How Catching the Biggest Wave of My Life is Fighting Coral Bleaching

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Torsten Durkan on a Nazare bomb. Photo: Hélio António


The Inertia

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, Maui surfer Torsten Durkan introduced the inaugural Surfing Be Cause campaign, a winter long mission to fight coral bleaching by raising money for every foot of the largest wave he caught this historic El Niño winter. Here is Torsten’s account of how it all started, and what it means to take action for any cause. 

“Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” Conservationist and author Edward Abbey understood the importance of carrying out one’s passionate beliefs without hesitation. Not doing so would ultimately make one fall into the confines of hypocrisy and who wants to live like that?

In my trip to Iceland this last summer I decided to visit the famous glacier lagoon Jökulsárlón. As I climbed a hill to get a better look at a glacier that fed it, I found myself amidst a crowd of other tourists roaring with cheers and laughter. Not understanding what they were cheering for I suddenly heard a thundering crash from the glacier that sent a massive chunk of ice racing into the lagoon, prompting yet another cacophony from the onlookers. I found out later that day that the glacier was retreating roughly 500 meters (over 1,600 feet) per year. For me, watching this spectacle was upsetting. That moment was pivotal in my life, motivating me to do something and not be a part of the gaggle. This was the moment that inspired Surfing Be Cause, an outlet where I can generate funds and spread awareness for environmental and humanitarian causes by having individuals and businesses pledge money per foot of the biggest wave I catch every season.

This year’s El Niño provided ample opportunities to surf and also, unfortunately, plenty of causes to help support. I chose to advocate for something closer to my home in Maui: coral reefs. As a direct result of the this recent El Niño, the reefs in Hawaii and around the Pacific are being affected by unusually high ocean temperatures, leaving many of them bleached. A recent survey even documented 95% of the Great Barrier Reef being affected, making it the worst bleaching event in history.

I could continue and touch on all the unspeakable things humanity unleashes upon the natural world but I’m a firm believer that you can’t fight fire with fire. There seems to be a tendency throughout society to be captivated by all things horrific. It’s not often you hear stories of glorious triumph in the news. Meanwhile most documentaries will pull at your heart-strings, like a somber violinist, in an attempt to motivate you to do something about whatever issue is being brought to light. On the contrary, it’s my hope to inspire positive proactivity. That’s why I partnered with Dr. Ruth Gates, Director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. She has gone beyond just documenting the degradation of reefs. She is heading research that is aimed at actively preserving a future for them. She has accomplished this by identifying “super corals” that aren’t as affected by the extreme conditions, then selectively breeding stocks of them that will be resistant to even worse conditions and transplanting them back to the reef to spread their genes. It’s essentially like giving evolution a healthy dose of steroids. Dr. Gates’ enterprising research and openness to cooperating with a random surfer like myself is the kind of approach our world needs to move forward.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from doing this project, it is that people’s kindness and willingness to help knows no bounds. It’s taken a community to make my dream a reality. From fellow surfers lending me equipment and aid when I was in need or family and friend’s support, to strangers that have only read emails from me. The Red Chargers crew took me in without a surfboard or jet ski support and got me the biggest left of my life, nominating me for their Perseverance Award. “Handsome Bugga,” uncle Rodney Kilborn has recently offered to help me set up a Jaws beach cleanup to remove all the carnage from the rocks. The list goes on of people stepping up to help. It’s a reminder that there is hope – we are all capable of doing incredible things – all we have to do is execute our dreams and fuel them with our passions. A friend simply put it as this:

“Nothing stops a freight train full of F#@k yeah.”

Note:  Donations to support Torsten’s inaugural Surfing Be Cause campaign can be made here. Both pledges and flat donations are accepted and appreciated, from $1 – whatever the heck you feel like offering. Durkan’s largest wave of the winter will be determined via photograph and measured by a professional. Torsten’s Inaugural Surfing Be Cause campaign will wrap up on Earth Day, April 22nd. 



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