How Australian Surfers Created a Powerful Environmental Movement - Surfer's Mag

“WE WON.” The text message was to the point.

“WON WHAT?” I replied. It was early morning.


The message from my surfing associate down in the Great Australian Bight took a minute to sink in. Huge if true. Hadn’t we already lost? Norwegian oil company Equinor had been given the green light to start drilling 7,000 feet below the surface in one of the most storm-torn stretches of ocean on earth. It was a done deal. But sure enough, in a piece of divine intervention, overnight they’d pulled out and gone home to Norway. The phone started ringing, white-hot. This was big. A surfing protest movement that started from scratch last year had just saved a thousand-mile stretch of coastline. Wins like this are rare birds, and I hadn’t had time to ponder the significance of it when Maurice Cole walked in the door. As an old school coastal defender who’s fought for decades to keep Bells in its natural state, he was over the moon—even more so considering his son, Damien had led the Bight campaign. He gave me a hug but then stood back. “Thirty years I fight for Bells and I still can’t save it… and you blokes come in for 5 minutes and save the whole fucking Bight!”

Even when the Bight protests went national last year, deep down I was resigned to Equinor winning. The deck was stacked in their favor. Australia has become a First World quarry, and it’s hard to tell where the fossil fuel companies stop and the government starts. That’s not even taking license—the Federal Resources Minister who carved up the Bight for oil leases a decade ago became the chairman of the oil and gas lobby two weeks after leaving parliament. While surfers protested on beaches around the country, these guys were meeting secretly to hash out the deal, quaffing celebratory martinis, laughing. It was done.

But then suddenly it wasn’t.

The Fight for the Bight really got going in February last year. A map of the oil company’s own spill modeling went viral. It showed the potential for oil on beaches over a thousand miles. Soon after the first protest paddle out was held in Torquay, near Bells. Three thousand people showed and they were pissed—none more so than Damien Cole. He’d built a symbolic oil well from timber scraps, paddled it out on a stand-up paddleboard and yelled at it, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Photos of the paddle out went around the world and a movement was born.

As a rule, Australian surfers don’t have a lot to complain about. With more coastline than they know what to do with, most of it in its natural state, this is surfing’s land of milk and honey. The biggest coastal issue in recent years has been plastic on beaches, but we’re hardly Bali. You have to go back to the ‘70s and ‘80s when there were large-scale protests over sand mining, sewage outfalls and French nuclear tests in the Pacific to see surfers taking to the streets, taking on governments and corporations. Since then? Decades of going surfing. Bountiful surfing years. In that time any kind of large-scale coastal environmental movement faded away.

And yet with the Bight protests, suddenly here it was again. A new movement. New faces. The issue was generationally pitched. Lots of Millennials. Lots of families with young kids. It drew surfers from all corners of the coast, and from all walks of surfing life. From the hardcore lords down in the Bight itself to Byron expressionists and world champs, they formed a misfit alliance. Surfing was the common thread, but they were also united in the fact that for most of them, this was the first time they’d ever engaged in any kind of large-scale activism. They’d been to the beach thousands of times in their lives, but never to protest.

I’D moved into a house with Maurice Cole the week before the first paddle out in Torquay. He was going through a rough patch — his marriage of 45 years had gone south, the surfboard industry was in a shambles, and his cancer was threatening to return. Magnificently resilient, Maurice moved forward. We’d sit most mornings at opposite ends of the dining table and talk about the world. When I say we talked, Maurice talked — I listened. He’d start big: Trump, China, geopolitics, a global economic collapse in 2020. I laughed. The state of the surf industry held most interest for him. He’s made millions and lost millions over the years, and it was with just the slightest hint of schadenfreude that he’d workshop doomsday scenarios for the surf industry. He’d then disappear out to his “Chook Shed” to shape, returning every hour or so to jump online to several surfing comment boards, under several online aliases, and shorten a few people up with a demonic laugh. With his beard and long hair Maurice could pass for an outlaw biker, but his fearsome reputation had recently taken a hit after wrecking his green four-wheel-drive and being forced to drive around town in a borrowed Suzuki Swift.

Defending the coast has long been an outlet for Maurice’s combativeness. While living in France in the ‘80s he founded the European chapter of the Surfrider Foundation with Tom Curren. The French beaches were piled high at the time with Spanish trash. Maurice drove across the border and worded up the Spanish. When the French started detonating nuclear bombs in the Pacific, Maurice picketed the Vice President’s holiday house down the road in Hossegor. Since moving back to Australia he’s taken on Bells Beach as his cause. Nobody on the Australian coast has thrown themselves into the defense of a single stripe of sand more than Maurice Cole has with Bells. He crusades more than he campaigns. With Maurice it’s head-on, crash or crash through. He walks out the door on a Saturday morning to go and surf Bells, grumbling about Bells being full of crew from the “Armstrong Creek Boardriders Club”—his name for the guys who’ve moved into the new estates outside of town. “Okay,” he sighs, “off to war.” He walks back in a minute later. “Might help if I took my car keys.”

At the same time as the Bight paddle out, Damien Cole was also running as an independent candidate in the Federal election under the campaign slogan, “Damien Cole gives a shit.” While Maurice has always been staunchly anti-establishment, Damo figured to get some real change he needed to infiltrate the establishment and do some swamp-draining. Damo was a very different style of campaigner to his old man. He’s got all of Maurice’s fire, but plays it a little cooler. A bit less guerrilla, a bit more guile. The fact he and Maurice had teamed up made local politicians nervous. Over the following weeks, Damo and Maurice would trade long phone calls, often at night, measured conversations about both campaigns. Maurice, pacing the house in a Moroccan djellaba, would tell Damo he needed to slow down. On top of the election campaign Damo was also traveling around the country leading Bight paddle outs, paying for his own flights to do it. The irony of Maurice telling anyone to take it easy was classic. Both Coles have furious engines and when driven by a cause are hard to stop. Maurice watched the Torquay paddle out with both interest and pride. He hadn’t seen anything like it in 30 years. As Damo paddled in, Maurice paddled over and hugged him.

They turned up on beaches around the country to save the Bight, but there was a wider point being made. Australia can’t simply keep digging up fossil fuels and burning them, heading boldly into the 1950s. The old ways were killing the place. Last year was the hottest and driest year on record in Australia. The Bight protests had a clear narrative around the future — a future that had already arrived as protesters gathered on the country’s beaches. As the National Day of Action took place last November, the north coast was on fire. The Black Summer had begun and people paddled out through bushfire smoke to protest.

By this stage the Bight campaign was generating its own weather. The National Day of Action was the largest collective environmental action the Australian coast had ever seen, with 60 towns between the Capricorn Coast and Exmouth paddling out. It had even landed back on Equinor’s doorstep when Norwegian press ran with the story, causing a giant PR headache for the oil company. The Bight campaign had become a cause celebre and was recruiting tens of thousands of people from all surfing strata. It had the most public surfer in the country backing it, alongside the least public surfer.

A few years back, Mick Fanning famously locked horns with the Gold Coast Mayor, who was at the time trying to build a cruise ship terminal directly in front of Mick’s place at Kirra. But Mick had never picked a fight with a multinational fossil fuel giant before. The Bight was a far bigger, more complex issue. For a pro surfer who burns gas in planes, cars and jet skis to lobby against a new oil well could be seen as hypocritical. The same base charge was leveled against the whole Bight movement — “What did they drive to the beach in?”, “What are their boards made of?” — but when you’re Mick Fanning, you’re a little more exposed. To Mick’s credit, he was there from the start, signing an open letter published early last year. He paddled out (twice) and did national TV interviews. “Whatever you need” was his stock response when asked by the campaign to do press. He wasn’t alone. Most high-profile surfers in the country backed the campaign in some way, a leap into the unknown for those who’d never been involved in any form of environmental activism before.

At the other end of the scale was Jeff Goulden. The name might not ring a bell, but his nickname might. The legend of Camel lives large in Australian surf folklore. Camel became a mythical figure after living alone at G-Land for a few seasons, paddling out on the biggest days before disappearing back into the jungle where he was camping. Camel sightings were rarer than tiger sightings. When he moved back to Western Australia, he was on a mission to paddle the biggest waves he could find — again, alone — long before the big-wave paddle renaissance. Camel now calls the Bight home, living quietly in a caravan on a clifftop. There’s a left-hand reef out the front which he reaches by scaling down the cliff using old fishing ropes and rusty ladders. Famously reclusive, he moved to the Bight because the sharks kept down the number of traveling surfers in the water. “Surfing with other people? Why would I want to do that?” He’s genuinely puzzled at how people do it. True to form, Camel’s worked behind the scenes on the Bight campaign with just a handful of people even knowing about it.

Here’s the paradox: Very few of the people who took part in the Bight campaign have ever been down there. They’re never likely to. The Bight is not only a long, long way from the east coast, it’s a long way from an east coast surfing consciousness. Byron, it is not. The Bight does not have Instagram murfers, nor a freaky finless scene. It has guys like Camel. It’s hardscrabble coast, and when those diamond days finally arrive between fronts, the locals aren’t really big on having to share them. When the plans to turn the Bight into an oil field were announced, the small band of local surfers were torn. They had no chance of stopping it on their own. To save the Bight they’d need help from surfers on the east coast — the same surfers they’ve spent decades trying to keep away.

Regarded as the most underground and localized surfing coast in the country, the Bight has long been off-limits to surf photographers. This unspoken agreement dates back to the ‘70s when Cactus became a sanctuary for surfers fleeing life in the east. They lived in corrugated iron shacks in the dunes, smoked high-grade bush weed and took their chances with the great whites. The solitude and the freedom were exquisite, but the one rule they had was that you couldn’t shoot it. That rule still applies today to Cactus and a whole bunch of other trophy waves down in the Bight. Pull a camera out at the wrong spot and you’re likely to have it smashed in the dirt.

One guy, however, has been given license to show the Bight to the world, and his photography was key to saving the place. People needed to see what they were fighting for. Hayden Richards — “Richo” to the crew down in the Bight, “SA Rips” (his Instagram handle) to everyone else—took up surf photography after a surfing accident where he was stuffed into an underwater cave at Blacks, outside of Elliston where he lives. He survived the three-wave hold down but badly buckled his arm. He considered himself lucky. Blacks had been the scene of a fatal shark attack a few years before. A big white took a local surfer right under the cliffs. Local lore says it roared like a lion when it breached.

The coastline Richo has brought to life doesn’t look like anywhere else on earth. It’s where the dusty brown billiard table of the Australian continent falls abruptly into the Southern Ocean, and the cliffs that overlook the Bight have an almost gothic feel. The landscape is dry and sparse. The color has been leached out of it over millions of years. By contrast, the ocean seems like Xanadu. The water is an electric cobalt and teems with marine life. There are whales, seals, sharks…the only thing missing from most of Richo’s shots are people. He shoots them if they’re around, but most of the time they’re not. When they appear in his photos they feel like they’ve wandered into frame by accident. Richo’s shots walk a fine line: They showcase one of the world’s most breathtaking coastlines, but at the same time carry a faintly sinister, unwelcoming feel to them. Like, where is everyone? You can almost imagine crew from over east looking at them and thinking, “Man, that’s so beautiful. I’ll paddle out to save it, but I’m not driving 2 days to surf it.”

The morning Heath Joske heard the news he was working on his property outside of Streaky Bay, building a garden wall from bush stone. At first he let the phone ring out and got back to work. The phone rang and rang and it kept on ringing. He grew concerned. “I thought something bad might’ve happened,” he recalls. “Maybe my wife had hit a kangaroo while driving back from town or something.” If Damien Cole led the fight in the east, Heath Joske led the fight in the Bight itself. He even traveled to Norway to deliver an impassioned speech at Equinor’s Annual General Meeting, pleading with them not to go ahead. Heath — more from the Maurice Cole school of activism — had waited outside the conference room and confronted Equinor’s CEO face-to-face. Heath, whose only protest up to that point in his life was a symbolic soul arch in the middle of a ‘QS heat at Jeffreys Bay, soon became a cult figure.

When Heath eventually answered the phone it was Anna Taylor. Living a hundred miles back up the road in Elliston, Anna was one of the campaign originals. She’d been locked in a battle with Big Oil in the Bight for almost a decade. Both Heath and Anna have strong connections to this coast. Heath surfs the reefs around home almost daily and worked on a shrimp boat out in the Bight for 3 years. Anna and her partner Tim meanwhile are sailors. When the storm fronts clear, they take their two kids on a tiny skiff out to the islands offshore. Anna also surfs — “used to surf before the kids came along,” she qualifies — and her father’s ashes are scattered out at Blacks.

When Heath answered the phone he could barely make out what Anna was saying. “She goes, ‘Have you heard?’ I went, ‘Heard what?’ She goes, ‘They’re out! Equinor have pulled out!’ She might have sworn. I might have sworn. We both couldn’t believe it. I just yelled down the phone and we were pretty much both in tears.” The news came like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky. “It just didn’t seem real,” says Heath of the minutes after he put the phone down. “I felt like I was walking around on the moon. We’ve always had hope that one day we’d get that call, but we never expected it.” That morning, phones rang all along the Bight coast with the news. Celebrations were planned for later that night. “I’ve got two young kids now, though,” offered Heath, “so the days of a 5-day bush doof are over for me. But I’m planning on having a quiet beer this afternoon and letting it all sink in.”

THE official Equinor line went something like this: “Following a holistic review of its exploration portfolio, Equinor has concluded that the project’s potential is not commercially competitive compared with other exploration opportunities in the company.” Equinor has dozens of oil and gas prospects all over the world. Translated this reads: “We’ll just move to some poor developing country where nobody gives a shit and drill there instead.”

“Of course they’re going to say that,” barks Heath Joske. “They’ll never say they gave in to a bunch of surfers from Australia. That would just encourage other people in other parts of the world to take them on.” The protest movement in Australia certainly made life uncomfortable for Equinor. They stopped posting on social media for 6 months after their feeds filled with irate Australians offering creative suggestions about where they should stick their new oil rig.

The Australian protests made a lot of noise in Norway. Equinor is two-thirds owned by the Norwegian people, who’ve become fantastically wealthy from oil and gas. Norway, however doesn’t get high on its own supply. It’s one of the most progressive countries on earth: They run their own society largely on renewable energy while selling the world dirty oil and gas. But the Australian protests, followed soon after by the Australian bushfires supercharged by climate change, saw Norwegians question the effect Equinor’s actions were having on the rest of the world. The cognitive dissonance Norwegians hold around fossil fuels began to collapse, and this forced Equinor’s hand. Even though the Fight for the Bight was fought in Australia, it was ultimately won in Norway.

“We’ve known about climate change for decades now, but suddenly it’s here. It’s arrived on our doorstep. This is what it looks like,” says Heath, whose Streaky Bay property hit 118 degrees (a record) last year on the day when Equinor was granted formal approvals to drill. It was the hottest day ever recorded across the whole of the Australian continent. “And Australia’s response is to keep digging and drilling and burning fossil fuels. The guys in charge are simply not interested in lowering emissions or developing renewable energy because they’re in the back pocket of the fossil fuel lobby. It’s all profit and politics. It’s madness.”

The movement barely had time to celebrate the Bight win before Australia jumped from fires to floods, skipped the locusts and went straight to pestilence. The global economic collapse brought on by the Coronavirus will, in all likelihood, set climate change action back years. Australia will try and dig itself out of an economic hole. The fossil fuel companies will dig in. The signs are there already: The guy appointed to lead the economic rebuild of the country is the former CEO of one of Australia’s biggest mining companies. Climate action is unlikely to be at the top of his list.

Through all this, a dark optimism prevails on the Australian coast. If nothing else, the Bight drew a line in the sand. It was proof of life for a large-scale surfing activist movement, and proof it can play with the big boys. It’s much harder to dismiss surfers today than it was in the ‘70s. While we might bitch about how mainstream surfing has become, when it comes to staring down corporations and governments and kicking oil giants in the nuts, it actually works. Surfing has huge cultural cachet. Surfing today can today both sell insurance and sink an oil rig. The Bight win gave surfers a sense of that collective power. The surfing act again became protest and those surfers — sitting out in the water with thousands of like-minded souls, chanting, splashing—were overcome in the moment by some long-lost atavistic calling to be throw-aheads and futurists.

[EPILOGUE: On February 25, Equinor announced it was abandoning its plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight. It effectively killed off the prospect of the Bight becoming a deepwater oil field, and the push is now happening to have the Bight nominated for World Heritage status. As the Australian government heads boldly into the 1950s, the oil and gas industry marches on, looking to drill holes in other pristine marine environments all around Australia. So brazen have they become, they’ve hatched a plan to drill for gas off the coast just north of Sydney. It’s the most populous coast in the country, with the next closest offshore rig almost a thousand miles away. Surfers are pissed. Stay tuned.]