Nick Carroll: Are We on the Edge of a New Era in Surf Environmentalism? Thanks to Some Dumb Virus?

21 Jun 2020 6 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

The first Fight For the Bight Paddle Out in Torquay, 2019. Photo: Ed Sloane

The first Fight For the Bight Paddle Out in Torquay, 2019. Photo: Ed Sloane

The Plague retreats, part one in a series


In some ways, it’s been a revelation.

For three months now, organised surfing has been non-existent. No pro tour, no regional events, no boardriders’ pointscores, no wave pools, no international big wave charger hits, no international anything.

Instead, there’s just been… surfing.

Maybe the crowds haven’t always been fun, but a lot of good boards have been made, a lot of excellent waves ridden, and for a precious while, the simple act of paddling out and getting a few, whatever sort of surfer you are, has been given all the oxygen in the room.

It’s hard to predict what might arise from this completely unpredicted moment. But if I were to roll the dice on something, I’d say a lot of us feel closer to surfing and its environment than ever right now.

Which might make Damien Cole’s timing seem pretty good.

Damien has just taken on the job of Surfrider Foundation’s national campaign director. He, along with Surfrider’s new chairperson Sean Doherty*, helped drive the momentum behind last year’s Fight For The Bight paddle-outs.

Now he hopes to be part of driving the surfing world’s original enviro group into its next era.

“The whole surfing world’s had it so good for so long, we got kind of complacent about environmental causes,” he says. “But around the world, there’s some big threats to ocean and coastal health, and they seem to be coming from all directions.

“We need to kick-start this revolution among surfers. I think there’s a thirst among surfers to have someone like Surfrider represent them.”

I ask him to pick a mission. “The biggest one?” he says “ PEP11.”

The PEP11 oil and gas exploration lease is 4576 square kilometres of sea floor stretching in various chunks from Broken Bay north of Sydney up to just off Newcastle. Through most of its length, it’s around 10 km offshore — right in the middle of the annual humpback whale migration path, and within sight of some of the most expensive coastal real estate in the world.

The lease is currently held by a company named Advent Energy, via a subsidiary, Asset Energy. Advent in turn is part owned by BPH Energy, a mining company based in Western Australia. Via its offshoots, BPH controls leases on gasfields in Queensland and has carried out exploratory work elsewhere.

Damien Cole

Damien Cole

PEP11’s best hope for drilling lies off an exposed slope called Baleen, about 30 km southeast of Newcastle. On its website, BPH/Advent claims the Baleen site may contain over a trillion cubic feet of gas.

Right now, PEP11 is a ghost. Advent’s hold on the lease expires next February. They’ll probably try for an extension, but the fact is that drilling Baleen and extracting its contents will take massive, possibly colossal capital — which is probably why Advent hasn’t got it off the ground.

But if there really is over a trillion cubic feet of gas out there, at some point, somebody with access to the cash to actually do the job will start eyeing it off.

Damien anticipates this point. “It’s a long way down the track,” he says of PEP11. “But every surfer between Sydney and Newcastle needs to know about it now, so we’re ready.”

Other target missions include offshore leases off western Victoria and Ningaloo Reef in WA, not far from the very active Exmouth oil and gas fields. Cole also hopes to help local SF chapters take on coastal over-development, like the proposed Marriott at Margaret River and the Manyana residential development on the NSW South Coast — to pick just two of what will increasingly be many.


Surfrider has been integral in opposition to single-use plastics, a legacy of outgoing chairperson Susie Crick. Damien adds it to his list, along with action on conservation and protection — a job he describes as “annoying politicians”.

If you want to tackle these sorts of big, complex issues, the first thing you need is people — lots of them. And Damien is very good at rallying people. “I’m on the phone,” he says. “That’s what I do. Constant communication. I have to be in contact with everyone, making sure we’re able to get the chapters the support they need.”

Those frantic phone skills played a significant part in the FFTB paddle-out protests of 2019, which drew over 30,000 people Australia-wide.

Whether or not they really made a difference in Equinor’s decision not to drill the Bight is hard to know. Damien says he and Sean weren’t sure the paddles would work either: “Seano was resigned to it, whereas I was more the optimist.”

But in our little surfing world, it might matter less than simply getting those 30,000 people together — finding a thread to connect surfers, the way organised surfing has never quite managed. “We both realised, that by helping mobilise so many people, we already had a win.”

Thus, if the surf’s been more crowded these past few months, Damien sees a value in that. A value and a possibility. “It’s hard to describe a typical surfer these days. There’s so many different people enjoying it — kids, mums, business people, all kinds. It gives us a kind of resilience. We can draw on many strengths. There’s so many of us now, and we have common cause.

“I’d love to see everybody who’s ever put a surfboard under their arm join us, because we’re going to be there for you.”

*Disclosure: Sean is also part of the Coastalwatch team and we love him, but honestly, if necessary, we will bag the shit out of him.

Next week! Has the Plague exposed competitive surfing’s true place in the sport?

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