Politics of Surfing: Environmentalism and Feminism Among California’s Waves

Photo: Surfrider Foundation Facebook


“California’s oceans, waves and beaches are about to become a little cleaner thanks to the efforts of the California State Legislature this week!” the environmental surfing advocacy group, Surfrider Foundation, recently declared. On August 29, 2014, the California legislature overwhelmingly approved a statewide ban on single use plastic shopping bags and imposed a $.10 fee for their paper counterparts. Over the past six years several iterations of similar bills had come and gone, each unsuccessful in its attempt to gain passage. However this year’s version, SB 270, authored by three Los Angeles area state senators — Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), Kevin DeLeon (D-Los Angeles) and Ricardo Lara (D-Huntington Park/Long Beach) — found broad support. With 100 cities and counties across the state enforcing similar bans already, as state senator and member of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee Mark Leno stated, the law’s “time has come.”

If signed, SB 270 would make California the first state to approve such a ban and in this way a forerunner in environmentalism. Yet, while the contributions of politicians are notable, Surfrider Foundation played a key role in advocating for the law over the past six years. The organization’s environmental politics represents the slow developing political consciousness of surfing. Unsurprisingly, as the center of the surfing industry, California surfers have been especially active in environmentalism. Though traditionally dominated by men, today surfers come in all colors and genders and in regard to environmentalism, women, inspired in part by feminism, have played a key role in raising awareness and pushing for change. Undoubtedly, Southern California provides a prime vantage point from which to observe the burgeoning environmental politics of surfing.
Enter Environmentalism

In the immediate postwar years, surfing lacked any real political consciousness, notes surfing historian Scott Laderman in his new book “Empire of Waves: A Political History of Surfing.” Focusing more on rejecting 1950s conformity, as embodied in archetypes like the “man in the grey flannel suit,” surfers believed in “unrestrained hedonism, not social transformation,” notes Laderman. 1 However, while surfing proliferated around the globe in the 1960s, 1970, and 1980s, so too did one of the most influential political and social movements of the 20th century: environmentalism.

While the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” an attack on the use of pesticides, is widely acknowledged to have spurred a nascent environmental movement into reality, 2 events in California led to evidence of surfing’s environmental political awakening. Over the course of eleven days in early 1969, the famed Santa Barbara Oil Spill dumped 200,000 gallons of crude oil into the channel. Comments from the local oil industry only inflamed the situation. “I don’t like to call it a disaster, because there has been no loss of human life. I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds,” President of the Union Oil Company, Fred L. Hartley noted at the time.

Others saw the spill as an unmitigated tragedy and rallied to clean it up and prevent future mishaps. Nature writer John McKinley credited surfers and others for their quick and diligent response: “I had been impressed by the way energetic college students, shopkeepers, surfers, parents with their kids, all joined the beach clean-up.”

According to surfing historian and surfer, H. Michael Gelfand, the organization Get Oil Out (GOO) attracted numerous surfers to the cause, many of whom played a key role in environmental reforms regarding California oil extraction. 3 Soon after, a moratorium on new drilling platforms within “state” waters was established. Still, no real movement coalesced. Surfing historians Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul suggest that outside of figures like John Kelly, the Hawaiian founder of Save Our Surf, most surfers remained largely disengaged and ambivalent about the issue. 4

Santa Barbara Oil Spill, 1969 | Photo: Get Oil Out

Obviously, Rachel Carson and the oil spill galvanized people and contributed mightily to greater environmental awareness. However, this burgeoning sense of the Earth’s vulnerability intertwined with the increasing presence of women in the surf community. As historian J.R. McNeill points out, within larger society the two movements sustained themselves in this period: “two lasted better than the rest: women’s equality and environmentalism.” 5

While it would be wrong to credit women alone with infusing surfing with a greater sense of conservation and environmental ethos, they did help strengthen awareness in the sport. One could argue this led to broader engagement with government policies, economic development, and even electoral politics. For women, stepping into the surf meant facing the harsh realities of what was then an uber masculine sport. Gidget might have popularized surfing, but not until 1975 did women organize their own association with the Women’s International Surfing Association (WISA). Established in Southern California, WISA represented the power of 1970s feminism, but also embraced ocean stewardship in tandem with women’s equality. As one WISA founder noted, for women surfers the 1970s and 1980s amounted to the “dark ages.” Though dedicated to creating space for female surfers, recreationally and professionally, WISA also placed great emphasis on “linking surf culture to environmental advocacy, and promoting healthy living for women,” writes surfing historian, surfer, and Rice English Professor, Krista Comer. 6

By the mid-1980s, surfers as a whole had begun to pull their political consciousness out of the sand, and not just in regard to environmentalism — as demonstrated by boycotts of the South African leg of the men’s professional tour and the formation of Surfers Against Nuclear Destruction (SAND). 7 For our purposes however, the 1980s also marked the rise of the non-profit Surfrider Foundation, who began as a small chapter in 1984 Malibu, where a group of surfers fought to protect a local break at Malibu Point. In 1991 it began to develop formal chapters and expand its reach; as of 2011, Surfrider consisted of over 100 chapters worldwide, 80 in the U.S., and 60,000 members. With headquarters in San Clemente, the organization today commands the attention of environmentalists and politicians of all stripes. Female surfing pioneers like Malibu’s Shelley Merrick, who dove into the pre-Gidget surf in the 1940s, have worked hand in hand with Surfrider. In 2003, the organization bestowed its inaugural lifetime achievement award for activism to John Kelly and renamed its annual environmental award after the famed Hawaiian surfer and environmentalist. 8 “We must create an ethos of coastal care that is ingrained into our collective cultural psyche,” the organization declared in 2008. “It will take a movement to achieve our dream.” 9

In the early twenty first century, Southern California’s female surfers have taken very public positions regarding environmentalism. This has carried over into electoral politics, nearly winning, and in some cases emerging victorious, in local mayoral elections.

Former Santa Cruz Mayor Hilary Bryant serves as one example. During her term in office (2013-2014) Bryant promoted Santa Cruz’s beaches and surf breaks to attract investment. 10“She’s taken the lead on stewardship,” noted on local business leader “She recognized that the community is in a position that we need to find our voice and our rhythm.” When asked at the end of her term a major goal that still needed to be accomplished, she pointed to a clean up Cowell’s Beach, a project that though discussed for years remained unfinished. 11

Other prominent examples exist further south. San Diego councilwoman and surfer Donna Frye had a near mayoral victory in 2004, and built a coalition of environmentally conscious organizations that have helped to protect the California shores in recent years. In 2005, the San Diego River Park Foundation named her “legislator of the year,” while the San Diego League of Conservation voters awarded her their San Diego Environmental Champion title the same year.

Between 2005 and 2008, the councilwomen’s prominence aided in efforts to defeat a multiyear, megamillion dollar project proposed by the California Transportation Agency (CTA). According to proposals, CTA had wanted to extend the Highway 241 toll road through parts of San Onofre State Park in order to reduce congestion on the I-5 corridor. Home to the famed Trestles surf spot and ten other great breaks, surfers like Frye cried foul, arguing that it threatened not only their beloved pastime but also the San Mateo Creek Watershed — “the least developed and cleanest coastal watershed and wild habitat remaining in Southern California.” 12 As a leader in the “Save the Trestles” campaign, Frye brought a resolution opposing the development to the San Diego City Council in 2006. Though defeated 4-3, a year later the same council voted 6-2 in favor of the resolution, thereby joining 12 other coastal cities in opposition to “pouring tons of concrete into Onofre State Park.” 13

With Surfrider acting as the “umbrella voice” for a coalition of organizations and city governments, Frye and others defeated challenges from the state. Social media outreach and voice mails from celebrity surfers like Sal Masekela and then-director and current CEO of Surfrider, Jim Moriarty, demonstrated the strength of educational outreach and environmental networks facilitated by surfers over the past decade. At a 2008 California Coastal Commission (CCC) meeting, 3,000 protestors, consisting of countless numbers of surfers, showed up shattering previous attendance figures. Eventually, the CCC voted against the toll road extension and a year later the U.S. Department of Commerce concurred, handing CTA “its biggest political defeat to date,” notes Comer. On the blogs of Surfer magazine, Surfrider celebrated their victory by quoting the iconic Indian leader Gandhi, “First they ignore you … then they mock you … Then they fight you … Then you win.” 14

"Photo: Nguyen Duong/Flickr/Creative Commons
“Photo: Nguyen Duong/Flickr/Creative Commons

The combined efforts of Frye and Surfrider embodied the new surfing environmentalism. For the former, nurtured in the Southern California “hippie counterculture” and drawn to politics by environmentalism, it seemed part of longer life narrative. Frye remembers her first steps into conservation. “Other people would be out surfing […] but I would crawl up a cliff to look for a storm drain,” she told Comer in an interview. “I knew one was up there, making people sick. I would find it, map it, report it, publicize it, figure out a way to solve it.” 15

Frye married local surfing legend Skip Frye, and they opened a small surf shop on Pacific Beach. There, inspired by college experiences in the women’s right movement and her devotion to the environment, she developed a rabid political activism. “Don’t go into the shop. Donna’s there, and it’s near an election,” locals sometimes whispered, “and you’re not registered to vote, and if she asks you, you better damn well be registered because she’ll check,” she told San Diego Union Tribune journalist Matthew Hall in 2007. This activism led to positions on neighborhood advisory councils and later, the San Diego city council. 16

Over the past thirty years, especially the last ten to fifteen, Surfrider’s outreach to kids and adolescents has been especially important. Organizations like Pick Up 3, established in 2004, encourages residents to pick up three pieces of trash every time they visit the beach. Pick Up 3 bloggers, like San Diego high school student Cobi Emery and USCD student Malia Powers, write about beach clean up, global warming, and other aspects of coastal stewardship and environmentalism. They offer school presentations and an ambassador program developed to create community with fellow environmentally conscious individuals within the U.S. and elsewhere.

Still, in age of corporate conglomeration, the rise of what Laderman calls “industrialized surfing” has brought complications to surfing environmentalism. Companies like Patagonia, headquartered in Ventura, CA, advertise themselves as responsible corporate citizens and use their own environmental efforts as a reason for consumers to buy their products. Gelfand too points out that Patagonia more than other companies had taken steps to raise environmental awareness among employees and local conservation groups. Yet the company has been at the center of labor violations and tragedies in places like Bangladesh and El Salvador. 17

Even in regard to surfers, Laderman, Comer, and Gelfand all acknowledge that environmentalism has a ways to go. Surfers, Laderman points out, can sometimes promote very narrow interpretations of environmentalism, focusing exclusively on protecting surf breaks and coastlines but ignoring the damage done by the production of surfing equipment, or rarely mentioning environmental racism in protests. Gelfand agrees, adding that Southern California’s lack of public transportation magnifies surfing’s environmental footprint by highlighting its dependency on cars, particularly those of the larger, gas guzzling variety, since “you can’t put a board in a Honda Civic.” Moreover, he asserts, without public transit and with the high cost of gear, the racial and class component of surfing can sometimes be skewed toward white surfers from middle and upper class backgrounds. Even organizations like Surfrider, for all the good that they do, frequently consist almost uniformly of white faces. Then again, this weekend’s Coastal Clean-Up Day, sponsored in part by the Black Surfers Collective and held at Santa Monica’s Inkwell, suggest perhaps changes are underway.

Over 40 years after the 1969 spill, evidence of surfing’s environmental awareness seems obvious. When Proposition J, an initiative promoted by the Oil Company Venoco aimed at reducing environmental review regulations for a new slant drilling rig off the coast, appeared on the 2010 ballot, surfer and artist Carrie Reynolds led hundreds Carpinteria locals in protest. 18 The initiative was soundly defeated in the fall election with nearly three quarters of voters casting ballots against the measure.

SB 270 represents another step in this evolution, but there remains quite a distance to be covered. If the past is any indication, every surfer — man, woman, white, black, Asian, Native American, and Latino will be needed.


1 Scott Laderman, Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2014), 136.
2 J.R. McNeil, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World, (New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2000), 339.
3 H. Gelfand, interview with author, September 6, 2014.
4 Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul, The World in a Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing, (New York: Crown, 2013).
5 McNeill, Something New Under the Sun, 337.
6 Krista Comer, Surfer Girls in the New World Order, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 197.
7 Scott Laderman, Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2014), 158. For example, in 1985, Santa Barbara native and eventual three time world champion, Tom Curren joined Australian Tom Carroll and Durban-raised British national, Martin Potter, both also world title holders, in boycotting the South African leg of the world surfing tour. Their boycott inspired other athletes to consider the same. Pro Golfer Greg Norman, footballer Glen Ella, and numerous Australian cricketers would follow suit, citing the three surfers as their inspiration.
8 Comer, Surfing Girls in the New World Order, 49, 242,
9 Ibid., 205.
10 Jondi Gumz, “How Hilary Bryant Survived a Harrowing Year as Mayor,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 11, 2013, accessed August 28, 2014
11 J.M. Brown, “One for the Books,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 7, 2013, accessed August 1, 2014; Hilary Bryant, interview Off the Lip radio broadcast, accessed August 1, 2014.
12 Comer, Surfing Girls in the New World Order, 164-165.
13 Ibid., 165.
14 Ibid., 166.
15 Ibid., 166.
16 Matthew T. Hall, “Store Front Activist Rises,” San Diego Union Tribune, July 7, 2005, accessed August 28, 2014.
17 Laderman, Empire in Waves, 142-144. Patagonia farms out its labor to developing nations – El Salvador and Bangladesh for example — where workers have been exploited and environmental regulations sometimes flouted. For example, in April 2013, a Bangladesh factory collapsed killing 1,127 people. In 2007, the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights criticized a Salvadorian factory used by the company for paying its workers shockingly low wages. The same factory produced clothes for Eddie Bauer and North Face.
18 Seth Miller, “Hundreds Gather to Protest Venoco Vote,” Santa Barbara Independent, May 10, 2010, accessed September 9, 2014.