In spite of growing up in landlocked Stratford-upon-Avon, Nat Fox first climbed onto a longboard in Newquay over 20 years ago and has rarely been off it since. “I stood up and went, ‘This is what my life is going to be now,’” she laughs.
After working as a surf instructor in the UK, her horizons grew – both literally and figuratively – with a move to Taghazout. “All of that time I really didn’t think about the environment. I just wanted to be outside in the sea with people. But when I got to Morocco I started to see trash being washed up on the big tides. I was like, ‘Where is this coming from?’”
A photo from the other side of the globe set her into motion. “The thing that changed my course was an article that had a picture of the Grindadrap with the whales being killed in the Faroe Islands. I went to the International Whaling Commission meeting in Agadir to protest in 2010, and that was my first taste of activism.”
From the streets of Agadir, Nat joined Dave Rastovich’s Surfers for Cetaceans and set sail with Sea Shepherd to the Faroe Islands and Antarctica to participate in direct actions. Back on dry land, she continued to work as a surf and yoga instructor, but by 2019 she was at sea again, sailing from Plymouth to Azores with eXXpedition to take part in citizen science microplastic research.
The voyage led her down a route to an MSc in Sustainability from the Eden Project and Anglia Ruskin University, where she studied the connection between surfing and ocean literacy – our influence on the ocean, and the ocean’s influence on us. And while she still works as an instructor in Portugal, she’s also working on the UN Decade of Ocean Science alongside a post graduate degree in Marine Science Technology and Society. Her research is looking at how surfers can monitor and conserve surf ecosystems.
Since not all of us have the drive to navigate to Antarctica, the Faroes and the Azores, we sat down with Nat to learn what anyone can do in their own local patch of ocean.
SD: What is citizen science?
NF: Marine citizen science is where people who are spending time recreationally in the ocean or on the beach put their knowledge, information or data into a scientific project. There’s loads of this happening around the world and there are a few projects that have involved surfers, but legit surfing citizen science is in its infancy. In the coastal zone, there are many changes taking place due to human impacts, and in order to get a better understanding of how to tackle and reduce these impacts, people can start surveying, observing and monitoring the changes.
SD: Why do think surfers make good citizen scientists?
NF: When we go surfing, we’re naturally absorbing and collecting information about the conditions, the weather, the tides, what’s on the beach and what’s in the water. So we have information, we have data. The next step is what we do with that and how we can put it to use.
SD: What can you tell us about the UN’s Decade of Ocean Science and how it relates to your project Citizens of Surf?
NF: The UN Decade of Ocean Science grew from a need to invest more time, research, funding and collaboration into reaching its Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Below Water. We weren’t on track to reach any targets for ocean sustainability, and this framework lays out the key challenges we need to address, and the vision we need to keep in mind for “the ocean we want by 2030”. The Ocean Decade is calling on everyone to get involved in ocean science and for those doing research projects to not just design from a scientist’s point of view but to engage the public. So my public would be surfers! I’m creating a series of webinars on topics relating to the ocean – biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change – where everyone can interact with the experts, put the questions forward, and then together we’ll come up with what and how we want to research.
SD: Is there such a thing as sustainable surfing?
NF: I’m not sure – it could definitely be MORE sustainable. With over 35 million surfers these days, that’s a lot of surfboards and wetsuits. So we need to update what we’re using and how, now that so many people are consuming surf products. The systems change that needs to happen is to move away from this use-and-throwaway mentality to a circular economy where the lifecycle of a material is thought about when a product is created. One good thing about longboarders is that we tend to look after our resources. I have a Surftech foamie that I’ve had for like 20 years! It’s been run over and fixed, and it’s still going!
SD: How would you say longboarding in particular informs your work?
NF: If we’re always filling our time and space with doing, achieving, obtaining, consuming and going faster, bigger and more extreme, then there’s less space and time to work with what’s actually happening in that moment. So that’s why I love long boards and small waves – my mind and body have time to relax, and my senses are super engaged in searching and finding the best waves. That balance of relaxation and focus allows me to access the most creative part of myself – which is the best part for problem solving, for ideas, for developing curiosity, for connecting the dots. I think that’s transferable to the complex problems we’re facing today with regards to the climate and ocean.
SD: Are there ways that riding a longboard overlaps with skills needed for environmentalism?
NF: On a longboard, we need to be poised, fluid, reflective and responsive, and at every moment be available to listen and tune into whether what we are doing is the best thing. Sometimes we go fast, and sometimes we slow down and stall. There’s a big conversation around degrowth at the moment, so knowing how to reduce consumption, manage resources and maintain flow whilst doing as little as possible would be a pretty helpful life skill for most folks in the Global North. As longboarders, we’re constantly micro-adjusting. And if we are aware how those micro-adjustments can change the outcome, they become leverage points to change the future. What could have been a wave surfed with mediocrity becomes a wave that we will remember for the rest of our life. And what might have been a life of mediocrity soon becomes a life full of conscious choices and inevitably, purpose.
SD: So when we’re surfing, we’re actually developing our abilities as scientists?
NF: YES! Longboarding allows you to develop a very critical eye to find the best conditions. And those conditions give you the most playful experience because the waves are not scary. They’re long, so you have maximum enjoyment. You can dance up and down the surfboard, being creative and spontaneous. You’re not slashing or cutting the wave up; you’re gliding with the movement of water, you’re really connecting with it. And you’re a bit further out so you’re not in the turbulence. A lot of it is about being able to enjoy those periods of waiting. These are skills I think we have to have in the time that we’re in. We have to have a critical eye, but we also have to have hope. This skill to read the ocean and be ready, we need to employ that on a bigger level in terms of our planet and our ocean.
3 Next Steps from Nat
“A campaign everyone can be onboard with is 30×30.”
This international agreement between 190 nations aims to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by protecting and conserving 30% of the world’s land, waters and ocean by 2030 – just seven years from now! Support the 30×30 commitment by joining projects around targeted species conservation, restorative fisheries management, community-led coastal conservation and the creation of marine protected and conserved areas.
“One of the best things we can do is restore natural habitats.”
Along the world’s coasts, formerly abundant kelp forests are in rapid decline. A filter for pollution, these draw carbon out of the atmosphere and provide shelter and food for marine species. In 2022, Nat coordinated ReGeneration Surf, a World Surf League-funded project that pioneered new techniques in restoring kelp. Bring life back to the ocean by getting involved in the ongoing work of partner organisations such as Oceans and Flow, Seaforester and Zero Waste Lab.
“The more green spaces and blue spaces we have, the more the planet can regulate the climate.”
Getting a baseline for your current carbon emissions is as easy as going online – there are tons of tools to assess your footprint. Want to chop your emissions and reduce your own impact? Nat’s an ambassador for Mossy Earth, a membership organisation that fights climate change and restores nature across ecosystems through rewilding and reforestation initiatives. Join up and put your monthly investment toward projects like native oyster restoration in Scotland and the preservation of rare sea cliff plants on the Iberian Peninsula.
Find out more:
Sign up and receive the first news of Nat’s Citizens of Surf webinars
Read more about Nat’s ocean literacy research
Learn more about the UN Ocean Decade
Join Nat for longboarding and ocean literacy with Drift retreats in Ericeira, Portugal