15 October 2010


Trash and a dead seagull at the waterline
Water is the essential element for a surfer. It is the canvas on which we express ourselves, carving the faces of waves formed by distant winds. The ocean can be playful but also dangerous, and requires our full concentration, driving away the worries and cares we shoulder on land. Each wave is unique, as is each rider's dance upon it. The stoke we receive from this close interaction with the ocean cannot be fully understood by those who have never experienced it. We come to crave this contact with the sea, and when there is no swell, or land obligations prevent us from surfing, we get cranky and talk of our gills drying out or needing to dip our mermaid tails in the sea. The drive to surf becomes a hunger, a deep need ranking high as something we require to nurture our souls, fulfilled only by more time on the water.

Ouflow from an abalone farm
But the same ocean waters that give us such pleasure can also do us harm. They may harbor invisible pathogens that cause illnesses such as gastroenteritis, hepatitis, and MRSA. While some localities test beach water quality, reporting is often spotty or untimely, so surfers usually will not know whether the water is unsafe at their break. Health officials advise that contact with ocean water should be avoided for 72 hours following rain to lessen the risk of contacting potentially contaminated runoff. But if the swell is good, and we are jonesing for surf, this is hard advice to follow. It also seems a vague standard, since much will depend on the amount of rain, whether it is the first rain of the season, and the sources of runoff at the particular location. If we could know for certain, most of us would be deterred, but without concrete information, we may gamble that the water is clean.

The water that made me sick
In seven years of surfing, I've avoided the water for a few days after the first heavy rain in the fall, but have sometimes surfed in the rain or in water that was visibly murky from runoff. Only once was I laid low by gastroenteritis, a case of Montezuma's revenge without the surf trip to Mexico. The longboarders' wave at Cowells beach in Santa Cruz is marred by a drainage pipe spilling runoff onto the beach. Although it hadn't rained very recently, those waters were contaminated and sickened me earlier this year.

Horse and manure on the beach
Agriculture and recreational use of animals are additional sources of local water pollution. Farms dot the lonely rural coastline between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz, raising cattle, abalone, strawberries and other produce. There are also several horse rental facilities located close to Half Moon Bay State Beach, which runs for miles along the crescent-shaped bay. I have to hope that their wastewater is properly contained. At the southern end of the state park, horses are allowed on the beach, where they deposit feces that are only removed when rain or tide wash them into the ocean. It mystifies me that dog guardians are required to clean up after even the tiniest chihuahua, yet horse riders are not responsible for the much larger piles dropped by their animals. Does the American infatuation with romanticized notions of our western cowboy past create an exemption for manure? It's unlikely that horse dung is somehow safer than dog poop, acceptable in sand used to build castles before a picnic and in water used for swimming and surfing. Believe it or not, there are actually horse diapers available, or perhaps the rental businesses could send out a worker with a shovel to clean up messes. We shouldn't have our shoreline and ocean fouled by a canter along the sand.

Garbage floating in Pillar Point Harbor
My home break is the Jetty at the north end of Half Moon Bay, where plans are underway to dredge the adjacent Pillar Point Harbor and dump the extracted sand over the breakwall to replenish the beach. This is a temporary solution to the erosion of local beaches and the silting of the harbor caused by the creation of a network of protective riprap walls half a century ago. While some say the harbor sediments are safe and will not harm surfers once deposited at our break, I'm skeptical. I've seen what irresponsible boaters dump overboard, and fifty years is a long time to accumulate toxins in a busy harbor.

The water we surf in may be contaminated by runoff, waste or other toxins, but when we paddle hard to catch a wave, pop to our feet quickly and make the drop down the face, that's the last thing on our minds.

This post is in support of Blog Action Day, an annual event that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day with the aim of sparking a global discussion and driving collective action.


  1. Great blog for two reasons! The first for the pure surfer poetry in which you describe the indescribable call to the ocean that I have heard since I first stepped foot into her vastness! Secondly for profoundly understanding how much ocean pollution there is today. We must first and foremost protect our local waters in hopes of making a more global impact. We must be the voice for the ocean when she falls silent to the pollution that is readily sent her way!

  2. Thanks, Mikala! We do need to speak up for the ocean.