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ASP Surfers Roundtable: Talking climate change and ocean health

Crystal-clear blue waters, coastal swells, big waves rolling onto the sandy shores on the world’s best beaches – the surfing landscape is one of the most beautiful and natural playing fields in all of sports. But what if something threatened to take all of that away? Professional surfers around the globe are trying to find ways to deal with the biggest issue that impacts the sport today: the health of the oceans.

With the Association of Surfing Professionals’ recent “rebirth” and partnership with ESPN for programming in 2014, the organization is looking to showcase pro surfing on a bigger stage than ever before. SI Edge gathered five ASP surfers together to discuss climate change and what the oceans rising and acidifying means for the sport.

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. C.J. Hobgood

Florida native, 15-year pro surfing veteran and currently ranked 17th on the ASP World Championship Tour

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. Courtney Conologue

21-year-old California native and currently ranked 10th on the ASP Women’s WCT

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. Julian Wilson

Australia native and currently ranked 15th on the ASP WCT

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. Stephanie Gilmore

Australia native and currently ranked third on the ASP Women’s WCT

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. Greg Long

California native and ranked 6th on the Big Wave World Tour

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Do you think it's your responsibility as a professional surfer to help raise awareness for climate change and other environmental issues? 

Long: It is ignorant for people to go through life thinking that their actions here and now are the only things that matter. It is our duty to protect and preserve this earth for all the future generations to enjoy it the exact same way that were are. There’s so much evidence that the way that we live our lives has led to serious impacts on the environment, specifically in the ocean. Coral reefs around the world are dying off due to ocean acidification, all tracing back to the excess levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. You can't question it – there’s factual proof and we need to divert the course we’ve been going on.

Part of that is just educating the pubic that simple everyday actions can make a difference. There’s a world of information and amazing organizations of people out there who are taking a stand. And it's about waking up to the fact that there is a world that exists beyond this bubble that most people seem to be stuck in. No one realizes that this is the only earth that we have, and if you think about it from that point of view, you have to acknowledge that it’s your duty to be part of the change. 

Hobgood: Maybe I’m a little too much of a realist with stuff, but are humans destructive? Yes. We can go on and on about the stuff I do every day and everyone else does that ultimately affects the earth. On the flip side, things get hot and things get cold and things expand and things contract. I live in Florida, so there are times where we go through the alphabet on hurricanes that hit us, and then there are times there aren't any. There is a balance as far as the way the world works, it gets hot and it gets cold.

But we are destructive and I think there are times when each one in their own lives can do things that make it less destructive. We need to continue to educate ourselves so we can continue to educate other people. 

Wilson: It’s definitely our responsibility as surfers, it’s our livelihood, we see it everyday. They’re gonna listen to us before a lot of other people because it’s what we do. It feels like that responsibility is on us to lead that example and show that.

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Conologue: The earth has its cycles but there are also so many things that were doing within our environment, and because we as surfers are traveling the world and surfing in an element like the ocean – a piece of nature is the field that we perform in – we're always going to try and preserve it and make sure the next generations have it either the same as it was when it left or better. And I think these days it's easier to go electric, stay away from plastics, and do all of the little things that really add up in the long run and help with not polluting the ocean.

I think us just trying to outreach to the youth on getting involved and bursting their bubbling a little bit so they understand the environment is important too. For instance there's a couple times where I'll see kids chuck a water bottle when there's a trash can four feet away from them. I’ll go, "Hey kid, pick that up don’t do that." It's those little things that really add up and make a change for the good in the future. 

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Long: It doesn’t matter whether you believe the scientific testing and results of "Is the earth getting warmer?" Whether you actually believe that or not, the concepts and the ideas that could potentially prevent that from happening are only going to bring this earth to a greater state of balance and peace. So why wouldn’t you take those initiatives to be mindful of your actions and help clean up the earth? Because, all right, say maybe it isn’t actually warming up. But what’s the harm in actually taking these good measures if all it's going to do is improve your quality of life, the quality of life for others and for future generations?

A rare sight as a surfer makes the most of gigantic waves at Mornington Harbour on July 31, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia. Temperatures dropped and strong winds hit Melbourne, bringing rain and hail across the state.

A rare sight as a surfer makes the most of gigantic waves at Mornington Harbour on July 31, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia. Temperatures dropped and strong winds hit Melbourne, bringing rain and hail across the state.

​Do you practice environmentally friendly habits and sustainable living in your own lives?

Wilson: ASP has linked up with One Bottle for Life – an organization that is a step in that direction. And I think quite a few of the surfers are conscious of their empty bottles, which is probably one of the main problems. It’s a daily thing that can be avoided with just a little bit extra effort, with filtered water and with refilling a glass bottle or something titanium, something that you can just keep using over and over. 

Long: Eco-sustainable events. You see it throughout the companies within our industry, now with a lot of them doing their garments out of recycled fabrics, giving portions of their profits to the environmental organizations who are out on the ground level doing the work and educating the public about these environmental issues.

Hobgood: ASP does it with our events too. As every event goes on they always go back to the drawing board and say, "OK, how much trash did we produce?" And I think protecting our coastline is important too. Australia does it really well. Where I live in Florida, and in America, we do not protect our coasts. 

Long: The fact of the matter is that we don’t live in a world right now that is set up to fully be this eco-friendly, sustainable life. You have a plastic bottle on your desk, and I had one this morning, but I was mindful because I’m not just going to throw it out – I found a place to recycle it. It's simple steps. Moving in that direction and the opportunity to be a part of that change is there, you just have to sometimes seek it out and change your lifestyle subtly. But I’m guilty of driving a diesel van back home, jumping on a jet to fly out here to New York. There’s no way around that unless you're going to live in a grass hut in the middle of nowhere or eat twigs and berries. But in so many ways you can make these simple changes to your lifestyle and every day decisions. I think most people would agree if they actually knew the bigger picture of what is happening as far as climate change and degradation of environmental ecosystems, in the ocean and on the land, because of the way we have built our lives.

Are you worried about the affects of an unhealthy ocean on your bodies, as you continue to compete in waters that could potentially be harmful?

Hobgood: It’s a scary fact that the water is not as clean as we would like it around the world. It’s the harsh reality. ​

Long: I know where I’m from, in southern California, I won't go in the water for a week in the winter time, right after the first significant rainfall. All of the storm drains, everyone's garbage, oil spills in the streets, it all floods right out into the ocean. And organizations go around doing water testing, and it comes back and bacteria levels are through the roof. There’s all forms of bacterial infections and viruses that you can pick up from that. And its all traceable back to everything that we’re doing in our daily lives on the land. 

A beachgoer walks past a sign posted to warn people of contaminated water at Torrey Pines State Beach in San Diego. The Heal the Bay Beach Report Card provides a weekly analysis of coastline water quality on the West Coast, over 500 beaches are graded A to F based on bacteria analysis.

A beachgoer walks past a sign posted to warn people of contaminated water at Torrey Pines State Beach in San Diego. The Heal the Bay Beach Report Card provides a weekly analysis of coastline water quality on the West Coast, over 500 beaches are graded A to F based on bacteria analysis.

​How important is it for you guys to compete in an ocean-friendly contest?

Conolgue: I think with ASP, we had this thing where we were trying to stick to one bottle for the whole event and we were going to see how many plastic bottles we actually saved from using this one bottle. It's amazing how many less pieces of plastic you are putting into the environment. Doing sustainable things with events and stuff, we are always trying to be eco-friendly in any way possible. It’s been fun being a surfer because I think we really get involved with preserving it and trying to make the environment better.

Long: The industry as a whole is going through a pretty dynamic shift, and now there are surfboards being made out of all recyclable materials, completely eco-friendly resins being used, and all natural weaves within the fiberglass. Within the small world, there has been a rise in consciousness and an effort to be a leader in that change. The surfing sport and culture as a whole has a means of doing that. The more that we can band together and move towards that lifestyle, I think the more people will catch on and say this is a cool thing to do.

Wilson: I think there is no harm in making an effort, but there may be harm in not making an effort. I think the fact that we are conscious of that and we want to bring awareness to the fact that if you make the effort to preserve what we enjoy and take advantage of it, it's definitely not going to hurt us in the long run, and it's going to set up generations to come and give them the opportunity to give them what we're enjoying now, if not something cleaner and healthier. It’s kind of up to us.

It’s great going to the ASP events and you won't find a bit of rubbish on the beach. They're so conscious of rubbish and biodegradable cups that the public uses on the beach – everything down to the bathrooms that are used. Everything is compost and they really think about what they are doing to the area and the waves that we get to go on. 

Great conditions at the Vans US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, California.

Great conditions at the Vans US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, California.

What is the most frustrating part about this issue and the sport of surfing?

Long: It frustrates me that people, even after hearing the message continue to walk through life and turn a blind eye, and that gets frustrating. I go down to the beach and see garbage thrown around, see kids and adults that know better. Who was so lazy that they couldn’t walk down to throw it away? All you can do is your best and hope that that transcends through the rest of the surf community and culture and future generations.

Wilson: I think one of the most frustrating things I see is when I go to Indonesia and it has probably the best waves in the world, most consistently, and you go there and everyone from around the world is on holiday. And it seems like when everyone is there on holidays they kind of forget about the environment. And its one of the most polluted places that we go to and its one of the richest for waves and its just probably the most frustrating thing that I see throughout the year.

Hobgood: It's frustrating for anybody when you see the water is polluted. How can we fix that? Me as a individual, but also how can governments do better? I just think of Fukushima. How can governments put better restrictions on these companies that operate and create energy to hold them more accountable when things go south? Earthquakes, when stuff starts spewing in the ocean, that could happen here.

Conologue: One thing I always hear from people is: We're only here for so long. I think one thing surfers try and do is preserve the past, and impact the future.

I was on a trip and they had they Marri trees that are almost extinct. One of the trees takes about 100 years to grow, and they aren’t planting them because they take so long. But one tree can build a whole house. And people say why plant them if we won't see it in our lifetime? But it's like if we don’t start now it's never going to change and get better. And that trails down to the environment and how people respond in the their everyday life. You have people who live in the mountains and say they aren't affecting the oceans. But when the snow melts, it all goes back down the rivers, and then the highways and all these things flush into the ocean. It’s a huge chain reaction. You kind of just have to take the opportunity to find out how you can impact the environment. Just start with one thing.