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Surfers Down Under Rise Up

Deep in the Southern Hemisphere, colorful, towering cliffs are the cinematic backdrop for the world's most overlooked surf paradise. Picture consistent and epic waves, empty lineups in turquoise bays, and pristine natural beauty in all directions. It's a place so spectacular and treasured that, until five years ago, few outside of Australia had ever heard of the Great Australian Bight.

Photography was all but forbidden by locals keen to protect their secret. Surf journos were shooed away, but there was nothing they could do when the oil companies showed up and saw an untapped oil banquet on par with the Gulf of Mexico.

Paddle Out for The Bight at Torquay
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Members of the global surf community paddled out at Torquay to galvanize support for saving the Great Australian Bight.

In January 2011, less than a year after British Petroleum's (BP) notorious Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Australian government granted oil exploration licenses in the Bight to BP, Chevron, and a Norwegian firm now known as Equinor.

And just like that, the Great Australian Bight -- that gentle arc at the bottom of the continent, one of the world's last intact, wild marine ecosystems, and an undercover surf sanctuary -- was under threat. It still is, but thanks in part to the work of a handful of Aussie surfers, a resistance has gathered to protect it. The question is, will it be enough?

Striking oil in the Bight requires tapping reserves beneath a kilometers-deep reef in the rough open water between Australia and Antarctica, where swells can be upwards of 20 meters high. Nevertheless, by 2015, BP had commissioned the design and construction of a custom drilling platform and as they drafted their environmental and safety plan nobody was paying much attention because even among Australians, the Bight is off the public radar.

Bight Aerial 2 The Great Australian Bight, a mighty and magestic stretch of coastline. WSL / Sea Shepherd

Into that vacuum stepped Peter Owen of the Wilderness Society in South Australia, who commissioned an independent analysis of what would happen if there was a catastrophic oil spill.

Their computer modeling showed that if another event like the Deepwater Horizon tragedy played out in the Bight, oil would slick the coast and offshore islands of Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia, as well as parts of Victoria and New South Wales, potentially damaging hundreds of cities, towns, and beaches, impacting the tourist industry and killing or harming local wildlife.

Armed with this new data, Owen built a coalition of environmental groups to take on BP. One of his first calls was to Jeff Hansen who runs Sea Shepherd in Australia. Sea Shepherd earned its name by defending whales from whaling ships in the open sea, and today works to stop illegal commercial fishing in much the same way. They also raise awareness around marine plastic pollution and climate change.

Hansen thought it important to see what was at stake in the Great Australian Bight, so he, Owen and 33 others boarded the Steve Irwin, a 59-meter long former Scottish fisheries patrol vessel, and launched a month-long expedition in 2016.

Hansen knew the Bight was a Southern Right Whale nursery, but the more they explored -- whether that was closer to shore or in the deep sea canyons off shore -- the more they discovered.

#Tournotes: Fight for the Bight
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After a lay day is called at the Rip Curl Pro, athletes head to Cosy Beach to #fightforthebight together. Peter King goes behind the scenes.

"There were orcas, sperm whales, fin whales, seals, endangered sea lions, dolphins, penguins, sharks, giant squid," he said. "It's nature on steroids."

According to Owen's computer models, all of that would be decimated by a major oil spill, along with the area's thriving tuna fishery, which supports thousands of jobs.

Inspired by what they saw at sea, Owen, Hansen and their colleagues in the Great Australian Bight Alliance focused on bringing their case to town councils that were in harm's way.

Meanwhile, in the surf world, a parallel movement was brewing.

Sean Doherty, 47, an accomplished surf journalist based in Byron Bay, best known for his work with Surfer, first heard about BP's plans in 2015, and convinced Patagonia, a global adventure retailer who diverts a percentage of their profits to environmental causes, to channel some money into the Great Australian Bight Alliance and their campaign which they tagged, #FightfortheBight.

"The early goal was to create some kind of public awareness," Doherty said. "Every Australian knows the Great Barrier Reef, but they don't know the Bight even though the biodiversity is on par. So we did it through the surf lens, which was a challenge because you're not allowed to shoot the surf breaks. But to save it they've had to let people see it."

Doherty credits the work of Hayden Richards, a surf photographer based in Elliston, South Australia, for helping to showcase the Bight in full force. His Instagram feed (@sarips) is a testament to his home's natural gifts-the surf, wildlife, pristine beaches and spectacular cliffs. Similar to the footage collected from the Steve Irwin, his images show precisely what is at risk and why the Bight is worth protecting.

Late in 2016, BP revealed their own spill modeling, which proved more severe than the conservative model Owen commissioned in 2015. A freedom of information request also revealed that BP considered framing any future oil spill clean up as a benefit to the local economy because it would bring jobs.

Facing outrage and ridicule from a rising opposition on the ground and suddenly skeptical regulators, BP pulled out in December 2016. Chevron followed them out of Southern Australia in 2017, but Norway's state oil company absorbed and consolidated the BP leases and began putting their own plan together to drill in the Bight.

On February 19 of this year, Equinor dropped their 1500-page plan. In it they show that their well will be drilled 372 kilometers off shore and emphasized that it can be done safely.

QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 8: 2X World Champion John John Florence of Hawaii is eliminated from the 2019 Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast with an equal 3rd finish after placing second in Semi Final Heat 1 at Duranbah Beach on April 8, 2019 in Queensland, Aust 2x World Champ John Florence took time for the surf paddle out at Torquay while preparing for his performance at the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach. WSL / Matt Dunbar

According to their plan, risk to wildlife is low, though they do mention that whales transit the area. Their assessment is based on an assumption that nothing catastrophic will happen because, according to them, they have only suffered two major oil spills in over 59,000 drill sites since 1980.

However, until March of last year, Equinor's name was Statoil. They made the name change as part of an attempt to rebrand themselves as a renewable energy company. A self-proclaimed supporter of the Paris Climate Accord, they do invest heavily in renewable energy in Norway, but a closer look at their oil business raises uncomfortable questions.

According to reports, Statoil suffered three spills in just two years in 2007 and 2008 in the North Sea, which weren't among the major spills cited in the plan they released on February 19. The worst of those three events saw 25,000 barrels of oil gush into Arctic waters. Then there's the 2002 corruption case in Iran, when Statoil attempted to buy access to lucrative oil fields.

Doherty isn't about to take Equinor at their word. On the day their report dropped, he posted an image of their spill modeling on his Instagram feed.

"I went out for a surf and came back an hour later and had 8000 likes," he said. Considering his best post up to that point had been around 600 likes, the response startled him. "All the high profile surfers had got a hold of it." Within 24 hours it was over 15,000 likes.

Next, Doherty and Australian surf star, Dave Rastovich, teamed up to recruit every Aussie surf legend they could find to sign on to an open letter opposing oil exploration in the Bight.

"We called Mick [Fanning], Steph [Stephanie Gilmore], the underground legends, all the free surf crew. They all said, 'No worries, we're on.'" Doherty and Rastovich hoped the star-studded letter would entice mainstream media to cover the story, but it proved most potent within the Australian surf community.

Fight for The Bight - Cosy Beach, Torquay. Australian surfer and activist Damien Cole leading the paddle out at Torquay. WSL / Kelly Cestari

A series of paddle outs, organized by local surfer turned activist and political candidate, Damien Cole, son of famed shaper Maurice Cole, launched shortly thereafter. The first one was held at Bells Beach, outside of Melbourne, a long way from the Bight, yet 3000 people paddled beyond the surf to rally as one.

Another was held at Burleigh Heads in Gold Coast even further away from the Bight. 2000 surfers paddled out. Then on April 20, after a lay day was called at the Rip Curl Pro in Bells Beach, 4000 surfers paddled out at nearby Torquay to protest oil drilling in the Bight. Among them were Nikki Van Dijk, Owen Wright, Alana Blanchard, Jack Freestone and WSL PURE ambassadors, Lakey Peterson and John John Florence.

Surfing is a creative, individualistic, sport. It's not usually a political act. If anything, it's a beautiful escape from political conflict and all the noise of daily life. But the Fight for the Bight is evidence that may be changing.

Fight for the Bight Paddle Out at Burleigh Heads
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The Australian community continues to inspire, paddling out to protect the Great Australian Bight.

Our collective playground is in the crosshairs, and not just in Australia. Coral reefs are dying or dead and fisheries are collapsing, in large part because sea temperatures are rising. The science is clear. Our search for and burning of fossil fuels is the main driver of global climate change and we can no longer pretend we don't know the cost.

Time is running out. The stakes couldn't be higher, and who else will step up to demand respect for the ocean from corporate interests and government if not those of us who spend as much free time adventuring in the blue as possible?

In Australia, surfers are rising to the occasion.

Thanks in part to the Australian surf community, more than 31,000 people commented on Equinor's draft environmental and safety plan. That plan and those comments are now in the hands of Australia's National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority who will evaluate the evidence and determine if Equinor can drill.

In the meantime, environmentalists and surfers from throughout Australia are flooding Equinor's offices in Perth and Norway with calls, urging them to scrap their plans for the Great Australian Bight before their annual general meeting in Oslo on May 15.

Bight Ed Slaone Surfers around the world have continued to rally together to fight for the Great Australian Bight through positive and productive activism. WSL / Ed Sloane

Some will travel all the way to Norway to make their voices heard. And if the wind and swell are right, maybe they'll head north to Lofoten Island, a surf spot with tasty lefts and rights, that was once targeted for oil development by Equinor before a passionate band of Norwegian surfers ran them off.

If you'd like to help, please share this story on social media and log on to www.fightforthebight.org.au to learn how to do more.

Adam Skolnick is an author and award-winning journalist based in Southern California.

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