Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

by Joe Paulin & Mike Murray

Mavericks. Waimea Bay. Pipeline. The names evoke images of pumping surf, the raw beauty of ocean swells exploding on solid reefs, and crowds gathered to watch in awe as expert surfers take on world-class waves.

These places are some of the most revered surf spots on Earth, but there's another thing they have in common, something that few people realize: They are all found within national marine sanctuaries.

Surfing's Hawaiian Roots

A deep spiritual connection to the ocean is ingrained in Hawaiian culture. One of the best-known expressions of this connection is through the sport of surfing, which can be traced back through Hawaiian ancestry to the art of he'e nalu, or "wave sliding." Dr. Carlos Andrade, director of the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies, said Hawaiian royalty - men and women alike - were noted for their ability as surfers. In fact, Andrade said, the whole of the population celebrated the activity, with entire villages emptying to go surfing when the waves arose.

Over time, surfing has grown from its Hawaiian roots to become a global phenomenon. The art of wave sliding has evolved to include big wave charging, barrel riding, and spectacular aerial maneuvers. But while surfing has become a part of mainstream culture, for many surfers it's a way of life symbolized by the same link to the ocean felt by the sport's originators on the shores of Hawai'i.

"Surfing is one of the greatest gifts Hawai'i gave to the world," says Stuart Coleman, author of "Eddie Would Go," and the Hawai'i regional coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation.

Riding Waves in the Sanctuaries

Hawai'i may be the birthplace of surfing, but it is by no means the only place with great waves. National marine sanctuaries encompass some of the nation's most celebrated places for ocean recreation - surfing included. In fact, sanctuaries feature high-profile professional contests at some of the largest rideable waves in the world, from Mavericks in central California to the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau at Waimea Bay on the North Shore of O'ahu.

The legendary "shoot-outs" between surfing champions Kelly Slater and Andy Irons at Pipeline, arguably the most famous wave on Earth, took place within the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, one of the most important humpback whale mating, calving and nursing grounds in the world.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the largest marine sanctuary, is home to the powerful and massive waves of Mavericks, as well as more modest - but no less popular - breaks like Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz, Calif. Countless other surf spots can be found throughout the coastal waters of the sanctuary system, supporting thriving recreational use and tourism.

Conservation: A Common Goal

"Conservation and surfing are like two sides of the same coin," said Dr. Marc Lammers, a cetacean biologist and assistant researcher at the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology. "I don't know how you could be a surfer and not care about the marine environment. Surfers and sanctuaries pretty much care about the same thing: the wellbeing of the ocean."

Clean water, trash-free beaches and healthy ecosystems are just a few of the shared concerns that matter to the surfing community and sanctuary managers alike. Water quality, in particular, is an issue that presents opportunities for surfers and sanctuaries to work together.

"[Surfers] are indicators when it comes to water quality," said Coleman. "We're the first to experience it and the first to get sick." Sanctuary staff throughout the U.S. mainland and Pacific Islands are working with community members, agencies and organizations like the Surfrider Foundation on efforts to improve water quality and reduce marine debris.

Lammers, an avid surfer and former sanctuary advisory council member, said marine debris is an ever-present reminder of our impact on the ocean environment. "When you spend a lot of time on the water you start to notice that there's plastic bags everywhere and all kinds of debris," he explained.

Protecting the Waves

Surfers spend countless hours in the ocean connecting with nature, becoming immersed in their surroundings and soaking up an intimate knowledge of local coasts, beaches, and reefs. "Surfers are familiar with the wildness of the sea," said Dr. Michael McGinnis, a coastal California native, lifelong surfer, and professor of Environmental Policy and Governance at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. "Even though many of us were raised in suburban environments, it was the sea that taught us the first lessons of wildness, and why we need to protect wild places."

Indeed, surfers can bring valuable knowledge and experience to the cause of conserving and managing our national marine sanctuaries. They are welcome additions to sanctuary advisory councils, volunteer programs, and other organizations engaged in ocean conservation. "We spend so much time in the water we could be first responders," suggested Coleman.

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"I think that the more you surf and just enjoy the ocean, the more appreciation you have for it," said Doug Cole, executive director of the North Shore Community Land Trust. "Sometimes you just have to get out there in it to remind yourself that - wow - this really is a special place, and we could do more to keep it special and help others in their work to keep it healthy."

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