She straddles her board out in the deep. It’s winter, the water’s murky, and there’s not a wave in sight. But there’s still a small crowd. They’re here not to surf but to protest.
Their target is a 354-foot seismic ship bound for King Island off Australia’s southern coast. Once there, it will blast 2,700 square kilometres of ocean, mapping natural gas fields and decimating fragile marine life.
For Belinda Baggs, it’s just another day at the office. But it’s a job she loves. She is one of many top surfers around the world turned activists. For them, fighting for equality, inclusion and a healthy planet is now a way of life.
With the pandemic highlighting deep disparities between people and nations, and the value of our natural world, we need them more than ever.
Meet 5 pro surfers making a difference.
1. Belinda Baggs fights for her son’s wellbeing and future
In the early noughties, champion longboarder Belinda Baggs eschewed the competition circuit to travel the world as a professional free surfer. Her surfing style had morphed into something beyond official judging criteria, and competing against mates no longer felt right. “It went against the things I was learning in life, of unity, togetherness, kindness and supporting your friends,” she says.
Now long-settled on the Victorian coast, Belinda has made a name for herself as a Patagonia Ambassador and fierce eco-warrior. The journey to a fully-fledged activist has been gradual. Belinda went from simply Taking 3 For The Sea to eliminating single-use plastics and then questioning policies that revealed the role of politics and big business in the environment.
“Climate change was and still is the biggest threat to my son thriving throughout his lifetime”. – Belinda Baggs
Then, she became a mother. Belinda’s purpose of being shifted entirely. “The number one most important thing now is my son’s wellbeing and future. Climate change was and still is the biggest threat to him thriving throughout his lifetime”.
In 2019 Belinda and good friend Johnny Abegg set up Surfers for Climate, a ‘sea-roots’ movement dedicated to mobilising surfers on environmental issues. The group is growing in influence, connecting coastal surfing communities as forces for change on some pretty big issues.
Most notable was the “Fight for the Bight” campaign, which, after several fraught years, successfully saw Norwegian big oil prospector Equinor out of Australian waters in February 2021.
For Belinda, the fight doesn’t end there. Her focus has turned to other offshore oil and gas developments which still impact marine life, local economies and coastal culture. “My hometown waters in Newcastle are threatened by PEP-11, and now Victoria’s Otway Basin, next door to where I currently reside in Wadawurrung Country, has been cut into acreage areas in the 2021 Offshore Petroleum Acreage Release”.
But can activists really make a difference? Belinda’s response is a resounding ‘yes’. “I’m a huge advocate for taking care of your own backyard. This is where the community is powerful, and, collectively, hundreds of small victories equate to a giant positive change”.
2. Pacha Light supports grassroots environmental initiatives
Pacha Light, 20, thinks nothing of marching in global school strikes, protecting endangered Galapagos sharks, and warding off ugly Gold Coast developments. “I want to show young people all over the world how easy and joyful it is to live simply on the planet”, she says.
Pacha’s destiny was clearly written in the stars, living off-grid high in the Ecuadorian cloud forest as a baby. Her parents were environmentalists, and it was here, in this place of rare biodiversity, that Pacha, named after Mother Earth, developed a deep love for nature.
She only started surfing at 7, when her family returned to Australia’s East Coast. The story goes that, after seeing little Pacha busking at Coolangatta to raise money for a surfboard, pro surfer Laura Enever gave her one of hers. The rest, they say, is history.
“The time had come for me to make a change and come back to the core values that set my compass on this life journey; to think purpose before profit”. – Pacha Light
Pacha went on to become a Billabong team rider and GoPro ambassador and, in 2019, finished fourth on the WSL Junior Tour. Barely a year later, exhausted and disillusioned, Pacha announced she was leaving Billabong to return to her first love. “The time had come for me to make a change and come back to the core values that set my compass on this life journey; to think purpose before profit”.
Using the platform surfing has given her, Pacha is now saving the planet, literally one step at a time, as she travels around Australia with her partner Nash and dog Taka. Most recently, Pacha’s been spotted paying respects to Traditional Owners down the east coast and running through Tasmania’s threatened old-growth forests with former Greens leader Bob Brown.
In September, watch for her at your local. Pacha’s pledged to surf every day for a month to support SurfAid’s efforts to improve living conditions in remote communities.
3. Tyler Wright advocates for diversity and inclusion
Tyler Wright taking a knee in the Tweed Coast Pro, the words Black Lives Matter scrawled across her board, was for many the surf image of 2020. For almost 8 minutes, the two-time World Surfing Champion knelt alone on the beach, fist silently raised, time slipping away on her opening heat. Out in the water, Sally Fitzgibbons had already caught a wave, and Molly Picklum was on the hunt.
Tyler didn’t flinch. “I’ll kneel for 439 seconds; one second for every First Nations person in Australia who has lost their lives in police custody since 1991,” she had explained earlier on her Instagram account.
The response from surfing’s governing body was swift, and perfectly in tune with the times. “Surfing is for everyone, and the WSL stands in solidarity to proactively work against racism and fight for true equality”. Others were less forgiving, plastering thousands of hate-filled comments across social media.
“I want to show others that surfing can be a welcoming space for LGBTQ+ athletes.” – Tyler Wright
It didn’t stop her. Barely two months later, Tyler made another statement. She competed in Maui with a Gay Pride flag on her jersey, the first professional surfer to ever do so. “I am not scared to say: ‘Look, this is what I stand for’. I want to show others that surfing can be a welcoming space for LGBTQ+ athletes,” she said.
Again, the surf establishment rallied around her, including long-time sponsor Rip Curl. “We are proud to be the sticker on your board, Tyler. And excited to see what you achieve this season, both in and out of the water.”
That Tyler, who finished this season ranked 6th on the World Tour, could be this bold without commercial repercussions is a sign of just how far society has come. When big wave champion Keala Kennelly came out a decade ago, most of her sponsors disappeared overnight.
These days, activist moments are marketing gold for big companies keen to demonstrate their commitment to social and environmental causes.
Let’s face it: modern surf culture still has a long way to go in creating safe, inclusive spaces for all athletes. But with women like Tyler Wright on the vanguard, the future’s looking bright.
4. Bianca Valenti campaigns for gender equality
For Bianca Valenti, riding 50-foot waves over jagged rocks in shark-infested waters is fun. Mavericks, just half an hour from San Francisco, is, after all, her home break. Much less fun has been dealing with a surfing establishment that, barely five years ago, saw little place for women in big wave contests.
Bianca, 34, is counted amongst an elite group of big wave riders. Think Keala Kennelly, Paige Alms, Justine Dupont and Andrea Moller, for starters. They’re fearless, strong and extremely capable. In fact, the highest measured ridden wave of 2020 – 73.5 feet – was surfed by Brazilian woman Maya Gabeira.
Yet, up until 2016, women were excluded from big wave competitions, including the one held at Bianca’s local ‘The Titans of Mavericks’. They’re just not ready, it was argued. But contests help the sport grow. They bring publicity and sponsors, respect and status, and role models for aspiring athletes.
They won, and the publicity became the impetus for wider change, with the WSL soon later coming to the party.
So when calls for a women’s event at Mavericks continued to fall on deaf ears, Bianca upped the stakes. She founded the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS) with Keala and Paige, enlisted a lawyer, and lobbied officials responsible for granting the contest permit.
Their demands were pretty straightforward. They asked for the same opportunity to compete at Mavericks and for the same prize purse as the men. They won, and the publicity became the impetus for wider change.
Soon after, the WSL also came to the party, holding its very first women’s Big Wave Tour event at Pe’ahi (Jaws) in Hawaii. Later they introduced women’s development programs, additional events, and, in 2018, pay parity across all WSL contests.
5. Leah Dawson leverages her status to make a difference
Leah Dawson, 34, is the ultimate activist surfer. This water woman, filmmaker and writer, says surfing has provided a platform, and social media, a voice, to speak her truth without industry pressures.
These truths have included urging voters to back action on climate change, social inclusion and racial equality in the 2020 American presidential election. “If I have a career in surfing, I want it to be for something. I want it to make lives better,” she says. It’s a sense of purpose she’s always felt, and an authenticity that’s served her well.
Leah grew up in Florida surfing both longboards and shortboards and moved to Hawaii for a university by the beach. As a young creative media graduate, she had the choice of competing on the women’s longboard tour or working as a production assistant for the Triple Crown. She went with the steady income and took the job. Still, it wasn’t long before Leah, talented and outspoken, had caught the eye of progressive women’s surf brand Seea. They sponsored her to travel the world.
“Politics matter because our collective policies determine not only the health of this earth but every little living thing on it”. – Leah Dawson
In 2016, she and four friends set up Changing Tides Foundation so fellow travellers could lessen their environmental footprint and give back to local communities. Today, their vision – a global web of water people connecting humanity, kindness and the planet – is being realised.
In Panama, Changing Tides Foundation runs a women’s mentorship program with local NGOs. In Africa, it provides sewing machines and job opportunities for war survivors. And, on Hawaii’s North Shore, it drives a community compost movement.
Now back in California with shaper boyfriend Alex Lopez, Leah says these days it’s not just about how well you surf. It’s very much about what you believe in. “Politics matter because our collective policies determine not only the health of this earth but every little living thing on it”.
Make a difference, give Changing Tides’ Plastic Swear Jar a go.