Shark Advocate

Two decades after losing most of his right leg to a tiger shark attack, Mike Coots bears no ill will toward the species. In fact, he's made protecting sharks a lifelong cause. Coots is an ambassador for the environmental wing of The Pew Charitable Trusts, a position that he's used to advocate for laws to help prevent shark killing. In 2009 Coots spoke up for sharks and against shark finning in front of the United Nations as well as before the U.S. Congress, where he met with his home-state senators, Daniel Akaka and the late Daniel Inouye. The next year, Hawaii banned the sale and possession of shark fins, at least partly due to Coots' activism. "Ironically," Coots says, "being a shark-attack survivor has opened doors and given me the chance to speak about how much sharks are needed for our oceans."

Surfers Against Sewage

Ever see those creepy but memorable ads in surf mags of people in hazmat suits standing in front of a polluted wasteland? How about the equally creepy shots of surfers tossing around huge inflatable turds? If so, then you know Surfers Against Sewage, the UK's biggest surf-focused environmental watchdog group, now entering their third decade of keeping all kinds of shit—literally—from pouring into English coastal waters. Led by Hugo Tagholm, a longtime advocate for sane environmental legislation, the group has goaded the British government into setting aside billions of British pounds sterling to monitor sewage and marine litter pollution. "Environment, waves, community," says Tagholm. "This is what we strive to protect and promote every day."

Grain Surfboards

Close your eyes and imagine surfing in Maine: beards, leather boots, and wooden surfboards, right? Yes, absolutely. At least when it comes to Grain Surfboards. Founder Mike LaVecchia and his team carve out handbuilt boards from sustainably managed white cedar groves near Grain's York, Maine, workshop. Grain's hollow boards are glassed with organic resins, and all their offcuts are used in their "Waste No Waste" initiative. "Our motivation is mainly to convince more and more people that wood is a real alternative to foam," he says, "and that it's more satisfying to build your own board than to buy one off the rack."

Surfing For Change

Santa Cruz, California, is an activist town, though the activists aren't normally drawn from the surf scene. Kyle Thiermann is an exception. As an 18-year-old student in 2008, the Santa Cruz ripper launched his "Claim Your Change" campaign to point out that big U.S. banks often invest customer deposits in ecologically destructive developments. "Claim Your Change" then morphed into "Surfing For Change," a series of web videos that highlight people who work to better the environment. Thiermann's latest efforts focus on reducing plastic pollution and fighting Monsanto's experimentation with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Hawaii. "We all know the surf world is facing massive environmental and social issues," explains Thiermann, "but there are a lot of people working to solve them. Our main aim is to get more young people involved."

Co-Founders, Sustainable Surf

For eco-friendly surfboards to become a large-scale commercial reality, there must first be an infrastructure to join customers, shapers, and materials. Enter Michael Stewart and Kevin Whilden, founders of Sustainable Surf. The pair first grabbed the surf world's attention in 2011 with their Styrofoam-recycling Waste to Waves campaign. Their ECOBOARD program is even more ambitious—a set of standards that guarantees a surfboard fixed with an ECOBOARD stamp is built from eco-friendly materials. Some of the world's biggest board-makers, including Channel Islands, Mayhem, and Firewire, now sell ECOBOARDs. But those are just the first steps toward the much broader conservation approach that drives Sustainable Surf, including "greening" ASP World Tour events. "We're not about making eco-friendly boards," says Stewart. "We're not about recycling Styrofoam. We're about making surfboards the on-ramp for an ocean-friendly life."

Center for Surf Research

Just because you're on a surf trip doesn't mean you have to stomp a big ecological footprint into the ground. That's the philosophy of Dr. Jess Ponting's Center for Surf Research (CSR) at San Diego State University. The CSR hopes to nudge surf tourism into the sustainable ledger by merging academic problem solving with surf trips, environmental preservation, and community building. Some of CSR's programs include STOKE, a sustainability certification program for surf camps, and Surf Credits, a mitigation program that allows traveling surfers to buy conservation based credits to offset the environmental impact of their globetrotting. "Historically, surf travel doesn't have a great track record," says Ponting, "so I want to ensure that our surfing lives impact the places we visit in a positive way."


"Do it yourself…do it yourself." This is the mantra that runs through Cyrus Sutton's head every morning as he gets out of bed. And nobody in surfing puts in a harder day's work to spread the gospel of DIY than Sutton. In 2009 he founded the beloved website Korduroy.tv, which has since inspired surfers around the world to, among many other things, buy less and conserve more. "I don't think the solutions to our world's problems come from participating in any cause," says Sutton, "other than changing ourselves."


Surfer, nature photographer, and now a researcher in coastal communities and climate adaptation at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, Shannon Switzer is a member of the National Geographic Young Explorers program and earned a grant from National Geographic to document pollution concerns in the San Diego River watershed. "The issues affecting our rivers and ocean in San Diego are similar to those faced by coastal communities elsewhere," says Switzer. "Solutions we learn to implement here can potentially help further watershed conservation around the world."

Below the Surface

River systems may not be an obvious thing to study when you're pondering ocean health, but when rivers empty into the sea, what goes on upstream has a big impact downstream at the coast. Kristian Gustavson, a Scripps-trained oceanographer and Blacks regular, knows that better than most and is building a three-dimensional computer model of rivers around the world to help make the complex river/ocean relationship a bit more clear. Says Gustavson, "Downstream problems require upstream solutions. We're working to fill that void."

CEO, Surfrider Foundation

To be the CEO at Surfrider, you need four things: a bachelor's degree from Brown, a master's degree from Duke, a PhD from UCLA, and a dedication to preserving coastal resources. At least that's the path Chad Nelsen took. The Laguna Beach, California, local has been fighting the good fight with Surfrider since 1998, focusing lately on the economics of surf breaks. Surfrider has won many coastal battles since its founding in 1984, and Nelsen credits those victories to the work of the rank-and-file volunteers. "Anyone who is willing to put in the work," he says, "can have a major impact on ocean protection."

Project Clean Uluwatu

Once upon a time—say, five years ago—to walk down to the cave at Uluwatu meant you had to scramble past 30 tons of trash and raw sewage. After rains, that waste ended up in the sea at the mouth of the cave, an otherwise beautiful stretch of ocean fronting one of the most spectacular lefthanders on Earth. Tim Russo and Curtis Lowe, two longtime Bali residents, decided to change that. They cleaned up the dump site, installed a trash collection and recycling system, and raised money to build a modern septic system to deal with the waste produced by the dozens of hastily built restaurants, bars, and surf shacks lining the cliffs at Uluwatu. They also helped form a committee of local leaders to manage future problems. "It's exciting how people want to help protect Uluwatu," says Russo. "It should be a World Heritage Site."


First woman to surf in Iran. First woman to surf Ireland's hell-slab, Mullaghmore. Five-time Irish national surf champion. Easkey Britton's surfing bona fides are well established, but her real work lies in protecting a healthy relationship between humanity and the ocean. "The health and well being of humans and the ocean are inextricably interconnected," says Dr. Britton, who earned her PhD in environmental science in 2013. Since then, when not speaking out for how surfing can jumpstart social change, she's been working with Too Big to Ignore, a research group that fights to protect small-scale and sustainable fisheries worldwide.

Founder, WiLDCOAST

If you've spent much time on a surf/camp trip down the Baja peninsula, you know how wild and undeveloped most of the coast is. To Serge Dedina—geologist, author, and conservationist—that's how it should stay. After college, the Imperial Beach, California, native and frequent Baja surf-tripper turned his attention to preserving Baja's coastal resources. He founded WiLDCOAST, a nonprofit conservation group that has preserved more than 3 million acres of coastal land in both Mexico and the U.S., in 2000. Most famously, WiLDCOAST worked to help prevent the construction of a series of yacht harbors along the Baja coast that would have ruined a half-dozen perfect pointbreaks while threatening sensitive ecosystems. "I understand the stakes involved in coastal conservation," says Dedina, "and what it means for everyone who lives for the ocean."

Founder, Patagonia

"Don't Buy This Jacket" was written in bold across the top of a Patagonia ad in The New York Times on Black Friday, 2011. The ad used stats to describe the ecological impact involved in making the jacket, sending a clear message: Don't buy what you don't need. That's the guiding motto of Yvon Chouinard, who built Patagonia on a foundation of sustainability, just by making products that lasted so much longer than anything else on the market, mountaineering gear first, then clothing, and eventually surf equipment, including the industry's most environmentally-friendly wetsuits. Mega-corporations like Walmart now approach Chouinard for advice on sustainable business models. More recently, Patagonia became the first registered California Benefit Corporation, a status that requires the company to factor in environmental impact when judging financial performance. "We have to consume less," says Chouinard, "and consume better."

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