Surfers Save the World
“You Can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
We entered the chilly waters of the Pacific just a few hundred feet from the Scrips pier in La Jolla, CA, our surf boards in tow. It had been 4 months since we had last surfed together in Costa Rica with Laird Hamilton. This day we had swapped out the tropical climate and warm waters of Costa Rica for the 3-mill wet suit and more frigid temps of California. For an hour or so, we paddled out and attempted to ride the white-water back in. Sometimes we succeeded, but more often, we wiped out, emerging from the salty shallows with the biggest grins on our faces.
When it was over, Phil, our surfing companion and lead engineer on the SmartFin Project, led us back up the Scripps Institute of Oceanography where we interviewed him on SmartFin, a temperature sensor installed in the fin of a surfboard.
Phil might have one the greatest jobs in history. He works feet from the ocean where you can easily find him surfing on his lunch break. His calm and quiet demeanor seems to cover the still waters that clearly run deep for this scientist. Watching him surf, even with an injury, was effortless; a stark contrast to the challenges that we faced as novice surfers. In the water and on the beach, he was playful and serene, a typical surfer. It was during the interview that we got see the passion and the genius. Most scientist don’t work for fame or fortune, something that really needs to be fixed. There isn’t a lot of money in academic research and few really make it to the upper echelons of scientific notoriety. So why do they do it? Why does Phil do it?
Most scientist are notoriously humble, and our guide on this journey was no different. But, as our interview continued and he opened up about his work, the passionate engineer emerged. In his element we saw a man committed to science for sciences sake, a man whose work has far reaching potential outside of what’s on the surface.
Smartfin tracks micro changes in ocean temp while men and women do nothing more than surf. Phil talked us through the goal of SmartFin while showing us our surfing session on their app. Think Strava for surfers. As we learned, typical ocean sensors are spaced far apart and those distances don’t give ocean and climate scientists the micro view necessary to build the most accurate models.
The incredible amount of data collected by these surfing fins might pave the way to better understating of weather patterns and coastal changes. It might help us better predict hurricanes and tropical storms. As we discussed in the interview, the potential use for the data becomes almost limitless. Phil’s humble nature always kept him from speculation and flights of scientific fancy on the end game for Smartfin, but as the interview went on, his excitement for the project and what it might accomplish was apparent and infectious.
Between the playful banter of three people who spent the afternoon surfing, a more serious conversation emerged. This conversation was why we so desperately wanted to interview Phil. The conversation about whether or not we are having an impact on our climate and environment has been settled, but yet scientist like Phil, have to fight against rhetoric and politics to be heard.
We are at a tipping point and while, at least at the time of us writing this, the world is scope locked on The US Political scandals that occupy almost every moment of our news, we are ignoring the stories that have the most direct impact to our continued existence as a species. Phil, reminds us that small choices make big changes. Biking to work, getting rid of single use plastic anything and shutting down your computer to spend time outdoors are just a few of the things we can do to help. Will it reverse all of the damage? Absolutely not, but getting people to do these things signals a shift in the way people think and behave.
Our time with Phil really did represent Life to the Max. We surfed, we discussed our responsibility to be better stewards of the planet with very actionable intelligence. Most importantly, we made a friend. Life to the Max is about connection, about building a community of like minded people committed to solving the most pressing problems we face as a species. Whether we joined his tribe or he joined ours is irrelevant. We are that much stronger having met Phil and can’t wait to surf with him again.
Check out SmartFin and www.smartfin.org and click the link below to watch the whole interview, which includes great footage of Janna and Evan attempting to surf.