At this year’s Chopes event the WSL rolled out a new environmental awareness campaign. Glowing Glowing Gone was designed to bring attention to the plight of coral reefs in the world’s warming waters. According to the campaign certain types of coral, when in distress, will glow a dazzling array of colours before finally settling on deathly white.
Competitors wore brightly couloured rash shirts. Video testimonials were presented from tour surfers on the importance of coral reefs to the wider ecosystem. Marine experts were interviewed during heats.
But the optics of the campaign, to borrow a phrase from the Vietnam war, were not good. Next to the surfing action sat dozens of boats and personal watercraft vehicles, each spilling its own contents of diesel, two stroke and miscellaneous waste into the ocean. Then there was the three storey high judging tower, bolted directly into the coral reef. The entire armada transported there by fuel guzzling jumbo jets.
The intention was right. But the execution, it’s fair to say, needed more work.
Politics and surfing have never sat easily together. Even though it’s an individual pursuit, surfing relies (mostly) on the ocean. It has been intrinsically linked with environmental awareness for as long as it’s existed. And now more than ever commercial brands, whether product manufacturers of the industry media they support, are expected to take ethical stands as consumers become more considered in their support.
But as the channel at Teahupoo so perfectly illustrated, surfing has a heavy carbon footprint. It's propped up by an industry that, for the most part, puts profits before philanthropy and activism.
And besides, it is just a sport. A pastime. A personal spiritual quest. Should it even be political?
In the late 1980s Sydney had a pollution problem. Despite being home to some of the most iconic tourist spots in the world, the coastal strip was under ongoing siege from harmful sewage outfall.
Tim Baker was editor of Tracks at the time, and also a recent émigré from the cold but clean waters of Phillip island.
“If you’d grown up surfing in Sydney the change would have been quite gradual, but I had come from Vicco where the ocean water quality was pristine. When I first moved to Sydney the ocean looked and felt and smelt different. It had smell and a fizz to it when waves broke that I hadn't encountered before."
That fizz was thanks to lax sewage treatment that would sift out only the largest of solids from wastewater and let everything else through. This was the era of the Bondi cigar, when surfers risked everything from ear infections to septicaemia just from entering the water.
Climate change didn’t yet exist, at least in popular imagination. ‘The Greenhouse effect’ had only recently entered the public lexicon. But Tracks magazine had a long history of environmental activism, and the situation in Sydney was getting out of hand.
“There was a story around that time of a Dee Why surfer who died from septicaemia and the suspicion was he’d contracted it surfing with an open wound. It was a hot button issue,” said Baker.
“Plus I felt like [the need to be politically active] was something I’d inherited from previous Tracks editors.”
Baker and his team, including a young Andrew Kidman, decided to do something about it.
“I was working at Tracks at the time and the cover was Tim’s idea,” says Kidman.
“He wanted to do a whole ocean pollution themed mag, and he said it would be pretty cool to do a gas mask cover photo to show how bad the situation was. So yeah, I pretty much said I could surf in one.”
The plan was hatched. But getting the shot wasn’t easy.
“I initially tried to do the photo with a hired World War II gas mask from the prop shop at six foot Winkipop, but I had never really surfed the place. I couldn’t see anything out of it, I was totally blind. I took the first wave and wiped out, and the whole thing filled up with water. I couldn’t get it off my head. I couldn't breathe. I fucken nearly drowned. I lost the mask, came in and said, what are we gonna do now?"
They didn’t let the minor setback of a near drowning slow them down. A newer, lighter gas mask was purchased. The eye holes were cut out so that Kidman could see properly, and the water had a place to drain.
Kidman worked with a couple of photographers over the coming weeks to get the shots, with varying levels of success.
“Me and [legendary water photographer] Pete Crawford travelled for a couple days to try and get the shot. We travelled down the south coast and couldn’t get it. Sean Davey tried as well, he actually shot a really good photo of a re-entry, too.”
But they still didn’t have The One.
“Then Peter rang me up one morning and said, 'Dee Why’s got these barrels. Come down'. It was just on the beachie at Dee Why and we literally had the photo in like two minutes.”
With the shot in the bag Baker had the issue ready to go. But he did meet some resistance.
“There was some push back from the publishers, but not because of the politics. It was mainly just a commercial consideration: they would rather see an identifiable, big wave surfer on the cover.”
“Our publisher Phillip Mason referred to our readers as spotty-nosed 15-year olds. These spotty-nosed 15-year olds wouldn't care about this type of thing. The little fuckers!’
But it wasn’t just spotty-nosed little fuckers that took notice. The picture went viral, at least in pre-internet terms.
“It was picked up by Reuters and probably goes down in history as the most widely published surf photo of all time,” said Baker.
“It got media all over the world. It was being picked up by news agencies in different languages, so we weren’t even sure what they were saying. “
Crawford went on to win a swag of awards for the photo. Back at home the mainstream press took notice too. The day after the mag dropped Kidman took a call from the Sydney Morning Herald’s environment reporter.
“He was super serious, he’s like, 'Is this a piss take or what?' I said, yeah it’s a really serious issue. And he said, 'But it’s a stunt isn’t it? You guys don’t actually have to wear gas masks to go surfing?'"
“I just wouldn’t give it to him, I wouldn’t tell him it was. I didn’t want him to be able to put that line in the newspaper."
“I said to him, it’s not a stunt, it’s true, this is what you gotta do to go surfing these days ‘cos the ocean is that polluted.”
The point was getting across.
But it wasn’t just the cover in isolation. An effective grassroots campaign led by former Tracks editor Kirk Wilcox out of Maroubra called STOP - Stop The Ocean Pollution- fronted the charge. Regular protests were held across Sydney. A concert at Bondi beach headlined by Midnight Oil drew hundreds of thousands.
There was even a group called POOO - People Opposed to Ocean Outfalls - that would protest at government buildings with a giant model turd.
All being led by surfers. Momentum was building.
But, as always, the government only took action when it started hurting their bottom line.
“Probably the negative publicity around the two public beaches - Manly and Bondi - is what spurred them into action, said Baker. “Having an impact on tourism and tourist numbers, as well as them being well-to-do postcodes. They had to do something.”
In 1993 the treatment process was upgraded and the ocean outfall length was extended. Water quality improved out of sight. It was a resounding win for the movement.
There are parallels in surf activism today. The Equinor campaign led by Sean Doherty has seen real impact, though the fight isn’t over. This website along with Coastalwatch and a handful of others take an active stance on issues affecting our coastlines. A storm appears to be brewing on the Sunshine coast that has shades of a mini-Adani.
But taking a stand still ain’t easy.
“Print media [today] is under siege and they’re probably not thinking about lofty enviro or social agendas. Which is a shame,” says Baker.
“Even back then there was always frustration that surfers weren’t walking the talk. And it’s truer now than ever.”
“It’s hard for WSL to be terribly credible because their whole business model relies on people having massive carbon footprints to pursue their careers. I can’t see any way around that. It’s good they do something but I can’t see what they could do that would be meaningful.”
The same goes for the industry at large.
But some action is better than none. When asked if he had any regrets on taking a political stand for the shot, Kidman says, “Nah, no way. It was a good thing to do. As far as Tracks were concerned it probably wasn’t the best cover they ever did, but in terms of a statement that summed up what the mag had been in the past, it was perfect.”
“Because Tracks was always an environmental magazine. If you go back and look at the history of Tracks, it was always based on the environmental movement - looking after yourself, but also the planet. That’s what surfing is, and that’s what Tracks was reflecting.”
// SURF ADS