At noon and five p.m. every day, a bell rings throughout the verdant coastal town of Ikumi Beach in the Shikoku Province of Japan. It is the communal lunch chime that later in the day doubles as a curfew reminder for schoolchildren. For me the bell was an alarm clock, summoning me to the surf.
In March 2006, I won a Watson Fellowship to explore how surfing cultures engage in environmental advocacy. I embarked on a yearlong solo journey through Fiji, French Polynesia, South Africa, Australia, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Japan.
After 343 days on the road, Ikumi Beach was my last stop. I paddled out at five p.m. sharp for my final surf session of the trip. Gliding down the face of a wave, I silently participated in the 3,000-year-old sporting tradition that made its way to Japan only 30 years ago. Earlier that day, Ten, my guesthouse proprietor, held an information session for local environmentalists and surfers about the dangers of tetrapods, concrete structures molded into jack-shaped forms that line the beach. Developed to protect the fragile stretches of Japanese coastline from tsunamis, tetrapods are now dumped on beaches throughout the country, creating unnecessary breakwaters that often form hazardous rip currents. Nearly every local surfer showed up to hear Ten speak and to learn about the ways to preserve their beach. Now, as the sun began to set, I looked around the water at the familiar faces from the meeting, and to the bay that Ten and his organization have fought to keep tetrapod-free.
Bobbing up and down with the swell, waiting for the next set of waves to break, I gazed at the twilight dancing across the water. As the day’s windy conditions disappeared, ocean and sky merged. Immersed and submerged, the locals and I soaking in the camaraderie that comes from a mutual respect for and admiration of the ocean, I flashed back to my childhood. I remembered days spent picking up cigarette butts and plastic bottles at the beach with my parents, and the first moment I picked up a surfboard at age 11, dug my toes in the sand, and knew I was hooked. This was the summation of all those moments.
As my thoughts turned from childhood beach memories to my Watson Fellowship mission, I reviewed my discoveries while traveling. From the overuse of plastic bags in Fiji to the recent explosion of surfer-tourism in Tahiti, I discovered the importance of educating locals on the idea of moderation. From the shark nets killing dolphins and sea turtles in South Africa to the erection of underwater artificial reefs in Australia, I learned that direct human interference with an oceanic ecosystem produces disastrous results. From coastal drilling in Brazil to raw sewage dumping in Costa Rica to the tetrapods in Japan, I realized that each surfing culture grapples with its own location-specific pollutant. As a global surfing population, we struggle to protect and preserve our oceanic playground.
Like most surfers I know, I consider myself an environmentalist. Having grown up at Surfrider Beach in Malibu, I have long been familiar with the issues of ocean pollution. Throughout the past decade, Surfrider Beach has received, at best, a D water quality rating from the local environmental non-profit Heal the Bay. Carrying that knowledge throughout my travels, I was stoked to speak with the local surfers about the pollutants that plague their watersheds, to surf, and to explore the indigenous oceanic landscapes of each country. Surfers feel a unique bond to the ocean. We are the first to develop pinkeye from red tides at Malibu, the first to injure ourselves on the tetrapods in Japan, and in turn, the first to stand up and defend our ocean.
As dusk waned over Ikumi Beach, surfers began packing their belongings and heading home. I lingered, observing my global family, separated by language yet joined through wave-riding and the waves we work to preserve. Darkness fell. I watched the moonlight trickle across the water, turning waves into liquid confetti. As I caught my final ride to shore, I heard the voice of Ten in the distance, signaling from the sand that dinner was ready.
Alexandra Cheney is an environmental and cultural journalist currently pursuing her Masters in journalism at Columbia University in New York. A native of Santa Monica, CA, she surfs daily and is launching a Web site on her travels.