projects faced vehement opposition because of the dangers they posed to people and the environment. Environmentalists cited air pollution and marine degradation as certain outcomes. They also feared that an accident at such a plant could ignite vast areas with a flammable gas cloud. Activists fought LNG terminals on the premise that the U.S. didn't need to develop yet another fossil-fuel habit.
Another problem for LNG developers was that the U.S. market didn't need those imports anyway. By the early 2000s, the Department of Energy (DOE) was forecasting modest but steady increases in domestic production of natural gas. An industry association called the National Petroleum Council agreed, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. A surge in renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power was also expected to reduce demand for natural gas. In such a scenario, to build an environmentally disruptive LNG import hub in the highly regulated Western states of California, Oregon and Washington appeared to be a nonstarter.
Mexico, on the other hand, had begun to privatize its gas industry in the mid-1990s. At that point the nation had no infrastructure to move the product, and there was no oversight or permitting norms regarding LNG. Despite these challenges, the mere possibility of building a terminal in coastal Baja California, and piping that gas across the border to U.S. markets, ignited a race among energy companies. In the early 2000s, at least six were vying for position in Baja, according to Bill Powers, an engineer and energy activist who followed these developments. By 2004, a company out of Texas called Marathon Oil seemed to be leading the pack; it had won the first permit from the Mexican government and had purchased land for what it called an "energy center." Along with an LNG terminal, the center included two items useful to the city of Tijuana: a wastewater-treatment plant and a desalinization plant. Plus, its 3.2 acres were located about as close to the border as possible, just south of Playas de Tijuana, nearly within view of the U.S.
San Diego–based Sempra Energy, owner of power utility San Diego Gas & Electric, was not about to give up the race to Marathon Oil. Sempra had recent experience building a natural-gas pipeline in Mexicali. It was politically connected in both countries, and Mexico's opening market was an obvious opportunity.
Producing its own supply-and-demand forecast, Sempra launched a publicity campaign in 2004 to warn of drastic shortages of natural gas in Southern California 15 years hence. Despite DOE and industry forecasts to the contrary, then-president of Sempra Energy LNG Darcel Hulse told the Union-Tribune, "There is no way we can reverse the decline." Production would plummet and demand would soar, he said. Sempra employed this argument to win approval from the California Public Utilities Commission to pipe LNG from Baja into California. The ace up Sempra's sleeve was that, to some extent, the DOE's forecast of ample natural gas supplies was irrelevant. Sempra profits would come not through selling gas, but by leasing the option of moving LNG through its plant. Come push to shove, according to Powers, Sempra could simply sell the imported gas to its own utilities — SDG&E and SoCalGas — thus putting Southern California ratepayers on the hook no matter what happened to the price of domestically produced gas.
Then, in the spring of 2004, something mysterious happened: The governor of Baja California, Eugenio Elorduy Walther, ordered Marathon Oil's Tijuana property to be expropriated by the state of Baja California, effectively killing the project that would have rivaled Sempra's.
By this time, Sempra had chosen a site farther down the coast, in an area that seemed too remote to trigger serious opposition.
To get to know the many faces of their new discovery, Murray says, "We knew we'd have to sacrifice swells and pay our dues." Around 2001, the crew committed to return to Harry's on every good-size swell. Their van was well known among Baja surfers, and they were leery of being spotted turning off of the highway or along the stretch of track that paralleled it, so Murray and the Longs always entered the dirt road in the pre-dawn hours.
The sun rose over the peninsula at their backs. The landscape began to seep into them as much as they it. "It was an untouched environment," Rusty says. "Nobody went in there except for the fishermen. It was just a stunning place."
The fishermen said that they'd never seen surfers on this point, and they paused in their work to watch the Longs try to figure it out. With time, the crew found two keyholes they could use to enter and exit the surf. On a 6-foot swell, the top section was its own distinct wave, a barrel that Rusty, in his understated manner, called "pretty exciting." At 10-foot, the slab ran into the next section of reef and then all the way down the line.
"There was no hesitating," Murray says. "As soon as you took off, you were in the barrel."
Rusty experienced a particularly nasty spill — one of those wipeouts where he knew it was going to be bad even before he lost his feet. In free fall, he covered his head with his forearms. The bounce off the reef was "really hard." He was then rag-dolled across the urchin-covered reef, speared with spines on each brush with the bottom.
When he swam out to get water shots, Murray managed a different set of dangers. "It was definitely spooky out there," he says. "It's as close as land can get to deep water."
There were tuna farms offshore, giant netted enclosures that were sometimes penetrated by white sharks. Rusty says he felt more exposed to the elements at Harry's than sitting out at Todos Santos. It was easy to connect the feeling of deep water just beyond the reef with the abundance of sea life. "Schools of yellowfin, dolphin, whales. Crystal-clear water. Kelp in the bay. I'd never seen so much marine life before. It was a sanctuary," he says.
Murray remembers talking it over with the brothers: "This is where we want to spend our surf lives: off the grid, on the frontier, searching for discovery." The idea of uncovering a world-class wave two hours from their doorsteps, virtually under the noses of so many passing surfers, made them wonder what else was out there.
"We were over the moon," Rusty says.
In the end, however, the trio couldn't keep that kind of enthusiasm to themselves. As the photo editor of SURFER, it was Murray's job to create content for his publication. As budding professional surfers, it behooved Rusty and Greg to draw attention to their feats. And here they were, sitting on the gold standard of surf editorial: a secret world-class surf spot. It was probably inevitable that they would eventually introduce Harry's to the world.
In the winter of 2002-03, the explorers invited surfers Brad Gerlach and Brian Conley on one of their missions. This strike was timed to meet prime conditions.
Murray created imagery that seemed to dwarf the participants on an outsized landscape, at the edge of an eternal ocean, in the curl of overhead tubes. The article Murray wrote to accompany the photos was brief and intentionally empty of detail. Conley earned the cover shot with a midline drive through an azure tube. According to Murray, Conley had taken to the wave, enough to return with his own photographer soon after — just one signal that word was about to spread.
But this wave discovery was not going to play out as so many others had.
Toward the end of that first full season surfing Harry's, the crew spotted outsiders on the point. Rusty describes them as "engineer types." On the next visit, the surfers noted survey stakes upon the landscape. Then they saw the heavy equipment, bulldozers and dump trucks.
"It just happened that quick," Murray says.
In order to save their secret spot, its discoverers believed they had to reveal it to the world and hope that it wasn't too late for others to care. The Longs' profiles had been heightened due to their success in big waves. Murray's imagery was proof of Harry's quality and the inherent value of its pristine environment. They used these assets to engage surf-related environmental organizations Save the Waves and Wildcoast. These organizations mobilized their supporters and launched a media campaign and protest tour from Ensenada to Oxnard. The environmental organizations also asked the California Public Utilities Commission to reconsider its approval of Sempra's plan to pipe in gas from Baja.
A joint press release quoted then-20-year-old Greg Long: "Harry's is an epic, backdoor barrel that will go the way of Killer Dana if we don't stop it from being destroyed."
But Harry's was unlike Killer Dana in that nobody knew it existed before the campaign to save it. For Murray, it seemed that as soon as they had become aware of the Sempra development, the "ship had already sailed."
Because it was being built in a country that previously had no regulations regarding LNG import, the Sempra Costa Azul terminal progressed extremely fast, despite the fact that it was a one-of-a-kind facility planned for a wild and unstable coast. By 2002, Sempra had designated a site and managed to get a decades-old zoning ordinance changed from protected to a status that would allow for the unprecedented terminal. In 2003, the company picked up the last of several permits it needed to build the plant. It inked deals with LNG suppliers, and by March 2005, Sempra broke ground on the Costa Azul facility.
Fishermen and ranchers were evicted from the land. Contractors leveled the fishing camp, bulldozed a ranch house and installed roads. Thousands of temporary workers descended on the site. The round casings for the storage tanks rose skyward, reminiscent of another twin-domed facility up the coast at San Onofre. The point at Harry's was reshaped by a jetty. The seabed was reconfigured in preparation for a breakwater meant to withstand a hundred-year storm. Mexican president Felipe Calderón attended the plant's inauguration in August 2008. The complex was set to process a billion cubic feet of LNG per day.
But the inertia of the project would not last.
Allegations of corruption began to emerge in 2010. In a lawsuit and to the media, a former Sempra executive-turned-whistleblower alleged that he had unknowingly participated in paying a bribe to Mexican officials and that he had been fired for asking too many questions. A rancher also sued, claiming that Sempra had taken his land. In 2011, the FBI opened an investigation into possible violations by Sempra of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
In 2015, investigative journalism site Voice of San Diego probed Sempra's bid to launch its LNG terminal in Baja. Reporter Liam Dillon dug up and published key documents. One was an internal Sempra memo describing a $7 million trust funded by Sempra that was set up to benefit the city of Ensenada. The then-mayor of Ensenada, Jorge Catalán Sosa, would be president of the trust's committee. The memo states, "As a result, on August 12, 2003 the Land Use permit was signed by the Mayor."
The Voice of San Diego also published the FBI's investigation reports, titled "Sempra Energy; Foreign Corrupt Practices Act." This document called the trust agreement described by the memo as a "quid pro quo arrangement." In summary, investigators wrote, "… there are ample facts and indicators which reflect that Sempra and its business executives may have engaged in criminal activity …"
Sempra denied allegations of wrongdoing to the authorities and to the media.
In 2011, shifting politics in Mexico made for drama at the actual plant as well. According to the Union-Tribune, the new mayor of Ensenada, Enrique Pelayo Torres, ordered Ensenada police to shut the plant down. In a statement, Pelayo said that the land-use permits authorized by the previous administration were improperly issued. The move to close the plant, however, was thwarted by state and federal authorities, who stepped in to keep the plant running. The Union-Tribune called the event a "showdown."
In the end, the terminal was not shuttered, and Sempra battled its detractors in court.
According to the FBI investigation reports, Sempra was allowed to hire its own investigators and to essentially investigate itself for wrongdoing. In a follow-up meeting with the FBI, Sempra's counsel stated that their own investigation proved it had broken no laws. It remains unclear whether the FBI agreed with Sempra's self-assessment, but the bureau has yet to file charges against the company.
Yet the ensuing quiet at the Costa Azul facility may have indicated the biggest problem of all.
A fact that deepens the loss of Harry's is that the early DOE forecast for increased domestic production of natural gas was accurate. Further, demand has leveled, sources of renewable energy have expanded and the development of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have revealed that the United States is sitting on a 100-year supply of natural gas. In 2008, the year the plant became operational, estimates of U.S. reserves jumped 35 percent.
According to Powers, this may not matter to Sempra. Due to investments and leases it locked in before development, he says, the plant has remained profitable while processing a mere fraction of its capacity. Powers called Sempra's LNG plant a "white elephant," because it never needed to do any work.
According to Powers, utility companies' real efficiency lies in the political realm. "This is where Sempra is the best in the business," he says.
At the time of its construction, the Costa Azul LNG terminal was not the only controversial development planned in Baja. Speculators bought the land surrounding Salsipuedes and planned to build a massive suburb, including a mall, on the unstable cliffs. A Mexican government project called Escalera Nautica attempted to build 22 marinas and resorts on top of some of the coast's prime surf breaks. These developments shared similar qualities: suspect forecasts, little oversight, political wrangling. Unlike the LNG plant, almost all of them have been stalled.
In 2005, during the initial phase of the construction, Murray traveled back to Harry's with Wildcoast executive director Serge Dedina. They took photos and video. In a clip uploaded to YouTube, heavy equipment leveled the terrain and dumped massive boulders directly onto Harry's reef to make a jetty. This would extend out to a docking site for LNG shipments. Murray realized that the very thing that made Harry's so powerful — its proximity to deep water — also made it a target for Sempra's plans to bring large ships so close to land.
Long after construction of the LNG terminal was completed, Rusty would stop at the lookout off Highway 1, pull out his binoculars again and have a look at what Harry's had become.
"That place should have been a designated nature preserve. That's how beautiful it was," Rusty says. "It's a tragedy."
[This feature originally appeared in SURFER 58.4, “Life & Death of Waves,” on newsstands and available for download now.]