International professional surfer James Pribram became a world environmental campaigner for the sea after contracting a serious illness through surfing in polluted waters. Besides appearing on television, he has written for the LA Times and many other publications, raising awareness of his EcoWarrior clean-up project. He also runs the Aloha School of Surfing.
What’s the best thing about life as a surfer? Going to the beach. For me, growing up on Laguna Beach, I would wake up in the morning as a little kid, open up the sliding glass door, go out on the deck and look at the beach and the ocean. Besides my parents, surfing’s always been my everything in life; it kept me from making some of the wrong decisions that some of my friends, unfortunately, made when we were kids.
And the worst? Do you know I’m not really sure there’s anything too terrible about being a surfer. Perhaps the worst thing is, if you’re like me and you love our oceans and beaches, to see pollution affecting them.
How does an American surfer boy from Orange County become a man tackling worldwide ocean ecology issues? It is just something that has happened naturally. In 1997 I was teaching a surfing lesson in Doheny Beach [made famous by sixties pop group The Beach Boys]. I had a tiny scratch on my wrist and two hours later I was in the emergency room with IVs [intravenous drips] stuck in my arms and the doctors said: ‘Had you not come in within eight hours, you could have died.’ That was something that changed my overall view of our oceans and beaches and really was the beginning of a major change in the person I was.
What advice would you give an environmentally-conscious seafarer? If you want to do something positive, participate, take that first step. Whether it’s attending a local Surfrider Chapter meeting, or Heal the Bay, or Reef Check, or Surfers Against Sewage or even your local city council. Get out there and voice your opinion and get involved.
You tackle some huge worldwide issues through your EcoWarrior project. Last year it was the Mexican Gulf oil spill – this year it’s radiation pollution around Fukushima. How do you keep motivated? It’s easy to be motivated. There’s always a new issue, a new crisis, a new something going on in the world. I feel like I have a responsibility to those people and kids who look up to me as a role model so, being motivated, that’s the easy part. The most difficult part is finding better solutions and compromises in our world.
If you hadn’t become a surfer what would you be doing now? For a school assignment we had to make a coat of arms and answer the question ‘What do you want to be when you’re older?’ and mine said ‘A professional surfer.’ That was 1977 and I was six years old. The first professional surfing champion was crowned in 1976. Let’s just say I was destined to be a pro-surfer and to be this person, I think.
Your EcoWarrior project has the wonderful tagline “We are all connected by one ocean.” How do you unite all who use the ocean? For me, the ocean represents so many different things. Obviously, I’ve made a living from it, but I feel a deeper connection to the ocean and the beaches. I think everyone can relate to the beauty of the sea – a sunrise or sunset, or watching the dolphins playing in the ocean – seeing whales.
Where’s the most beautiful place you’ve been or surfed? Home – Laguna Beach Pearl Street. It shaped me to become who I am today.
And the most dire? Grand Isle, Louisiana [which bore the brunt of the BP Mexican Gulf oil spill disaster last year]. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. It smelt so bad and was like something out of a sci-fi movie. The ocean is dead there. The colour of it, the smell of it – it’s not blue, there’s no oxygen in it. It was something that I could never fathom happening within our own country – and let’s not forget, 11 people lost their lives there.
When you’re too old to surf what will you be doing? I don’t know – maybe I’ll be in politics!
You can keep up with James’s activities at http://www.jamespribram.com/blog, on Twitter and Facebook.
This interview appears in the summer edition 2011 of Seafarer Magazine.