Surfing environmental change

If you want to know about coastal environmental change, ask a local surfer.

For much of the past five years I’ve been immersed in literature about local people’s knowledge and perceptions of the environment. These locally situated knowledges, developed through continued association and interaction with place, hold detailed insights about environmental change. While my research has focused on Indigenous ecological knowledge, other groups of local resource users such as farmers, hunters and fishermen are increasingly becoming recognised as possessing similarly detailed environmental understandings. Following my recent surf trip to Indonesia, I’d like to add surfers to this list of local knowledge holders.

A surfer’s enjoyment relies on the quality of the waves, which is dependent on particular environmental conditions that determine how swell interacts with the coast. This turns surfers, who are popularly caricatured as happy-go-lucky layabouts, into analytical environmental observers.

In a similar way to an Indigenous person, farmer or hunter, surfers who have lived near the same surf spot for a number of years use continued observation to develop a rich understanding of how local waves correspond to environmental conditions. Each day, local surfers observe the conditions to assess how the waves should be breaking at their local spots. Alterations from the norm are keenly noted and, over time, are usually attributed to broader environmental patterns of change.

I’ve heard such observations of change and theories behind this change from local surfers in Australia, but never connected it to the literature on local knowledge. For whatever reason, this connection only crystallised recently while speaking to two groups of Indonesian surfers about the diminishing quality of waves at their respective local breaks.

The first break, located on Simeulue Island off the coast of northern Sumatra, has produced progressively worse waves over the past 10 years. Locals blamed this on the reef being increasingly covered by sediment, which has changed the shape of the bottom and caused the wave to break differently. They suggest that this build-up is the result of increased deposition from the river that meets the coast near to this break. While I initially attributed this to increased rainfall leading to increased flow, the locals suggest that rainfall has actually reduced and that the build-up is due to intensified agriculture and erosion in the river catchment. To support their claim, they note that the type of sediment over the reef has changed from what was previously sandy, to a finer, siltier sediment that makes the water brown and cloudy after rain.

The second surf spot is located near Pacitan in south-eastern Java. During the wet season, a river-mouth discharges a large amount of sediment that creates a large sand-bank where it meets the coast. During a ‘normal’ dry season, the river flow reduces and ocean swell grooms this sediment into a sand-bank that produces consistent, good quality waves. As the dry season progresses, the sand-bank is gradually washed away by the swell and the surf break usually disappears around the beginning of September. However, the last three years have been different.

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Brown water (and tiny waves) in Pacitan

Locals say that consistent rains in the eastern part of the catchment during the dry season have kept the river flowing and depositing high levels of sediment onto the coast. This has been detrimental for surfing because it has not allowed the swell to groom a sand-bank conducive for good waves, it has produced a strong current for surfers to relentlessly paddle against, and has meant that the water at the surf break is brown, muddy and probably polluted (and frankly a bit disgusting to surf in).

Discussing these examples with friends and colleagues, many have asked whether or not there is data to corroborate these stories. There might be, but I don’t have it, and frankly, I think that need to corroborate them with data from natural sciences misses the point. It is certain that some change is occurring in both of these places and that the surfers are onto it. What this tells us is that surfers possess extensive, valuable and as yet untapped observation-based knowledge about coastal environmental change.

I, for one, would like to volunteer to do the fieldwork to ensure this is overcome.

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