There is no human activity pertaining to the sea that is more profoundly intimate, nor more deeply respectful of our beautiful mother ocean than surfing.
Divers explore the silent depths and move amongst the citizens of the sea and thus they relate intimately with the great diversity of life within the upper abyss. They explore beneath the waves and fly through water like birds through the air but try as they will, they are never quite at one with the ocean. They face the obstacles of needing oxygen and a limitation of depth due to pressure.
Sailors are more in tune with the great winds that hug the oceans in a cool embrace with the Earth. They travel upon the waves between the sea and the sky in an invisible element of constant and unpredictable motion. They are so near the sea but closer to the wind. It is the wind that gives them grace, more so than the sea.
Surfers, however, are the true ambassadors of the sea in so many ways. Surfing has become more than a sport, more than a recreational activity. Surfing is the space where the sea kisses the shore and the full awesome power of the ocean embraces our frail bodies in the ultimate test of our faith in nature and ourselves.
The surf is where we speak, dance, play and become most intimate with the sea. Where we feel the power of the supreme majesty of this great and vast entity, which bestows the gift of life to all that dwell upon land, and in and upon the waters. The surf is the churning fertile womb from where our respect and love for the ocean is born.
I respect surfers a little more so than sailors, divers, and swimmers, only because there is no other field of human endeavour that inspires such freedom, motivates more natural talent, and stimulates more raw primordial passion as does surfing.
Where else can the grace exhibited by Kelly Slater or Stephanie Gilmore be cultivated so beautifully and with such artistry of motion and mastery of movement, in harmony with our most essential element, than in surfing? Where else can the combination of art and the seemingly chaotic collision of the sea with the land be transformed into a passionate spirituality by someone like free surfer Dave Rastovich? What other athletic endeavour could inspire an industry as much as this one, which flows with the demands of the young aquatic knights that ride the waves expressing a freedom found nowhere upon the land. Surfers control the surfing industry; the industry does not control surfers or surfing.
From the pioneer Polynesians with their long heavy boards to the diversity of surfers the world over today utilizing an innovative variety of boards; surfing has become a spiritual activity that energetically engenders respect for nature, for life, and for the purity and strength of the sea. The surfboard is a sturdy and graceful magic carpet upon which we feel the soul of the sea beneath our feet. There is magic, and passion, and love in the shaping of the board and this is carried forth to the person who takes that board upon the rising bosom of the breakers; be it for reasons of competition, art, meditation or for the sheer utter heartfelt awesome joy of it.
To be a surfer in mind, body and soul is to intuitively feel, and intimately understand the inter-connectedness of all things with an understanding of the greatest of truths; that the sea is life and without the sea – we die!
And thus when it comes to that great life-affirming miracle- the ocean, we find surfers upon the grand and wondrous ephemeral steps of this vast blue and white cathedral where the sea meets and greets the land. Where we find surfers, we find spirit, and that indomitable wild spirit is constantly seeking balance between the freedom of expression (which surfers are legendary for) and an infinite respect for nature and the diversity of life within the depths of our vast floods. This balance can be affected both negatively both positively by the response to experiences that provoke anger, anxiety and fear.
Surfers are very much like mythical Jedi knights and the force for good can be shifted to the dark and bad when fear, anxiety and anger are allowed to surface and fester. One cause for this is the conflict occasionally ignited with the meeting of one of the ocean’s most valuable, most powerful and traditionally the most feared predator in the sea – the shark.
There can be no illusions here. Sharks can be dangerous to a person not initiated in the language and the behavior of this magnificent family of ultimate aquatic predators. Surfers have been grievously injured and a few ill-fated surfers have died from shark attacks.
Shark attacks, however, are not that common. On average, out of seven billion people on the planet, where a great percentage of them have contact with the sea on a daily basis, only five people die from shark attacks each year. More golfers die from lightning strikes on golf courses each year, yet this is not a cause for hysteria. Sharks, like lightning, are unpredictable forces of nature yet both forces can be mainly countered by an intelligent application of precaution. Yet the unpredictability factor will still allow for the inevitable and a relatively very few human lives will be lost. It still remains that surfing or diving with sharks is less dangerous than driving to the beach to surf. Fifty thousand people die in automobile accidents a year in America alone and yet we don’t abandon our cars.
When we look at this vicious creature from beyond the murky depths of our nightmares and in reruns of old horror movies, we see that the real monster is ourselves. After all we viciously slay some 75 million sharks every year for soup, fish and chips, for fun, or out of fear and ignorance.
And when we, who return nothing to the sea ourselves, unleash our fury and hatred, anger and violence upon the shark, we inflict injury upon that which surfers are most passionate about – the ocean.
It is the enduring shark that has molded evolution in the seas for four hundred and fifty million years. Every fish in the sea with its camouflaging color, its speed, its behavior, it’s psychology, has been shaped by this ancient, graceful and majestic apex predator – the shark.
Out beyond the surf the shark is the greater victim. Their diminishing numbers suffer devastating mortalities each and every day as ruthless men viciously slice off their fins and toss their still living bodies into the sea to fall sadly into the abyss and out of sight of our compassion.
The shark surfs the depths and surfers surf the waves. Occasionally their paths cross and usually those paths cross without incident to humans.
When a mountain claims a mountain climber or a snowboarder, their comrades don’t condemn the mountain. When the sea claims the life of a sailor, their mates don’t condemn the ocean storms. When a racecar driver is killed, the other drivers do not condemn the automobile. These are the inherent dangers of their sport and they respect these dangers. It is that respect that gives them dignity and honor.
Yet there is a small group of surfers in La Reunion (a very small group) who have called for the killing of sharks in revenge for the death of an unfortunate surfer. In Western Australia, recently, similar calls demanding shark culls rose in response to another unfortunate death of a surfer.
I sympathize with their losses and I understand their sorrow, but I do not understand their logic and the need to avenge the loss upon a creature that has done nothing contrary to its nature. This is akin to striking back at lightning to avenge a golfer or blowing up the side of a mountain to avenge a climber. It simply makes no sense. It also shows a lack of honor and dignity and as such tarnishes and embarrasses the community of surfers everywhere.
I suspect that the real motivation is not revenge, but fear.
Fear is the emotion that defies logic. It is the overcoming of fear that is the true mark of excellence in a surfer, or in any challenging human endeavour.
It is not just the courage to take on an awesome wave or to risk the dangers of coral and rock, it is also the courage to understand that sometimes the risks challenge and test us and it is the risks that make the challenge actually worthwhile.
To strike out violently against the shark in revenge is to surrender to fear and surrender to fear is plainly and simply – cowardice. And cowardice is the most disgraceful of human emotions and not the stuff that true surfers are made from.
Respect for the shark means respect for the sea and thus respect for the great spiritual sport, lifestyle, and culture of surfing. Surfing without respect for nature is like Christianity without Christ or golf without grass. The greatest of surfers are warriors for nature, ambassadors for the sea, and divine dancers delightfully and harmoniously at one with the grace of the sea.
To fall from grace with the sea would be the most ignoble fate for a surfer and very much akin to the excommunication of a priest or the throwing of a fight by a pugilist. A surfer falls from grace with the sea when the surfer surrenders to fear and abandons respect.
The shark is the brother to a surfer as is the dolphin, the whale and the other citizens of the realm aquatic. It all comes down to respect and respect negates fear.
Let it be and be all that Mother Sea gives you grace to be.
From beneath the waves a surfer unfortunately resembles a seal. It is remarkable how few shark attacks actually happen considering how closely surfers resemble shark food. But a case of mistaken identity can still bring unfortunate and sometimes fatal consequences to a surfer.
How to avoid this?
Know the waters. Great whites move in at the close of the day and during the very early hours of the morning. Avoid waters close to the passing of whale migrations when sharks follow the whales looking for weak calves. Avoid waters where livestock transport ships pass (like some Western Australian beaches). Cast off carcasses and a steady outflow of urine (containing traces of blood) attracts sharks. Women should not surf when menstruating in waters where sharks are frequent. Divers who spearfish and trail a dead, bleeding fish from their belts have in effect turned themselves into large trolling lures; not a wise thing to do. If a pod of dolphins are nearby, you will be safer. Rasta’s life was once saved by a dolphin, which intervened between he and a shark. Do not wear flashy jewelry or watchbands. Do not surf near shark watching operations, where they bait sharks.
Most importantly remember that the sea is their home and we are guests. We enter by their grace and we owe all that dwell within our seas our respect.
There is actually much to be said about having a fierce and formidable predator that has the potential to eat us. It makes us realize that we are not the lords of the sea. Humanity needs a touch of humility to remind us that we serve the laws of nature. Nature is not and never will be subservient to us.
I have swum, dived, surfed and sailed with sharks: with great whites, with tigers, with hammerheads, lemons, bulls and threshers and I love the thrill and the honor of being amongst them.
They are noble, graceful, ancient and fascinating creatures and their diminishment means diminishment overall in our oceans. The strength of an eco-system is dependent upon diversity. Sharks are an important part of that diversity and the interdependence of sharks and other marine species is a mainstay in the ecological integrity of the sea.