A couple months back, I got a phone call from a guy—let's call him Mr. Muir—who runs a surfy nonprofit focused on environmental causes. It's an organization you've probably heard of, trying their damnedest to preserve great surf spots around the world from threats you had no idea even existed. "You want them on that wall; you need them on that wall," as Jack Nicholson would say.
Mr. Muir was frustrated and looking for a little advice from someone embedded in surf media. He explained that most of the donations his organization receives for ocean-related causes come from people who have never set foot on a surfboard, and, inexplicably, getting hardcore surfers to care about protecting the ocean has proven to be extremely difficult. Mr. Muir wanted to know why.
I pondered his question for a minute, glanced out the window at my gas-guzzling pickup in the driveway, and felt the tiniest (very fleeting, I assure you) pang of guilt as a realization began to dawn on me. While I may not be the biggest eco-warrior out there, I do care deeply about the state of the oceans and often wring my hands in worry about ever-increasing threats to the environment, both in the ocean and on land. But my love of surfing somehow feels completely separate from any concerns I have about the state of the oceans. I could be in the middle of writing an article about horrid oceanic pollutants, but if my local cam looks good, I'd still rush out for a few waves, completely forgetting about whatever watery ecological disaster I'd been consumed with moments before. It's as if my environmentalism and my life as a surfer are two entirely compartmentalized things, which seems contradictory for someone who gets their kicks in the great outdoors. But perhaps being a surfer doesn't automatically make one an outdoorsperson, and that's the key to understanding the cause of Mr. Muir's frustration.
The Malloys would probably agree that they're outdoorsmen and they surf. Not that they're outdoorsmen because they surf—and that distinction is huge.
Surfing's outdoors credentials are basically the same as snowboarding's. Like snowboarding, surfing obviously requires you to be outside. (At least it does for now. Lord knows what the future of computer-groomed artificial waves may bring—really good snack bars, probably.) And though both activities rely on natural forces—kinetic wave energy or gravity—dropping oneself into the middle of nature isn't necessarily the end goal; it's more of a pleasant byproduct. Snowboarders and surfers are equally stoked by the sensation of flying and g-force-generating carving. It's that joyous rush of speed we're chasing, not the fact that it's happening in "nature." Now compare that with something like backpacking, hunting, or mountain climbing, where immersing yourself completely in the wild is the whole point and the sole reason for that pursuit's existence.
That may seem counterintuitive at first, and I realize it's a broad generalization, so bear with me if you're reading this magazine while swinging in an ultra-light hammock on a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. But even if you are, take a look around: how many other surfers have you seen out there?
Phil Edwards, the most influential surfer in the world in the late 1950s and early 1960s, once famously remarked that he didn't much care for the beach; it was simply something he walked across to get to the waves. And I think that idea can be expanded to replace "the beach" with "the great outdoors" for most modern surfers. Look at the salivating the surf world did over Slater's wave pool, for instance. A perfect wave completely removed from the natural world? Sign us up. No tidal swings to worry about—it can be built indoors, so no need to worry about pesky winds or fluctuating water temperatures or, you know, absence of swell. It's the surf experience distilled to its barest essence and completely removed from the "out of doors" world. And we can't wait for one to be built near us. We'll work ourselves into a catatonic stupor sitting glued to a computer screen clicking "play" over and over again on YouTube clips of Slater's pool, our appetite for the fake waves insatiable.
All of this is why, I think, Mr. Muir receives donations to his cause from outdoors enthusiasts who've never set foot on a surfboard, but struggles with generating interest from lots of us who've dedicated our lives to surfing in the ocean. If you're an outdoors enthusiast and your passion is simply connecting with the natural world, the ocean is just as important as the mountains, the rivers, or the sun-lashed deserts. But when you're obsessed with burying the rail, landing air reverses, or getting barreled, the fact that the canvas on which we produce our surfy masterpieces is composed of the most primeval natural force on the planet can be overlooked surprisingly quickly.
Of course there are plenty of well-known exceptions to my theory. Shane Dorian is about as much of an outdoorsman as you'll find. If he could figure out a way to hunt elk while stroking into a 40-foot wave on the Oregon coast, I'm sure he'd try it. Mark Healey would join him. And the Malloy brothers would probably strap Yeti coolers full of food they'd killed or harvested by hand onto the backs of their horses and ride all the way to my San Francisco home just to kick my ass if they read this and thought I was accusing them of not being outdoorsy. But here's the thing: I'm willing to bet that once the beatings subsided, the Malloys would probably agree that they're outdoorsmen and they surf. Not that they're outdoorsmen because they surf—and that distinction is huge.
Do you have to be a tree-hugging, flannel-wearing outdoors nut just because you surf? Of course not. But I think the disconnect many of us feel between the act of surfing and the oceanic environment required for surfing goes a long way toward explaining the whistling surfers seem to be doing past the graveyard of oceanic ruin. We know seas are warming, rising, acidifying, and being filled with pollution, which is slowly starving sea life of oxygen, bleaching reefs, and forever ruining surf spots. But even if the ocean became a giant pool of sulfuric acid, all it would take is the wind to switch, the tide to drop, and that sandbar to start firing, and we'd be out there, blissfully unaware of how toxic our playground has become.