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'WARNING' Dont Surf Here!

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'WARNING' Dont Surf Here! Tijuana Sloughs on

SurfSister recently featured an article entitled TransparentSea Voyage, for those unaware of the purpose of the TransparentSea voyage is an awareness campaign aimed at highlighting coastal environmental issues, with particular attention given to cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and the waters they inhabit. The first journey (Byron Bay to Bondi, Australia, 2009) successfully highlighted the plight of humpback whales and the threat faced by Japanese whaling fleets. The second (California, October, 2011) traced the southern migration of the California Grey Whale from Santa Barbara to Baja, Mexico with an emphasis on engaging key coastal community groups and drawing awareness to the causes they support.

Admittedly I have followed both voyages quite closely and found myself engrossed in what has been a great endeavor, the Byron Bay to Sydney voyage was a great success from both an educational and entertainment perspective. The California voyage I found to be far more entertaining than educational. Initially I was excited about the prospect of being educated about the migratory patterns of one of the oldest living mammals on Earth, the Grey Whale. The Grey Whale was once called devil fish because of their fighting behavior when hunted. The Grey Whale is dark slate-grey in colour and covered by characteristic grey-white patterns, the white patches are the resulting scars left by parasites which drop off in the Grey Whales cold feeding grounds.

Grey whales measure from 16 feet (4.9 m) in length for newborns to 45 feet (14 m) for adult females (which tend to be slightly larger than adult males). Newborns are a darker grey to black in colour. A mature grey whale can reach 40 tonnes (39 long tons; 44 short tons). Between 20,000 and 22,000 individuals survive in the eastern Pacific traveling between the waters off Alaska and Baja California.

The TransparentSea Voyage followed a portion of the Grey Whale migration and highlighted the importance of coastal care and protection, it's final destination was the port of Los Angeles. One of the world’s busiest shipping ports, Los Angeles Harbor was the backdrop for their last message; congratulating the state of California for recent bans placed on shark-finning and creation of Marine Protection Areas, while simultaneously calling for Obama to act on behalf of the US Government to place pressure on other nations to end whaling.

TransparentSea Voyage on

“The American Government needs to make positive steps towards banning commercial whaling worldwide, this country is very powerful and has the ability to make this call and if America takes the lead in this direction then many other countries will follow and that’s a great opportunity,” explained David Rastovich.

Although the TransparentSea Voyage ended north of the Mexico border the Grey Whales migration continues following the coastline past the Los Angeles region and inevitably heading into one of the most polluted deluges in North America, the Tijuana Sloughs, Imperial Beach. During the rainy season, hundreds of millions of gallons of water contaminated with human waste and industrial pollutants flow into the ocean sometimes for months on end, washing tons of plastics and debris out to sea. The Tijuana River-mouth without question produces some of the most foul effluence in the Northern Hemisphere, and the Tijuana Estuary spills forth with sewage-contaminated flow directly into the surf zone. The Sloughs produce some of the best big waves on the West Coast. In bygone decades, beginning in the late 1930s, the wave was the gold standard for heavy-water surfing in Southern California. If one wanted to make a name for themselves, they first had to make a wave at the Sloughs. Today, the same waves break – big and imposing, the types of waves that can change a surfer's life.

Tijuana Sloughs, Imperial Beach on

On a recent day, northwest swell churning fresh down the coast, reefs and beaches up and down the California shoreline lighting up and impacted with surfers, the reef at the Tijuana Sloughs (just this side of the U.S./Mexico border) forced waves to stand up well overhead and run left down a cobblestone beach. To the left, as you looked at the flawless waves, Tijuana and its relative squalor. To the right, Point Loma and its relative opulence. And straight ahead, the waves, and not a soul. Although every other beach in the county was saturated beyond capacity with surfers, the Sloughs were empty. And on most days, they remain that way.

The Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System is measuring the reach of the Tijuana Plume, launching a Web site with graphics and data that track the far-reaching effect of the Tijuana River, you can view their findings here The evidence is striking to the naked eye. Stand at elevation above the Sloughs, and you'll see a plume of brown water forcing its way into the otherwise blue Pacific, working its way north to Imperial Beach and Coronado. During the winter months, the beach at the Tijuana Sloughs is almost perpetually closed. Still, there are those for whom the call to perfect uncrowded surf is too much, and they continue to paddle out despite the plume of sewage coursing through their takeoff zone. Predictably, most of these people have stories of strange internal and external illnesses – the most extreme of which includes hepatitis.
Tijuana Sloughs, Imperial Beach on

Today, largely uninhabited, the Sloughs take on a storybook quality in any surfer's conversation, even if they're not a mythical construct. Old-time surfers speak of a break that at one point was San Diego's best test of a surfer's mettle. Now, if surfers are looking for the same challenge, they drive north to Half Moon Bay and Maverick's, or South to Ensenada Harbor and Todos Santos Island. Or they simply put on their wetsuit and try to ignore the fact that they're paddling directly into the resting spot of millions of gallons of Tijuana sewage.

There is a very short window of time each year in which dedicated volunteers can attempt to tackle the insurmountable accumulation of trash and debris in the Tijuana River near Imperial Beach.  It starts in September when nesting season ends for threatened birds such as the Least Bell's Vireo and the Light-footed clapper rail, and culminates with the start of the rainy season (typically, late October) when storms make the riverbed too muddy and polluted for volunteers to enter. Various environmental groups have partnered to create activities during Tijuana River Action Month (TRAM), involving thousands of volunteers in native planting events, lectures, workshops and cleanups over just five weekends.

My hope is for Australians to look at examples from places like the Tijuana Sloughs and not let history repeat its self by simply not littering, intentionally or unintentionally. This is a no-brainer for most of us. But it also includes every little piece of wrapper and cigarette butt. Participate in cleanup events such as 'Two hands' which takes the spirit of huge national and international cleanup days, bringing it back to the individual, allowing you to care for the place most important to you, anytime you want.


Kurt Henson

Words by Kurt Henson

Kurt Henson in Byron Bay

Kurt is a man of many talents! One of them is contributing to Surf Sister. Kurt has a degree in Internet Communications with Curtin University. Kurt loves to surf and has done so for most of his life.

If you would like to contact Kurt Henson,


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