YouTube Killed the Secret Spot

Can secret spots survive the age of social networking?

Your secret spot has finished loading. Photo: Gilley

I’ve often thought that a good sandbar is a kind of a temporary laboratory for the real kind of surf culture—the stuff that actually happens in a lineup. Just recently, however, I realized that a good sandbar is also the perfect laboratory for the idea of a secret spot as well.

Think of any long and relatively unhindered stretch of beach—from Hossegor to Big Sur—and you’ll find a clutch of surfers who keep an eye on the movement of sand. When a bar shapes up into something special, only a couple of trajectories can take place that essentially determine the culture of its lineup.

Either the first couple of surfers who discover the new break simply enjoy it, and return alone, or they blab, and lineup grows, maxing out a limited resource, causing the development of a hierarchy, and creating conditions for the purging of excess and unwanted surfers. The entire evolution can occur in the short lifespan of an average, middle-of-the-beach sandbar.

In essence, either this new “spot” remains a “secret,” or it doesn’t. But I would argue that a lineup that quickly develops on a sandbar is simply a condensed model of what happens to all types breaks when surfers communicate over time. The surfers who establish a spot make an agreement, an unspoken contract, that decides whether a particular break is granted a “secret,” or reserved, status. Either that agreement holds or it doesn’t, but the process is well established. In fact, the very idea of a “secret spot” has held such an ennobled, even mythical, position within the surf culture worldwide that it’s as iconic now as the idea of “the perfect wave” was 50 years ago.

As a cultural development, however, the “secret spot” may not last much longer. In fact, the tools of communication available today threaten to destroy the entire category of the “secret.” And those new media tools employ our personal vanity, or our professions, to do it.

Former Dream Tour surfer Shea Lopez has spent much of his retirement from competition surfing rare, out-of-the-way, or localized spots. He says documenting those spots, is a tricky proposition. “As a pro surfer, documenting your sessions is your livelihood. And so surfing and recording secrets is always a balance. But often times, I’m looking for waves that the average surfer just isn’t looking for, because they’re too remote, too heavy, or just too difficult to surf—rivers, currents, extreme tides, dry rocks, sharks, cold water, or all of the above,” Shea says.

Google claims to have extensive knowledge of "secret surf spots."

Surf magazine editors have long employed tricks to throw potential seekers off the trail, too (usually at the behest of photographers who want to return to these spots). I’ve seen a lighthouse erased, and headlands disappear. Shea says there are standards videographers adhere to as well: no geological anomalies, obvious markers, or even locals (because, let’s face it, some locals are so dedicated they might as well be geological features.)

But the democratization of the Internet has created a new phenomenon.

Earlier this winter, I traveled to a break I’d kept my eye on for a couple years because a man-made structure began to accumulate sand in its lee. It was like watching a geological feature being born, and when the first ridable waves appeared and the shape continued to grow into the extraordinary, a small group of surfers established the classic rotation and hushed tones of a secret spot. A video camera arrived one day, but I didn’t think much of it. Lots of surfers like to review and relive their sessions. The next swell, however, brought a celebrity surfer and his camera man, and the next swell brought more cameras and more pros. And then the crowds came in mass. The jig was up.

Later, I learned that the first video-maker had placed a clip on You Tube with that ever-attractive subhead: Secret Spot. In the video were markers, evidence, and plenty of clues.

The idea of its life on the web, and in the imaginations of unknown numbers of surfers obsessed me. Googling “secret spot” netted video clips from the coast of Georgia to a river in Switzerland, from Northern Sumatra to Los Angeles. Knowing surfers to be some of the most self-interested people on the planet, I found this self-inflicted blow amazing. The logic of it spun my mind it tight little eddies. It was like discovering King Tut’s tomb and twittering the GPS coordinates.

Then the inevitable happened, a surfer posted a clip partly titled “secret spot” to my Facebook page. This was an online “friend,” mind you, not someone I actually know, but someone I understood to be a regular, unsponsored surfer. And that very week, this surfer had surfed a spot he/she considered “secret,” and enjoyed it so much, they posted a video clip of the session onto the WORLD WIDE WEB.

Here is a sample of the responses the video accrued:

“Secret spot video rocks.”

“WOW!!! Way cool!”

“I know where that spot is but I’ll never tell. Great video.”

“Score!”

It turns out that it wasn’t one person, but a surfing couple who posted the video. The woman worked in PR, i.e. a professional crafter of messages. So, I had to ask: Why would you want to post video of a “secret spot” that you enjoy? What about the surfers who you shared the lineup with, and who also considered the spot “secret”? Did you perceive the conflict? And did your perspective on the act of posting the video change once you read all of the comments?

“We learned a lot in 12 hours of posted comments,” wrote my online friend. “I work in marketing so I know how powerful a headline can be. I think the lure of listing the secret spot is like saying ‘neener, neener, neener’ to the rest of the world—like ‘I was there and you weren’t. Ha ha.’ You want to be the star, not the rock you are surfing over.”

So in this case, the one thing that trumps a surfer’s best interest (or the ability to return to a secret spot and enjoy an uncrowded lineup, as well as honor the pact of that lineup to keep it secret) is the immediacy of one’s own glorification in the Internet age.

But the aspect about the slew of video clips titled “secret spot” that I found alarming was that all of the issues that might cause a professional to blow the lid off of a spot appear absent. Everyday surfers with everyday video equipment and software post their secrets on the Internet for bragging rights, and not much more. Yet, the very amateurism that makes those videos interesting also gives away the secrets: landmarks, road signs, reef markers, lighthouses, headlands.

You score, you edit, then you publish. But the power of the information age to exploit vanity, it seems, is stronger than this bit of culture called the “secret spot” that surfers have forged over the past century. Like the lifespan of a sandbar, I fear that the idea of a functioning secret spot will only have held a temporary place among us, degrading in the current until only the lesson of its passing will remain.