Coast lines: Offshore drilling disaster reminds surfing community that environmental activism isn’t a choice

Three silhouettes of surfers surfing with an oil rig in the middle distance.
Surfers must start acting to protect the oceans to ensure they remain a safe environment for all, Ella Boyd SC ’22 explains. (Courtesy: Glenn Beltz)

On Oct. 2, an offshore drilling disaster resulted in 127,000 gallons of crude oil leaking from an underwater pipeline 5 miles off the California coast, closing down Orange County beaches and wreaking permanent havoc on wildlife. The oil has infiltrated the wetlands, and so, in one day, decades-long efforts to keep ecosystems alive in Orange County were destroyed. 

While most headlines said something along the lines of the spill being a devastating disaster and warned people to avoid the closed beaches until proper cleanup could occur, one newsclip from Inside Edition ran footage of two surfers sitting in oily water, completely unconcerned with the hazardous water conditions. Although those guys are prime candidates for @kookoftheday, these soft-top wielding surfers weren’t the only ones shedding all concern for the disaster just to get a few rides. 

An article from the LA Times reported that, “a dozen or more surfers in dark wetsuits from running into the water for a morning session. They caught a few good waves before a lifeguard blared down from a blue tower.” Upon interviewing two of these surfers, it turns out they were locals. Their home beach was becoming covered in tar balls, and still, instead of helping, documenting or simply avoiding, these people went straight into the oil-filled water to surf. 

As someone who was headed to the wedge that particular Saturday morning, I get the frustration. What I thought was going to be a great opportunity to try out my new board ended up being a change of plans, a longer drive to Trestles and very different waves. But to me, this was the least I could do. And it’s a small price to pay for avoiding a literal disaster. 

Surfers have a history of being politically avoidant. Surfing has its fair share of negative historical connotations, such as cultural suppression, sexism and classism. 

Even with the best of intentions, politics are usually associated with the polarization of opinions, stubbornness and bickering: In simplest terms, bad vibes. 

Surfing provides an escape from the irritants of everyday life and the people in it. Sometimes, though, you need to acknowledge the real world a little bit to preserve the part of the world that lets you escape. And sometimes, that means doing a little bit of work for the place that is so good to you. 

Surfers should both care and do more to change the legality and regulations surrounding offshore drilling. If things remain the way they are, oil spills like this one are predicted to keep happening. And when these spills happen, it can take weeks — even months — until the water is safe to be in again. Going into unsafe water can result in oil entering the lungs, something that would instantly ruin anyone’s session. 

So, what can be done? Surfrider Foundation made a helpful slideshow highlighting a few essential actions. You can donate to efforts that will ensure an adequate cleanup and prevent this kind of disaster from happening again. You can also call your local legislators to enforce the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act, which holds the polluters accountable for their damage. You can call or write to your congressional representative, asking them to permanently prohibit new offshore drilling in the Pacific, Atlantic and Eastern Gulf of Mexico. You can also document the spill for yourself, spreading awareness about the problem. 

Doing anything is better than doing nothing, and we’ve all seen the lineups on a good day. There are a ton of people who surf at these beaches. If you are affected by this, why not do something — anything — to make your voice heard? Let’s make sure, at the very least, that none of us have to miss any more days out there. 

Ella Boyd SC ’22 is from Maine and is TSL’s travel and outdoor columnist. She loves surfing and skiing and hopes to see you out there!

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