Surf and Conservation in the Atlantic: Protecting Azorean Waves

Picture of By João de Macedo

By João de Macedo

Big Wave Surfer & STW Ambassador

The Azores has always been a mythical surf destination for Portuguese and European surfers. When I look at the map of the archipelago, stories of the Greek legends and the search for Atlantis immediately come to mind. The whisper of giant waves crashing on volcanic rocks has always stirred my spirit, as well as so many others before me.

My first expedition to the Azores was back in the winter of 2012-2013 after a tip from my coach and mentor, Ze Seabra. With Eric Rebiere, Marco Medeiros, Joana Andrade and local boy Garoupinha, we set out to map and find waves through the EDP MarSemFim project.

We started on the island of Sao Miguel and our search led us to two epic outer reefs, Baixio Santana and Baixio Viola. It was a dream come true: we found incredible big waves in the middle of the Atlantic that had never been surfed. 

This kicked off a love affair with the islands, as I started traveling over every season and putting together the right team to find and surf these mythical waves.

Surfing in the Azores brings me back to the foundations of what is so magnetic about the sport.

It returns surfing to a wilderness-like experience, as the conditions in the middle of the Atlantic are constantly changing and success is never guaranteed. And then, beyond the waves, there are unique and biodiverse surf ecosystems that harbor so much life and power, showcasing the raw beauty of nature.

Returning to the Azores with Save The Waves

As a big wave surfer, and Save The Waves Coalition and Patagonia Ambassador, I have had the privilege of visiting many incredible surf destinations around the planet. 

When Save The Waves reached out with an opportunity to return to the Azores, to the place that sparked such awe – and better yet with an opportunity to give back to that place – I was ready to go. After all, I had first joined Save The Waves during their inception in 2005 and helped create their World Surfing Reserve program.

Now, they are unrolling their newest program: Surf Protected Area Networks (SPANs), which identifies, prioritizes and protects surf ecosystems around the world. And the Azores has been included in this innovative new project. 

The Azores is at a critical moment and on the cutting edge of the creation and management of a broad network of Marine Protected Areas. The Azores is within the Mediterranean biodiversity hotspot and is regarded as a refuge for endemic species. The marine environment has an immense cultural value to the Azores.

Miradouro da Ponta da Madrugada © Ryan Craig
Gonçalo Girao © Ryan Craig

Surfing is in this amazing position to contribute and help the process to protect the Azores’ coastal and marine resources through surf conservation – an approach that will benefit and sustain all local Azorean coastal communities. 

Bottom line: their inclusion in this new global conservation initiative has so much possibility.

So I started my work as The Azores Regional Coordinator. After all the years, it has been amazing to come back into the fold with Save The Waves staff, utilize my knowledge of Portuguese culture and waves, and take an active role in being part of this ocean.

Surfing in Azorean communities

The work behind the Azores Surf Protected Area Network started with identifying and researching surf breaks across the islands. For me, this meant on-the-ground connections, getting into the lineups and talking to the surfers whose breaks we hoped to protect. 

Local surfers in Azores are some of the most committed and passionate people I know.  

Historically, the ocean represents a place of danger to many Azoreans, a place where fishermen sometimes would never come back and where storms would wreak havoc on communities. Because of this, looking to the sea as a source of joy and recreation is a relatively recent concept to the islands.

Jacome Correia from Sao Miguel is the only young professional surfer from the islands and now other young Groms like Francisco Benjamin from Sao Miguel and Helena Moniz from Terceira are changing the paradigm for the sport and surfing communities in the islands.  

Analogous to Ericeira, Peniche and Nazaré in mainland Portugal, surfing is now stimulating a new generation of fishermen and coastal enthusiasts who were almost completely lost because of the harsh realities of surviving on isolated islands and coastlines at the feet of the mighty Atlantic Ocean.

After all these years, surfing in the Azores still brings me back to the root of the sport.

Bringing films and surf conservation to the Azores

From September 17th to October 1st, the Save The Waves Film Festival toured through the islands of Sao Miguel, Terceira, Sao Jorge, Faial and Pico. 

It was an incredible way to bring the surf community together and learn about local issues. I learned a lot about the film festival and its impact on communities. After all, STW Founder Will Henry and Josh Berry created the concept to showcase impactful films and encourage thoughtful conversation on protecting surf spots.

But the film festival offered more than surf and environmental films.

Our tour also included workshops where we shared the work Save The Waves had done around SPANs, including our recently-completed Surf Conservation Index

Ocean-learning class for kids © Ryan Craig
STW staff presents at film festival stop © Ryan Craig
STW crew in São Miguel © Ryan Craig
Beach cleanup in Praia do Monte © Ryan Craig

These workshops brought together local surfers, conservation NGOs, local governments and schools to discuss threats to surf breaks in the islands. Together, as a Coalition, we discussed how and why surf ecosystems should be prioritized in conservation decision-making and stressed the surf community’s importance to protecting their waves.

Personally, for myself having studied economics as an undergraduate, this was an excellent forum to talk about the blue economy and how sustainable tourism can be incredibly beneficial to the island’s development. Through these local engagements, we were able to open conversations on what types of tourism are best for the region and how surfing can be a bridge towards low impact tourism that prioritizes surf ecosystem health.

Ultimately, the workshops and the film festival displayed how surf conservation can be a tool for local communities in the Azores to promote ocean conservation and provide sustainable livelihoods.

Future and Possibilities

Despite the hopes for surf conservation in the Azores, we also witnessed what happens when surf ecosystems are not prioritized and the value of surfing is not known by decision-makers.

Rabo de Peixe on Sao Miguel island was one of the most consistent waves in the Azores and it was unfortunately lost to a fishing harbor. The community on Terceira island is fighting a coastal development project in Terreiro on the south coast of the island that will change a celebrated wave forever.

These threats and losses highlight the importance of engaging the surf community in local decision making processes.

Rabo de Peixe on Sao Miguel © Ryan Craig
Miradouro de Santa Iria © Ryan Craig

Despite these challenges, our trip personally reaffirmed my hope in small actions and movements leading to big changes for generations to come.

Through surfers, we can help fully recognize and express the immense cultural, economic, and recreational values surf spots have in the Azores. 

That’s why we need to prioritize and protect surf ecosystems now, while we can, so that the surf economy, nature, and people can thrive into the future.

It was a busy three weeks in the Azores and through an incredible team, we were able to connect with so many individuals and start the process of initiating a Surf Protected Area Network throughout the islands.

The work continues. I can’t wait to get back out there and carry on our mission to protect these vital surf ecosystems!

A special Save The Waves thank you to VisitAzores.

Additional thanks to Azores Wine Company, Azores National Parks, Colab+tlantic, Surfrider Europe – Azores Chapter.

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