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Bad Vibrations 

Surfers battle enviro-surfers over a proposed jet-ski ban that would protect wildlife -- but threaten big-wave surfing at the legendary break known as Maverick's

Wednesday, Sep 3 2003
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It is not the kind of place you find by accident -- you can't even see it from Highway 1, unless you know exactly where to look. You have to wind through the back streets of Half Moon Bay, around Pillar Point Harbor and its stone jetty, past surf shops and construction yards, modest bungalows and diners. The road ends in a dirt parking lot beneath a sheer cliff topped by a U.S. Air Force Radar Station (and an uninviting barbed-wire fence); a dusty trail snakes from the parking lot around the cliff base, ending at a warning, in block red letters: "Danger -- extremely hazardous waves."

This is not an empty threat. In December 1994, a legendary big-wave surfer from Hawaii named Mark Foo -- one of the Hawaiians who had heard about the new break in California and found it as breathtaking as the waves back home, albeit colder -- dug the edge of his surfboard into a medium-size 18-to-20-foot wave and fell into what looked to be a routine wipeout. So routine, in fact, that spectators on the cliff thought subsequent wipeouts by other surfers appeared far more life-threatening, and nobody realized Foo hadn't rejoined the lineup. But his surfboard had shattered, and about two hours later, a chunk of board floating near the shore drew the notice of photographers and surfers in a small boat. Underneath the purple-and-yellow board was Foo's body; the cause of death was later ruled to be drowning.

National media outlets descended on Maverick's in the wake of Foo's death; Clark readily emerged as the surfing spot's blunt, flint-eyed spokesman. When questions abounded over what would become of the surf spot, Clark famously declared, "Maverick's takes care of itself."

And since Mark Foo's death in 1994, Maverick's has not claimed the life of a surfer.


Bob Breen, who for 30 years has been the naturalist at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, just a short walk up the beach from Maverick's, works out of a trailer not much bigger than a college dorm room. The shelves surrounding his desk are crammed with fish tanks and fossils; the far wall is dominated by the shoulder blade of a sperm whale that washed up on the beach in 1975. "These are things we've collected over the years," says the mild-mannered, soft-spoken Breen, wearing his green-and-khaki ranger uniform tucked into woolen socks and heavy boots -- appropriate footwear for splashing through tide pools. He peeks out the door and spies a group of schoolchildren returning from the beach, where a confluence of streams, driftwood, and rocks creates a habitat rich with marine life. "Those kids have buckets," Breen says, scratching his white mustache, "but I don't think they've taken anything."

Of late, Breen has been on the lookout for more than just grade-schoolers sneaking out with algae and stones. He's concerned about personal watercraft users zooming through the reserve and unsettling the colony of harbor seals that "haul out" -- for rest, recuperation, or nurturing young -- on several rock clusters lying offshore. (Sea lions, elephant seals, and sea otters are also regular visitors.) This year, Breen counted 11 pups born among the 130 seals that make their permanent home in the reserve, and the birthing period is an especially vulnerable one, when mothers readily abandon their young at the first sign of danger. "Her strategy is to save herself, to be able to breed next year," Breen says. "I've seen it happen. An eel fisherman flushed out two mothers off the rocks, and the next day we found a dead pup on the beach. I'm not sure what happened to the second pup, but the mothers did not return to them during the time I observed."

One day last September, Breen says, he saw a single rider on a watercraft shoot out of the waves at Maverick's and zoom several times toward the Moss Beach Distillery Restaurant, a historic landmark on the craggy bluff overlooking the beach. But, he adds, he doesn't know of any instance when a PWC user from Maverick's disturbed the marine life at the reserve. "I've seen them close to the haul-out rocks, but I don't have any direct evidence they disturbed [the seals] or flushed them out of the rocks with a PWC," Breen says. He adds: "But it's a global picture, and there's lots of documented evidence."

Much of the evidence supporting the proposed ban of personal watercraft from the Monterey Bay marine sanctuary comes from the San Juan Islands in Washington, where a 1998 report prepared by the San Juan County Planning Department helped persuade the Washington State Supreme Court to uphold a ban on personal watercraft from the marine sanctuary there. "The ordinance is consistent with the goals of statewide environmental protection statutes," the court found in reviewing voluminous reports on watercraft impact. "[I]t would be an odd use of the public trust doctrine to sanction an activity that actually harms and damages the waters and wildlife of this state."

Several other scientific reports -- although not many in California -- have measured the impact of small watercraft on water quality and marine life, and the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, stretching from Marin to Bodega Bay, has instituted a ban. A study by scientists with the Chicago Zoological Society -- which found that bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Sarasota, Fla., are less likely to be startled by the approach, sound, and behavior of conventional boats, as opposed to jet skis -- is frequently cited as a harbinger of similar threats to dolphins in Monterey Bay.

"Jet skis have been shown to elicit greater behavioral impacts on marine life," says Sean Smith of the Bluewater Network. "They can access near-shore waters that conventional boats can't. You can spin doughnuts, jump wakes, and the unpredictable nature of jet skis means animals can't anticipate where they're going to go. If these near-shore environments are no longer safe havens, [the animals] won't be able to feed, they won't be able to rest or rear their young -- the whole population could be threatened.

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Matt Palmquist

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