The Surfer’s Path’s favorite eco-warrior team heads to New Zealand to drop in on a few waves… and Parliament.
Words by: James Pribram
Photgraphy by: Will Henry
Every surfer has a dream. At first it’s just being able to catch a wave and ride it competently. Later, it may lead to other dreams – like becoming a professional surfer, or discovering a new wave, or maybe even helping other people. Surfing can lead you on a path towards various dreams, and I have been following mine since I was five.
Growing up on the coast in Laguna Beach was already like a dream. Watching my older brother John dominate the break in front of my parents’ house, I not only wanted to be like him, I wanted to be better. I wanted to be a pro – if for no other reason than that I didn’t want to work the 9-to-5 grind like the rest of the world. I wanted to spend my life in the ocean, surfing.
Once you have an aim, things can start happening. I had some success in the National Scholastic Surfing Association, became a high school state champion, and made the NSSA national team. I turned pro at 18, was sponsored by Op, surfed on the Bud Tour, then on the WQS tour off and on for nearly 14 years.
When I was 20 a knee injury kept me out of the water for six months, and while recovering I took a writing course. Soon, surfing and writing went hand and hand for me. Later on, when I lost my Op sponsorship, I started the Aloha School of Surfing in Laguna. I never gave up on being a pro surfer, yet that dream was looking more and more remote as the years rolled by. But it never kept me from finding and pursuing new dreams.
Eventually, I got involved in water quality and other beach-related issues in my hometown. I was appointed by the city council to sit on Laguna Beach water-quality and environmental committees. Then, late in 2005, my lucky stars aligned. Both The Surfer’s Path and Op were looking for a surfer who could write and was involved in the green fight. By the beginning of ’06, I was once again being paid to surf, and my main assignment was a new adventure that combined surf travel with environmental missions. I was now an “eco-warrior” and a guardian of the surf zone.
My mission was simple: find locations around the world that had great surf but also an environmental problem related to the waves and/or the water quality. A photographer would travel with me to document both the surf we encountered and the environmental work I was able to do. I would write about my trips – surf travel with a different sort of hook.
First stop, in April of 2006, was the chilly coast of Chile. Serendipitously, it was there I met my future co-pilot, Will Henry of Save the Waves. Will is not only a great cameraman, he’s the nuts and bolts of our missions into foreign lands. He is in charge of our special-ops program. He finds locations with the most pressing environmental concerns, researches them and sets up our meetings with local environmentalists and groups. He puts together each trip’s itinerary. Will’s a classic guy who walks it like he talks it. He’s the Big Guy. He likes a good cocktail, a good laugh, and we love to give each other heaps of crap. He’s a good friend and the key to our missions.
Destination: New Zealand
Going to New Zealand is probably a trip that just about every surfer dreams of. Rolling green hills covered with sheep, endless stretches of beach with good, juicy waves … it was so easy to imagine as another dream trip. I’ve been on a lot of great surf trips, but cruising around the North Island for 18 days in late March and early April with co-pilots Will Henry and film-maker Vince Deur in an RV promised to set a high bar… once we got started.
We arrived at the airport in Auckland to learn that an important meeting had just been set up in Wellington, some 15 hours of driving to the south, and our original itinerary was immediately scrapped. Should we fly or drive? We decided to stick to our plan to rent an RV, and would make the drive down as quickly as possible, then take our time heading back North. After all, we were slated to speak to a member of Parliament.
We pored over maps to maximize our surf exposure on the trip down, got the wheels, and hit the road … which led us to this nice wedging righthander that broke off of the corner of a headland near Raglan. Our first day in New Zealand found Will and I hooting and hollering as we surfed into darkness. Meanwhile, Vince was filming for our upcoming documentary entitled ECO-Warriors: Guardians of Surf … until his batteries … oops! Seems the airlines had lost one of Vince’s bags – the one most of his camera gear was in. He had a camera, and underwear, but no camera batteries.
After a fun session, Will took command of the wheel because, well … in all fairness, Vince is a pretty sketchy driver. And me? I was in the back seat drinking and heckling the driver. Sometime after midnight, Will pulled over and turned off the engine.
I awoke early to find us parked at a beautiful spot at the top of a cliff overlooking the beach. I was stunned by the pure perfection of the coastline below. Crystal-clear blue water and a dark sand beach leading south to a sparkling estuary that had me thinking that I was the luckiest man in the world to be in such a beautiful country.
We drove for several hours before we reached another suitable beach, one with a little left peeling into an estuary. The waves were only head-high at the most, the water-color was a picturesque aqua green, and the tide was dropping. Will and Vince talked me into paddling out and surfing it, but to my surprise I couldn’t reach the waves. The outgoing tide had set up an impossible current that kept me from reaching the peak. The current was roaring into the estuary and I felt like I was paddling on a treadmill. I grew frustrated… then pissed off… and then I started throwing a full-on tantrum. Just because I couldn’t reach the peak. How embarrassing, I thought.
At least I was providing Will and Vince with some solid comic relief. Finally I gave up and came in to the beach, where Will offered some words of advice: paddle way around from the outside and wait until you’re directly sideways to the peak, then sprint into it. I finally made it out and caught a fun little left, but now I was on the far side of the estuary where a big-ass sea lion became rather hostile towards me. Seems it was his beach and he didn’t want me on it. He chased me around in circles… until I paddled back to the beach and threw a few rocks to scare him off. This was localism of a different sort. It was a bit humiliating, but all in a day’s work for an eco-warrior.
The town of Whangamata reminds me of Laguna Beach in the late ’80s or early ’90s, when the beach culture was alive and well, when anyone from the butcher at the local grocery store to the neighborhood mailman could afford to live there … before the big money came into town and almost overnight changed the complexion of what was once a nice little artsy surf town.
Sadly, it seems Whangamata is going through a similar transformation, except maybe worse. The famed Whangamata Bar, an epic lefthand wave that reels along a sandbar, is being threatened by a marina. The wave is located at the mouth of an estuary, which forms the sandbar. But with a proposed plan to dredge huge amounts of material from the estuary to expand the harbor – and to construct a large seawall to protect the newly dredged channel – surfers and some experts fear these drastic changes inside the estuary will cause the sandbar to disappear. This will spell the end not only of the great left called Whangamata, but it will also blot out a big piece of New Zealand surf culture, as generations of locals have surfed this classic bar wave.
One such character is Paul Shanks, a good surfer in his own right but, more importantly, a surfer who has stood up to the challenge of this marina threat, forming the Surfbreak Protection Society (SPS) to unite surfers and other ocean enthusiasts to oppose this looming project. Shanks has been able to win the support of Tariana Turia, a member of Parliament and leader of the Maori party … and a heavyweight in New Zealand politics. You see, not only does the Whagamata marina project threaten one of New Zealand’s best waves, it also threatens an ancient Maori cultural site.
When we met Paul he told us that the fight over this harbor project had been going on for more than a decade. Many years ago, the boaters had even gone so far as to attempt to ban surfers from the lineup, stating that they were violating a law of proximity to a harbor entrance channel. Shanks and the local surfers fought back. Surfboards are vessels, they claimed, and had every right to the channel as an 8’ inflatable. The boaters then claimed that if that were the case, then the surfboards would have to be outfitted with the same requirements that boats had – they would need running lights. The battle between the two sides of the town was reaching comic proportions. Eventually the surfers won their right to continue surfing the bar – with or without running lights – but the boaters kept on pursuing their dream of a bigger harbor.
Meeting at Parliament
Never in a million years could I have imagined just how far my surfing dream would take me. Like … up the stairs and into the historic New Zealand Parliament building. Accompanied by Will and two representatives from the Surfbreak Protection Society, Grant McIntosh and Mike Gunson, reaching the top was one of the most special moments of my life. My hands were sweating and my heart was beating like an African drum.
Once through the metal detectors (and appropriately frisked), we were escorted to Tariana Turia’s office. Mrs Turia’s personality and passion were immediately apparent as she sat down with us to share a cup of tea. She took ample time to speak with us, offering her point of view on the marina threat and asking us for ours, and in the end it all came down to the kids: that the children who have for generations grown up on this strip of beach would lose their playground – Whangamata Beach – and this just wasn’t acceptable. Not to us and not to Tariana Turia.
When we left Parliament and the gracious Mrs Turia, we felt at least a little more hope that the tide could turn in Whangamata. After all, a bunch of surfers had just been escorted into Parliament, so at least someone was taking us seriously. Yet the fight goes on. Not only to save Whangamata’s beach and its bar, but so many other waves around the world. Thanks to the likes of surfers like Will Henry, Paul Shanks, and thousands of others who have the courage to make a stand, to protect the future dreams of their communities and their kids – there is new hope for turning this insatiable tide of development. Let’s hope that someday at least some of our dreams become reality.
Based in Laguna Beach, California, James Pribram travels the world to bring attention to threatened beaches and waves.