underneath the lip of a crystal clear breaking wave photographed by mat arney

Ocean Literacy & Surfing

Words by Kim Feldmann & images by Mat Arney



“Ocean literacy is an understanding of the ocean’s influence on you — and your influence on the ocean. An ocean-literate person understands the essential principles and fundamental concepts about the functioning of the ocean; can communicate about the ocean in a meaningful way; and is able to make informed and responsible decisions regarding the ocean and its resources.”

– The Ocean Literacy Network

 

The 7 Essential Principles of Ocean Literacy are:

  1. The Earth has one big ocean with many features
  2. The ocean and life in the ocean shape the features of the Earth
  3. The ocean is a major influence on weather and climate
  4. The ocean makes the Earth habitable
  5. The ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems
  6. The ocean and humans are inextricably interconnected
  7. The ocean is largely unexplored

 

Ocean Literacy Network

 

“Intergovernmental policy is targeting public ocean literacy to help achieve the societal changes needed to reach a sustainable ocean agenda within a 10-year time-frame.  To create a culture of care for the ocean, which is under threat from Anthropocentric pressures, informed ocean citizens are central to upholding meaningful actions and best practices,” writes Natalie Fox, Dorothy Jane Dankel, and Jamie Marshall in a paper published this past May on the International Journal of Environmental Research. Their study explores the idea that, due to their interaction with the ocean and the insights gathered from the constant reading of tides, currents, waves, etc., surfers are inherently ocean-literate and, as such, surfing is a potential mechanism for developing ocean literacy.

By conducting an online survey with 249 surfers, as well as a focus group with 6 of the participants, the researchers aimed to “ascertain whether Ocean Literacy Principles are statements surfers agree with and whether surfer variables, such as how often they surf, or their ability, might impact their answers on the Ocean Literacy (OL) Principles.” They found that whilst surfers were well versed in all seven principles, there were gaps in the qualitative results in relation to principles 1, 2, 4, and 7, thus making it impossible to assert that surfing is a reliable and consistent mechanism for ocean literacy. That said, the results corroborated the initial hypotheses that the act of surfing naturally provides ocean literacy, and that surfers have both knowledge of waves and surf breaks as well as knowledge of ocean ecosystems.

 

Surf Simply caught up with author Natalie Fox to hear more about the role of ocean literacy in surfing – and vice-versa.

 

Could you please tell us a bit about your personal relationship with the ocean and surfing, and how you got involved with the topic of ocean literacy?

I started surfing aged 21, and whilst I didn’t realise it at the time, it served to help heal trauma that was impacting my health and wellbeing, and that had been keeping me in some pretty self-destructive patterns of behaviour. Surfing became a huge emotional release, a healing tool, an escape, an obsession, a chance to be joyful again and also a way to support myself through coaching.

I developed a deep gratitude and respect for the ocean. I joined Sea Shepherd and Surfers for Cetaceans as my passion for marine conservation had been ignited and I wanted to take part in direct action campaigns. I finally ended up back at University in 2018 to study a Masters in Sustainability. I did it mainly online from my van, between the French Alps in winter and the South of Portugal in summer.

I hadn’t actually heard of ocean literacy until that point, and my curiosity around how and why humans might be motivated to understand and protect the ocean led me to the work of Sam Dupont and Geraldine Fauville. When deciding what to research within this rather broad interdisciplinary subject — I would always come back to surfing.

I spent a lot of time in nature and the water (thankfully) during COVID and it just hit me to combine the two. It’s a very novel area and not much is out there (I received zero support from my Uni when it came to publishing the paper) but I decided to go with my gut and write about what makes me feel most inspired.

 

What have been some of the most memorable experiences and/or lessons during the time you have worked in ocean literacy?

To be honest, developing my own ideas and models is interesting, but I really like working with people. Learning about their experiences through the focus group allowed me to become more objective, and whilst I am coming from a personal place of experience, the challenge is to find ways to work out whether that is truthful or not, recognising my own assumptions and biases, and employing standardised methodology.

By far the best, is conversing with people about these two subjects and watching the lightbulb switch on about how they are interconnected, noticing again and again how surfing is such a great example of the human-ocean relationship. Finding out that the statistical data backs up my hypothesises is what makes it worthwhile and gives me motivation to keep going – I love using mixed methods to build a more balanced picture.

Getting the paper published was a huge achievement and took real persistence (kind of like surfing), whilst taking the research subject and turning it into a short film to also appeal to surfers (thanks to Soul and Surf), allowed me to think about communicating the findings in a more digestible and creative way.

 

There are various reasons for wanting to be more ocean literate, many of which relate to the numerous anthropogenic pressures currently impacting the health of our oceans. In your view, which of these environmental issues could benefit the most (or more directly) from increasingly ocean literate communities?

I would say the climate crisis is the biggest threat to humans AND the ocean. However, many are yet to understand its extent and the catastrophic implications if we continue “business as usual”. Whilst there are so many complexities, if we delve deeper, the root is our outdated systems (of consumption/capitalism) teamed with dependence on finite resources – which are exploited, mass produced or taken without consideration for the species/habitats that are destroyed in the process. Being ocean literate connects us to a greater system – one we rely on for oxygen, as well as food, medicine, therapy, transportation and social purposes – and means that we pay greater attention to the ocean, rather than just using it.

Ocean literate communities are aware that everything we do has an impact, and use system dynamics to find mutual benefits for people, planet and ocean. If the global surf community of 35 million were all active and engaged marine citizens, it would be 0.4% of the human population. New tipping point theories suggest the 25% mark being the point when social change occurs. Even though we are way off the quarter target as yet, I believe the expansion of surfing (and the ocean literacy learning embedded within it) can truly help create shifts in awareness, which will ricochet out into all corners of the globe. And that fills me with a lot of hope.

 

On the other hand, how would communities benefit from increasingly ocean literate individuals?

To be ocean literate means to be highly aware of the relationships that exist in nature. These relationships have constant feedbacks – either balancing or reinforcing – and we can harness this energy or we can try change the system to create more/less/different outcomes. Working at Soul and Surf in Portugal I am able to engage with surf students on an individual basis, where we talk about the “surfing system” in the Soul of Surfing Programme (a new curriculum they have encouraged me to develop). Participants start to build a more holistic view of what it means to be a surfer riding waves – and see that they are part of the bigger ocean system. It’s very different to the traditional “linear” model of learning to surf and also highlights the therapeutic benefits of surf therapy as – it is also clear from the research – people are drawn to surfing to feel more connected (to themselves, to their community and to the ocean). There are many benefits when humans are connected, dynamic and intentional – they make up healthy and happy communities that care, for a start.

One recurring notion in the study is that surfers are often “intuitively ocean literate”, that they develop ocean literacy unconsciously through the practice of surfing. At the same time, one of the purposes of ocean literacy is to be aware of these intuitions and use them consciously to make more informed decisions. In this sense, how can surfers begin to tap into this knowledge for a greater good?

We touched upon this in the paper, but there was not enough scope to go into it. My MSc dissertation went into it in detail, however: systems thinking. Dorothy and I have also produced another paper about using the social-ecological systems framework to analyse the interactions and outcomes that take place in surf ecosystems.

Surfers are already systems thinkers because they are constantly interpreting data from the wind, swell, tide, bathymetry, line up etc. and adapting their behaviour to have the most successful experience. They are part of the bigger system, but they know the system with the most power is the ocean. And when we become single minded, focussed, relaxed and in a state of “flow” we can harness this power (for benefits like barrels!).

Using systems thinking in every part of our life can help us live with more awareness of the inter-connections and patterns that exist. Feeling connected to nature and to others is an implicit part of mental health and well-being. Therefore, surfing doesn’t have to stop when we leave the water – we can continue to be present, kind, calm, alert, and live in harmony with nature’s cycles and employ the learning found in the surf elsewhere. Responding to criticality/crisis with mindfulness and compassion (rather than fear, anger or reactivity) and taking responsibility for the choices we do make, are two things that come up in surfing again and again, and are pretty important life lessons too.

 

The paper also talks about how, due to their intrinsic connection with the coastal ecosystems where they surf, the more ocean literate surfers and surf tribes are, the more they could play a determinant role in policymaking. How do you see this ocean literacy–surfers–government triad developing in the near future?

Obviously there are some incredible organisations already working extremely hard in this area: Surfers For Climate and Save the Waves, in particular. Inter, trans, and multi-disciplinary networks between science-policy-public are developing with the help of social media and a more environmentally informed society – people are actually starting to talk to and support each other (across sectors!) – check out SOPHIE (Seas, Oceans & Public Health in Europe).

With ocean literacy in mind, I am currently developing a project that works specifically with surf research, surfing citizen scientists and ocean policy, joining other more established surf researchers in this field. Using the UN’s Decade of Ocean Science as a platform to build momentum, we have now been endorsed as an official activity, and the next step is to build partnerships with local communities to make sure they are part of the wider vision to collect ocean scientific data.

Ocean stewardship and citizen science have been hailed as the next step after ocean literacy in this public-education-policy nexus, and with the development on methodology such as Smartfin, manta trawls, and EDNA I’m excited to start engaging with surfing citizen science in my next research project.

Being ocean literate is one thing – applying the knowledge is another. And whilst we could say that surfers are relatively conscientious about acting on environmental issues, there are still cases when people don’t walk the talk. As an example, in the online survey you conducted, “59.2% of participants said they would sign up to a citizen science programme and 42.2% to a focus group, to help ocean conservation. However, only 71 people entered their email address to join the focus group, showing that given the opportunity only 28.5% of participants would actually engage.” Could you please comment on how this discrepancy between idea and action affects ocean literacy?

This is what I found most interesting about the data, and it is what I will continue to research in the next research stage. How do we turn intention into action? It’s something that comes up in other areas of my life, and I would say yoga is also a great example. Having discipline, the right support and the internal motivation to practice brings me to the mat again and again, and from that I see results.

I imagine people could get bored and disengaged in data collection if they are not seen as valued individuals. Citizen-informed science or community engagement involves local communities at every step of the scientific research journey, and that way participants get a whole lot more out of it such as: factual learning, procedural learning, excitement and surprise and are likely to stay involved. Relationships – just like in systems – is key. So if researchers could use social science to learn more about engaging the public, and the public could try and understand frameworks and systems, both would be in a better position to work together. Working together well builds trust. And trust makes for better relationships.

 

In the Discussion section, there’s a statement by Participant A saying that “Ocean literacy is a privilege, extended only to the very few who get to live by the water, or can afford to visit it.” With that in mind, what would you say are the main challenges in stimulating ocean literacy both locally and globally? And what could be some of the first steps toward solutions?

As I went deeper into this subject, I realised there is much more to learn about accessibility to both ocean education and blue/ocean spaces. I also had to acknowledge my own privilege, and how I was able to take out a government loan and go back to University aged 36 and study this subject as a white, western woman.

In order to stimulate ocean literacy, I believe it first needs to come from a place of respect. Respect for local people, lands, culture, history and lineages would be a start. Stepping away from the colonisation motivations that are embedded in modern surf culture/industry and acknowledging what came before us in order to learn from the past and create a better future.

For instance, Ingersoll writes that within native Hawaiian surfing cultures, to know the local ocean is something that is passed down through verbal ties rather than written. Therefore, there needs to be a common communication between science/policy and surfers…and it shouldn’t necessarily be “literacy” or language based, as it’s what is actually translated that is the most important thing.

That’s why I feel like “reading waves” is such a dichotomy. Yes, we are reading the ocean. But not like we would read letters or words or use the rational brain – the understanding is much more visceral and instinctive than that. That is what allows humans to navigate the ocean – having read a book on the ocean or surfing – would most definitely not be that helpful in a real life scenario. Experience is what really matters.

 

As someone who has been deeply engaged in the topic of ocean literacy, are there any other initiatives you would like to raise awareness about?

I would like to give a shout out to Mossy Earth, who are a rewilding and ecological restoration organisation I did a placement with back in 2018 and still work with as an ambassador and occasional researcher. I carry a lot of guilt as a surfer who drives to go surfing, and whilst I try to make better decisions, giving up surfing is not something I can commit to. As a Mossy Earth member I am able to minimise my impact and offset my biggest emission (which is going surfing) by planting native trees in Portugal.

At exactly the same time that I was “in my head” for the research and writing process, I was also training with Groundswell Community Project – a surf therapy organisation that works with self-identifying women experiencing trauma and its effects. I want to iterate that knowledge and understanding needs to be balanced with compassion and respect, so that no one is left behind and we acknowledge and release the trauma that is so prevalent in our society. I am so grateful for the profound mentorship of Natalie Small of Groundswell US and Sally Harris of Groundswell Scotland. With their unwavering support, I have been able to go much more deeply into this work and am stoked to say the Groundswell UK/Portugal chapter is now up and running, having led our first session in Devon in June.

What is the next step in your ocean literacy work?

As mentioned, this research paper is just the starting point. It is also phase one in a wider project called “Citizens of Surf”, which is now an official Decade of Ocean Science Activity. We are currently building a cohort of surfing scientists, applying for funding and securing a base at a research institution. Within the cohort we have incredible inter-disciplinary researchers like Easkey Britton, Tony Butt, Trace Lane and Cliff Kapono – giving us a greater perspective on how we can move forward with respect, collaboration and connectivity (rather than competitiveness and division). We will then be moving into three key areas of research to examine surf ecosystems and communities, enlisting surfers to collect data on 1. climate change indicators 2. microplastic contamination and 3. biodiversity. We will be using the information to develop this research area and hopefully scaling up the project to a worldwide status over the next 10 years.

 

*****

 

The author would like to thank Natalie Fox and Dorothy Jane Dankel for their assistance with the article.

  • – Natalie runs a project called Citizens of Surf. For more information or to support, partner with and/or join their newsletter/mailing list visit their website or contact Natalie at natalievfox@icloud.com
  • – Dorothy leads a project in Norway on localization of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (#LoVeSeSDG), where they use social-ecological systems analysis to understand how to make global goals meaningful at the local level. To find out more about it click here.
  • – Those interested in diving further into topic of Ocean Literacy may take a look at this PDF guide or browse UNESCO’s Ocean Literacy Portal.
  • – Educators can use the Framework Diagram tool to assist in lesson planning.

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