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Following your passion and knowing exactly what you want to pursue in life is something I always admired other people for, especially when I was in my early twenties feeling a bit lost myself. Back then I worked at a surf camp in a tiny fishing village in the north of Portugal. All I knew then was that I wanted to live close to the ocean for the time being.
That’s where I met Simon Witt – a person who stands out in my memory for pursuing his dreams.
When I met Simon, this tall Dutch guy with blond surfy hair, a huge love for longboarding and quite an easygoing lifestyle, he totally fit my cliché of a surf instructor. In the seasons we worked together I got to know Simon quite well. We worked together, surfed together and we spent a lot of time sitting on the beach, drinking delicious Portuguese coffee and having chats about life.
Simon had quite a detailed idea about what he wanted to do with his life. He explained that his time here at Surfivor Surfcamp was only one stop on his journey to save our coasts from pollution. He told me about his studies in geography, his upcoming master degree and about his plan to eventually change the way tourism is perceived in the developing world.
When Simon talked about his projects, his eyes lit up. He always got so excited and he was convinced that this was his path and it would all work out. Even during our time in Portugal, he did what he could to help protect our oceans; he organized beach cleanups and gave short presentations to the guests about plastic pollution. Back then in 2011, the topic of plastic pollution wasn’t really publicly addressed as an environmental issue yet. I loved listening to Simon and his ambitious dream, wondering where this lovely surfer would end up in life. Well, almost 10 years later, the long blond surfer hair is gone, but Simon is exactly where he said he wanted to be.
Simon is now working for the Surfrider Foundation Europe as an environmental campaign coordinator. I was intrigued how he managed to fulfill his life-long dream and wanted to find out more about how he ended up there and most importantly what Surfrider is all about. So I decided to catch up with Simon after all these years.
Hi Simon, many thanks for taking the time to tell us your story.
Of course. Thanks for being interested in it.
Could you please introduce yourself?
My name is Simon Witt, I am 31 years old and I live in the Netherlands in Scheveningen, the beach town of the Hague. I am a human geographer, and work as an environmental campaign coordinator for Surfrider Foundation Europe. In my role, I support our network of Coastal Defenders in their campaigns all over Europe against severe plastic pollution, water quality issues and harmful coastal developments.
Did you always know that this was what you wanted to do in life?
Funny enough, as my mother was working in international trade when I was a kid, I imagined myself as some sort of business developer or entrepreneur. But when I learned about geography, and about how you could study places and their social, economic and environmental factors, I started imagining myself in a different way. I liked that holistic view on the world.
The idea of dedicating my career to help keep our oceans clean became clearer to me when my friends and I decided to clean an entire beach during a surf trip to Morocco. We connected with the Surfrider Holland chapter, who provided us with bags and gloves for our clean up. I was so impressed by how jointly we could leave the beach cleaner than how we originally found it! During my studies, I kept an eye on surf conservation organisations like Surfrider, but never thought that some guy from the Netherlands could ever work for them.
But that guy was able to do it. How did you end up with Surfrider?Well, that’s quite a long story. But here we go; just before my Masters, I went on a 14-month trip to coach surfing in Portugal, crossed to Morocco and then spent some time in Cape Verde. I started to learn more about coastal communities, their realities and dependencies on the coastal ecosystem. I learned about the interconnectedness between depleted fish stocks and poverty, and the role that tourism plays in supporting and or continuing to destroy people’s livelihoods and the ecosystem.
I took those lessons back to University, continuing my masters in International Development Studies, extremely motivated to positively change the way tourism is perceived in the developing world. Writing my thesis on surf tourism as an academic field was the start. Before I knew it, I was on a 4-month trip to Nicaragua for my masters thesis to study the coastal community of Gigante, a remote fishing village where surf tourism was about to heavily break through. After that trip, the ball started rolling. I was invited to present my results at a conference in San Diego at the Center for Surf Research called Sustainable Stoke: Transitions to sustainability in the surfing world. There, I met many other surfing academics, all presenting interesting projects that I could potentially work on. I ended up living 2 years in the newly nominated Gold Coast World Surfing Reserve as part of a program by Save The Waves Coalition, aiming to protect surf ecosystems through community engagement in order to protect their playground.
Although it seemed like the Gold Coast would be protected forever, there were some projects that were harming or about to harm the waves, such as a proposal for a massive cruise ship terminal and severe water pollution produced by the Gold Coast airport. I got in touch with Surfrider Foundation Europe randomly as they seemed to have worked on many issues similar to those ones through their Coastal Defenders platform. And now, well, here I am back in Europe working for Surfrider!
How would you describe your connection to the ocean?
I absolutely love surfing and sailing, and I have a pretty hard time being away from the coast for too long. Being close to the ocean allows me to fully relax. It makes you feel like you can control the energy that traveled for hundreds or thousands of kilometers through the waves and currents. It also makes you feel humble and small, in a powerful way. I think it is nature at its purest form, a place that doesn’t really belong to us, but that we are still allowed to experience for a few hours a day, a week or a year.
Why is it your personal motivation to protect our oceans?
I grew up on the coast, which then makes it my home. When you experience your home full of rubbish, so full that you can’t even go swim because beaches are closed due to pollution or experiencing fragile beaches disappearing due to mismanagement, it hurts you directly. Or at least, that was the case for me, seeing immense amounts of plastics and blackwaters going through the waves at my favorite surf spots. I believe we can change things for the better, and I think we can all influence each other to make better choices to have clean water and healthy beaches. And when you preserve the coast, you preserve the quality of life for the communities that live on them, which is also really important.
Why do you think it’s so important to do so?
Simply put, we have no time to waste. Every minute we are losing a bit of nature on our planet, and every move in the direction of a healthy planet is worth it. We will be challenged in many ways these next decades, but we can be the leaders that promote harmony with each other and the planet, and I guess.. I want to lead by example.
I believe we can change things for the better, and I think we can all influence each other to make better choices to have clean water and healthy beaches. And when you preserve the coast, you preserve the quality of life for the communities that live on them, which is also really important.
Please introduce Surfrider to us, for those who don’t know it. What is it about?
Surfrider Foundation Europe is part of the international Surfrider family that has organisations in the U.S., Canada, Morocco, Japan, Australia, Brazil and Argentina. Our mission is to protect the ocean, the waves and the beaches by fighting against damage to the coastal environment and its users. We are a grassroots organization, meaning we work both in the field through local action and translate that feedback to national and EU governments. We were founded 30 years ago by a small group of surfers and former world surfing champion, Tom Curren, in Biarritz. Now we are an influential NGO that works in 12 countries in Europe, with almost 50 staff and 46 local chapters that are managed by 2000 volunteers.
Together with our network of Surfrider Coastal Defenders, our volunteers and staff team, we create a plan and take action through local campaigns which takes various forms from petitions, meetings with officials, rallies and legal actions. So far we’ve achieved 81 victories since 2008, which means that 81 decisions were made in favor of the environment or users as a result of our actions.
On what levels does Surfrider try to address issues?
We work on marine litter (plastic pollution), water quality, coastal management and climate change issues. In my work, I focus on all of those three, but my main focus is on urgent issues that are present on a local level.
What do coastal defenders do?
Coastal Defenders are volunteer activists that work together advocating for clean water and healthy beaches. They take the lead on campaigns, keep all local information, take water samples, mobilize communities for events and rallies, and keep pressure on local governments through dialogue to take decisions in favor of their coastal environment.
How can someone become a coastal defender? Or at least, report an issue they’ve noticed?
Anyone that is concerned with their local beaches or waterways can be a coastal defender. All you have to do is report an issue through our website and we analyse your situation and the way we could work together. After approval by our staff experts, we will take action together to protect your favorite wave, beach, dune, estuary etc.
How do you think one person alone can make a difference?
I believe all people feel a need to contribute in one way or another to something that is greater than themselves. It can be supporting your grandmother or a close or faraway friend, it can be volunteering at your local sports club or raising funds for a charity. It can be to go and clean a beach once in a while or it can be to exchange your plastic bottle for a reusable one. I think we should all see that as individuals we are making a difference. All it takes is noticing the positive differences you are making and seeing where your impact could be the greatest. You might be able to inspire others, creating a ripple that could make waves in your local community, work, or with friends.
Anyone can take part in our campaigns as well and become a Surfrider member!
If there was one thing people should remember from this interview, what should it be?
That there are people out there, not so different from you and me, that are passionate and committed to protect our waves and beaches. All it takes is just 1 thing; just 1 person to see 1 problem in their local environment, and as a result, it could create 1 additional win to preserve clean water and healthy beaches around the world.
Thank you so much Simon for sparing some time, sharing your story with us and for inspiring us to do more for the planet.