Surfing Is Activism

From Hawaiians battling for sovereignty to standing up for the health of the planet, surfers have been fighting the good fight since the beginning.

It was a cool, gray day in New York City when a 17-year-old girl from Hawaii stepped onto a nondescript dock and made her plea to the world.

"Today, I, a poor weak girl with not one of my people with me and all these 'Hawaiian' statesmen against me, have strength to stand up for the rights of my people," said Princess Ka'iulaini. 

"Even now, I can hear their wail in my heart, and it gives me strength and courage, and I am strong – strong in the faith of God, strong in the knowledge that I am right, strong in the strength of seventy million people who in this free land will hear my cry and will refuse to let their flag cover dishonor to mine," she continued.

It was Wednesday, March 1, 1893. A mere six weeks prior, on January 17, on the island of Oahu, Ka'iulaini's aunt, Queen Liliʻuokalani, had been overthrown in a bloodless coup d'état. Having just arrived from England, where she'd been going to school, the news shocked Hawaii's heir to the throne. By forces beyond her control, the stage had been set for the United States to annex the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1898. 

"You here in New York know more about that then I do," she told a reporter from the New York Sun. "When I left England, the news we had received made it seem as if I had no home and no people. I must wait and see what had been done and is being done before I can say more…"

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Surfing's Fighting Spirit Starts In The Islands

A practice with profound religious and social importance, like almost every other facet of the indigenous Hawaiian culture, Bingham and his cohorts sought to eradicate it. In a time when the women's suffrage movement was still gaining momentum–it would be another seven months until New Zealand became the first self-governing country to grant women the right to vote on September 19, 1893–there stood a stoic, 17-year-old Hawaiian princess, heartbroken, full of resolve, and ready to fight for the very existence of her people and their centuries-old culture. 

By this point, European and American assault on Hawaiian culture had been ongoing for well more than half a Century. In the 1820s, Calvinist and Protestant missionaries had arrived in Hawaii bringing faux religious piety, along with European diseases. 

"The appearance of destitution, degradation, and barbarism, among the chattering and almost naked savages, whose heads and feet, and much of their sunburnt skins were bare, was appalling," described Hiram Bingham, the leader of the first missionary party in Hawaii.

But Bingham wasn't just making a blanket observation about the Hawaiian people; in this rant, he was describing a group of surfers. A practice with profound religious and social importance, like almost every other facet of the indigenous Hawaiian culture, Bingham and his cohorts sought to eradicate it.

By the time Princess Ka'iulaini stepped onto that dock in New York City, the population of her people had fallen from three hundred thousand in 1778–when Captain James Cook made first contact–down to one hundred thousand in 1893.

"The decline and discontinuance of the use of the surfboard, as civilization advances, may be accounted for by the increase in modesty, industry or religion," Bingham wrote.

In the 21st Century, the global surf industry is expected to be a $4.8 billion business by 2027. Around the world, it is practiced in practically every country with a coastline–and some without, thanks to the advancement of wave pools. It is an Olympic sport that's enjoyed by millions around the world. One hundred years since Bingham tried to kill it, history has not only exposed him for what he was, a racist and bigot hiding behind the cloak of religiosity, but it's also proved him incredibly wrong about what the simple act of riding waves can mean to people.

Into The Light

If one of surfing's main tenants is the concept of Aloha or kindness, as Long puts it, that becomes an incredibly powerful tool for change."In Hawaii, we greet friends, loved ones or strangers with Aloha, which means love," famously said Duke Kahanamoku, who is widely credited with bringing surfing back from the brink as its international ambassador and an Olympic gold medalist.

"Aloha is the key word to the universal spirit of real hospitality, which makes Hawaii renowned as the world's center of understanding and fellowship. Try meeting or leaving people with Aloha. You'll be surprised by their reaction. I believe it, and it is my creed. Aloha to you," Kahanamoku continued.

Sitting backstage at the Ohana Festival at Doheny State Beach on a sunny October day in 2022–ohana being the Hawaiian word for family–big-wave pioneer and environmental activist Greg Long is asked what's one thing that everybody could do to make the world a better place.

Long pauses for a moment, looks up at the white clouds drifting by in the blue sky, looks back down, and echoes Kahanamoku's mighty words.

"Be kind," says Long. "We can all be kind. Kindness is its own activism."

If one of surfing's main tenants is the concept of Aloha or kindness, as Long puts it, that becomes an incredibly powerful tool for change.

If one of surfing's main tenants is the concept of Aloha or kindness, as Long puts it, that becomes an incredibly powerful tool for change.

Look no further than what Long's longtime surfing partner and collaborator, Ramón Navarro, has accomplished in his native Chile to see the positive change that is possible when people act with purpose and passion. The son of a fisherman, Navarro has ridden some of the biggest waves on the planet, but it was his fight to save his local surfing grounds at Punta de Lobos that stands as his largest accomplishment. 

Rallying the surfing tribe, Navarro was instrumental in raising money to buy the land at Punta de Lobos and put it in a trust with the express purpose of protecting the area for generations to come. 

"We looked at all of our options, everything we could do to protect Punta de Lobos, and in the end, we had to raise the money and put it in a trust. That was the only way we could ensure that it would remain protected," Navarro explained while backstage with Long at the Ohana Fest. "It was a lot of work, but a lot of people stepped up and made it a reality."

"Ramon did it; we just had his back," humbly smiles Long. "He had the vision and drive. Without him, it simply wouldn't have happened…and certainly wouldn't have had the positive outcome it did in the end."

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Yvon Chouinard's Biggest Statement

Just a couple weeks before Eddie Vedder, Stevie Nicks, Jack White, Pink, and company took the stage at Ohana Fest on September 14, outdoor apparel maker Patagonia shocked the world when owner and founder Yvon Chouinard announced he was putting the company in a trust and all future profits would go towards saving the planet. Chouinard is a lifelong surfer and even authored an anti-corporate business tome entitled "Let My People Go Surfing."

Meanwhile, his company–who not-so-accidentally sponsors Long's surfing exploits–is worth an estimated $3 billion and is set to donate $100 million annually to fighting climate change.

"Hopefully, this will influence a new form of capitalism that doesn't end up with a few rich people and a bunch of poor people," Chouinard told the New York Times in an exclusive interview. "We are going to give away the maximum amount of money to people who are actively working on saving this planet."

"Hopefully, this will influence a new form of capitalism that doesn't end up with a few rich people and a bunch of poor people," - Yvon Chouinard

There's an apropos line by the Grateful Dead that goes, "We used to play for silver, now we play for life."

Ask most hard-core surfers, and they'll tell you that surfing is life. If that's true, if surfing is life, and as history has shown, it is also capable of being an act of social or environmental defiance, it's no coincidence that riding waves and making waves are so inextricably linked.

Bangladesh's Waves Of Change

For the better part of 20 years, a small but faithful crew have dedicated themselves to turning Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh into a hub for surfing on the subcontinent. But they're not just paddling out for a good time; surfing has become a vital tool in breaking down radical social norms, longstanding gender discrimination, and hopefully, providing young girls a brighter future.

"The biggest challenge has been child marriage," explains Rashed Alam, who's been instrumental in using surfing as a tool for social change in Bangladesh. "Families can't afford to take care of their daughters, and it's easy to marry them off. With the pressure that they get from their villages and neighbors, it is an everyday battle for the girls."

"Surfing has given them the freedom to express themselves and a seat at the table," Alam continues. "When we were facing a lot of challenges with some of the older surf boys, people from the capital of Bangladesh [Dhaka and Chittagong] started stepping up. Men and women showed us they had our backs and encouraged the girls to keep surfing. It was amazing to see the support from people we didn't even know. To see our country growing and accepting and encouraging women to do sports and be in the spotlight, it's amazing."

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Rasta Surf Vibrations

A similar scene is playing out all over the world. In Bull Bay, Jamaica, Billy "Mystic" Wilmont, and his Jamnesia program have transformed the lives of island youth. 

"It's healthy," Wilmont explains. "It gets the kids good exercise. It occupies their time and keeps them out of trouble. It gives them the confidence they can overcome their fears and rise up. It works on a lot of levels. It's more than just riding waves."

Dozens of local kids have come through Wilmont's program and emerged better for it. Today, it's a family affair with his children involved in the mix. They help develop water safety skills, teach them to surf, host an annual surf event and make sure the youth are staying on the right path. It's positive vibrations in action. 

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One Afghan Surfer's Search For Stoke

Oceans away, lying in the heart of the Hindukush, Afghanistan isn't the most likely surf destination, but Afridun Amu sees things differently. Afghanistan's first national surfing championship in 2015 and a competitor in the ISA World Surfing Games in 2017, and an integral member of the Wave Riders Association of Afghanistan

Born in Kabul in 1987, his family fled Afghanistan in 1992, eventually ending up in Germany as political refugees. Between 1996 and 2001, when the Taliban ruled the wartorn country, a time Amu describes it as a "dark, dark age."

"Sports were forbidden and football stadiums were used for executions," Amu told Olymics.com.

"The majority of Afghans are looking for hope and a brighter future and, just like anybody else, simply for a happy, peaceful life," Amu told the author in an interview in 2018. "Surfing in Afghanistan can contribute to this. Recently this sport was still unknown in Afghanistan, and now the country is represented at the World Surfing Games: this can give exactly this hope to people, the hope to dream and follow your visions."

Once again echoing Kahanamoku's expressions of Aloha, Amu explains, "All sports have the power of joy. The joy of doing it yourself, the joy of cheering for someone, or simply the joy of seeing someone do something he loves. But regarding sports in Afghanistan, there comes an extra layer to it: everyday life is so full of negative news that people just get extremely excited about any kind of positive news.

"For many, it was unbelievable how someone could stand on a piece of board in the water and do some bizarre maneuvers through the energy of a wave. Some people in Afghanistan told me this made them feel like if this is possible, then anything is! So in that sense, surfing creates some hope. Even with its dark, war-torn past and present, Afghanistan might have a brighter future ahead."

Johannesburg's Street Surfers

The eight-minute film "Street Surfers" is another prime example of how a little hope, just a glimmer of light, can change the world. Cut in the grimy shadows of Johannesburg, the short film, a partnership between Parley and Corona, details Frank Solomon's inward look at the black "street surfers" that scrap for recyclables in the hopes of earning enough money to make it to the next day. Drifting the back alleys and forgotten corners on their improvised carts, in these desperate circumstances, a load of plastic is as good as gold.

From Solomon and Parley's point of view, it's these unsung heroes that are a key link in the chain helping stem the tide of plastics into the ocean.

"Man, I don't think that many people in the world even know places like that exist," Solomon said of the dire Joburg neighborhoods.

An Apartheid stronghold, site of the '76 Soweto Uprising, and home of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, the racial chasm that divides the city has not been diminished in these more modern times. Black and white continue to lead very different lives.

"I was literally blown away. It feels like you're in a refugee camp, or in the scene of some movie; it was a surreal experience and deeply humbling for me. We can never complain about anything," Solomon describes. "You know, the guys don't have running water, electricity, things most people take for granted every single day. When the guys came to Cape Town, I had to show them how the shower worked in their Airbnb because they had never used one."

The film focuses on two friends, Thabo and Mokete, that toil on the streets, endeavoring to turn trash into cash. It culminates with Solomon taking Thabo and Mokete surfing and sharing with them what his very different reality looks like. 

"Once I went there, it just made sense to bring the guys down and show them what they are helping to protect," Solomon says. "They loved it, but they live so far from the ocean and live in a type of poverty that most people can't understand, but yeah, I would love to go and find them and show them the video."

Fight For The Bight

When it comes to environmental activism, surfers have grown into a formidable force. The Surfrider Foundation exists today because of its battles against pulp mills on the Northern California coast in the early 1980s. The most recent seismic movement has been the "Fight For The Bight." 

After a long, public battle to save the Great Australian Bight from oil exploration, in February 2020, Norwegian oil company Enqinor announced they would be discontinuing their $200-million plans to search for oil in the turbulent southern waters. Attempts from other oil companies in this region have also met a similar fate. BP abandoned plans to drill the bight in 2016, and Chevron followed suit in 2017.

In a statement, Equinor ceded that their plans were "not commercially competitive."

It took a massive commitment from the Australian people to stop the proposed development. At the end of 2019, Equinor received environmental approval to drill 372 km south of the Nullarbor coastline. But the battle persisted, and for now, the good guys have won.

Surf scribe Sean Doherty, along with surfer turned sustainable farmer Heath Joske, were at the forefront of the "Save The Bight" movement. 

"For every single person who paddled out around the country, and for all you legends down there in the Bight who've been fighting this for years, take a moment to fully appreciate what you've done," Doherty wrote in response to the news. "By paddling out and speaking up and fighting this colossally stupid idea, you've kept the Bight wild and free and saved it for future generations."

In his essay "Civil Disobedience," Henry Thoreau wrote, "There will never be a really free and enlightened state until the state comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived."

From Hawaii's Princess Ka'iulaini to Patagonia's Yvon Chouinard, to Billy Wilmont in Jamaica and Afri Amu in Afghanistan, over the course of more than a Century, they've all shown the true power of surfing and how it can, in fact, change the world.

"I've never been more excited for the potential of growth and the expansion of landscape of what surf culture will look like in the future," explained Selema Masekela at a recent book signing in San Clemente, California.

A surfer, action sports personality, and the son of Hugh Masekela, one of South Africa's most famous musicians who lived in exile during the Apartheid years, Maskela is a fierce advocate for change and progress both the sport and culture of surfing, as well as the world at large, forward.

"Surfing is such a powerful and freeing way to be at peace with their soul," Masekela continued. "There's no other thing that I know of that you can go and do, and literally, whatever is happening on land does not exist. There's a reason why the rest of the world is fascinated and admires what our culture is, and it's based on what that actual freedom is. That actual freedom to be. To just simply exist and have who you pray to, or who you sleep with, or how much melanin you have in your skin, the ocean could give a fuck."

Key Takeaways
  • Where there’s water, there’s a drive to protect the most sacred coastlines– making activists out of coastal communities throughout the world. 
  • You don’t need to live in a coastal community to protect the ocean– follow these tips on how to get started. 
  • Activism comes in many shapes and forms, it could be on a board in the ocean or could be on the sand in the desert. Familiarize yourself with activist groups, like Save the Waves or Native Like Water, dedicated to combating environmental issues local to your area.