Quick Take:

There are only a dozen surfing ecosystems on earth that have been designated as World Surfing Reserves, communities that treasure their surf breaks so much that they commit to their preservation. As Santa Cruz celebrates the 10-year anniversary of joining the club, it has hired a top local surfer, who is also a committed environmentalist, to help strengthen its role as the program’s flagship ecosystem.

It’s hard for surfers to articulate the ocean’s existential pull, the forces that send us driving frenetically up and down Highway 1 in search of just the perfect pockets of harnessable wave energy at any given moment.

Q&A logo with surfer Shaun Burns

Between the nebulousness of “stoke” and the vapidness of “duuuuude,” the language barrier can be unbridgeable. It’s a conundrum one surfwear company turned into a motto: Only a surfer knows the feeling.

This is why the mission of the Save The Waves Coalition, a Santa Cruz nonprofit formed in 2003, is so important to helping bridge the dude gap both here and across the globe. STW is a small 12-person organization trying to have a big impact on sensitive surfing-focused environments across the globe by handing out an important awareness-raising title of World Surfing Reserve to those worthy of the designation.

The general ideology that drives Save The Waves: Not everyone who lives within the boundaries of a surfing sanctuary will partake, but everyone should still be interconnected by those special qualities and be committed to protecting them. Special waves can be the bridge between communities and a commitment to environmental protection.

Save The Waves aims to bring awareness to special places like Santa Cruz that have more surf shops than fast food outlets — and highlight the need to protect them. Save the Waves seeks out leaders in the surfing, environmental and political realms in such places. It encourages them to apply for World Surfing Reserve status.

In 19 years, it has chosen 11 places beyond Santa Cruz for the designation. It makes up quite the global map: Our SoCal neighbor, Malibu; Bahía de Todos Santos, Mexico; Ericeira, Portugal; Gold Coast, Australia; Guarda Do Embau, Brazil; Huanchaco, Peru; Manly Beach, Australia; Noosa, Australia; Punta De Lobos, Chile; North Devon, United Kingdom.

World Surfing Reserve status allows those communities to better rally and organize around important issues that could ultimately affect the health of those surf breaks.

The first, and most important, criteria for inclusion is the local waves; they need to be well-renowned, a destination known to surfers across the world. In Santa Cruz, for instance, Steamer Lane has consistently hosted top-level international contests because of the quality of the wave itself and the arena-like setting that surrounds it from above.

And it’s just one of many world-class breaks. The other important criteria: vulnerable environmental issues; a rich culture and surf history; the active support of local leaders in both the non-profit and government worlds; designation as a priority conservation area.

This is why there are only 12 World Surfing Reserves so far. It takes both legitimacy and work to achieve that status.

A map of the Santa Cruz World Surfing Reserve
Santa Cruz’s 7-mile miracle stretches from Natural Bridges to Opal Cliffs. Credit: Via Save The Waves

With a stacked résumé in hand, Santa Cruz became the fourth WSR 10 years ago. It would be easy to assume it would’ve been first, but its environmental needs were less here than Malibu and the others who applied and were chosen to begin the program. “Applications come from the community and others applied first,” said Save The Waves CEO Nik Strong-Cvetich.

Even though a strong environmental protection community has kept its breaks largely safe from harm, Santa Cruz’s cred is legit: year-round consistent, world-class waves, the rich history of surfers, shapers and wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neill, and the distinction of being the first location in the mainland U.S. ever surfed — by three visiting Hawaiian princes riding boards carved from local redwood trees, no less.

Save The Waves is holding a free, open-to-the-public get-together on April 29 from 5-8 p.m. at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in celebration of the decade milestone. Coincidentally, it dovetails with the 30th anniversary of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the protected conservation space that makes the pursuit of surfing possible.

With the Santa Cruz anniversary approaching, STW leaders decided there needed to be a more recognizable face out front of the organization locally. They needed a true surfer/environmentalist to represent the flagship here in Santa Cruz.

So last summer, they hired a respected Santa Cruz native and accomplished surfer named Shaun Burns as coordinator of the Santa Cruz World Surfing Reserve to help bring the local stakeholders together.

“Shaun is an amazing asset to the team,” said Nik Strong-Cvetich. “He has a lifetime of experience in Santa Cruz waves and he commands respect from the entire community. This is such a key ingredient to making this work around the world is having someone who represents the surf community as well as the environmental community.”

Burns, 29, has an environmental management and protection degree from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. And he’s traveled the world chasing the dream of a pro surfer, so he understands better than most the uniqueness of the Santa Cruz surfing ecosystem.

With Burns’ rallying, Save The Waves plans to redouble focus on issues such as climate change, water quality, sea-level rise and its impact on sensitive cliffs — and how all of that relates to the world-class waves that so many cherish.

For instance, the cliff erosion problems along West Cliff Drive that have been talked about by the Santa Cruz City Council and other local constituents for decades are becoming more serious. Depending what type of action is taken to fortify the environment, elements of local waves such as Steamer Lane could be affected.

“We have all these amazing surf breaks and we have this World Surfing Reserve and we have a marine sanctuary,” says former Santa Cruz Mayor Hilary Bryant, a longtime Westside surfer who is also part of Save the Waves’ local stewardship council. “So we have a lot to celebrate. And these protections do matter. The question is, how can we turn those protections into actions that really do protect our coastlines, and these surf breaks, going forward?”

One big win for STW has been the Cowell’s Working Group that has been troubleshooting the persistent water pollution issue at the city’s favorite beginner surf spot. It’s expected that Cowell Beach will remain off the dreaded Beach Bummers list put together by advocacy group Heal The Bay for the third consecutive year thanks to STW pulling people together.

Those are Burns’ main marching orders: to bring together the surfing and conservation communities of Santa Cruz and make the World Surfing Reserve a platform for surfers to use their voices and work with the city and other organizations in Santa Cruz.

“It’s important to recognize the value of surfing to our community — to recognize and celebrate that,” Bryant said. “And Shaun is the perfect person to pull people together.”

We talked with Burns about his mission at Save The Waves and Santa Cruz’s place in the surfing sanctuary universe.

The sun sets on Lighthouse Point and Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz
Credit: Via Ryan Craig

The following conversation has been edited for clarity.

Lookout: Santa Cruz should be leading the charge in this mission, and that’s why they hired you, right?

Shaun Burns: Yeah, they wanted to dive more into the Santa Cruz World Surfing Reserve and really bring the community together and make it like a flagship. Then you can take your work at home and see what lessons learned here can be brought to the other world surfing reserves situated around the world. If there’s one place to do it and have it like a laboratory, it’s in our backyard.

Lookout: The WSR seems to act like a stamp of authenticity for surfing-centered environments.

Burns: Yeah, the first question I feel like everyone asks is, “What are the waves like?” And, yes, we want there to be good waves, and a good surfing community present, but we also want to protect places, especially places that exist in [developing] countries or places that don’t really have much community to protect their waves and their ecosystems. We’re trying to make it a really a legit program that people respect.

Lookout: Do you think much of Santa Cruz doesn’t understand how unique this place is?

Shauns Burns shows how to turn a surfboard in most optimum fashion.

The Shaun Burns File

AGE: 29

RAISED: The Westside

SCHOOL: Santa Cruz High / Cal Poly-SLO, BS in environmental management & protection

FAVORITES WAVES: Rivermouth, Steamer Lane, Mitchells, Natural Bridges, Rockview

PRO HIGHLIGHT: Finishing second at the 2014 Cold Water Classic

BEST FREE SURFING MOMENTS: Helping coach the Santa Cruz High School surf team

Burns: Yeah, it’s something we talk about. We pay so much money to build skate parks, we put in money and to build a Santa Cruz Warriors stadium for the community around here. But you know, waves are free. And the only thing that we have to look after is the ecosystem that surrounds it. So like water quality, coastal erosion. That’s all stuff that Save The Waves wants to work with the city on and make them recognize that with sea-level rise and climate change, these waves could go away. And you know, with those waves going away, that has an effect on the city.

Lookout: How do you get more people to pay attention and think of surfing differently?

Burns: I’ve seen some changes since surfing became an Olympic sport. It’s always been not quite a sport, more this kind of counterculture thing. I’ve kind of noticed more like city involvement, and it’s the state sport of California, so some airlines have now dropped the oversize baggage fees that were always there. So there are examples of it growing into more of a real community-type activity. Santa Cruz I think could put a little bit more attention toward it.

Lookout: But with everything going on, how do you get that attention?

Burns: By highlighting not just the waves but the surf ecosystem that surrounds them. In the face of climate change, there’s a coastal erosion problem to solve whether it’s more seawalls or some type of sand management or beach nourishment. Water quality is huge, and the Cowell’s Working Group has had success.

Lookout: You’ve had a chance to travel the world as a pro surfer. What’s the reaction when you tell people you’re from Santa Cruz?

Burns: It’s a good one. I think everyone kind of knows Santa Cruz, whether you surf or not. From the logos, whether the screaming hand or the red dot. I feel like so many people visit here. And especially if you’re a surfer, you’ve been here at least a couple times to surf.

The sun sets over Lighthouse Point and Steamer Lane
Credit: Via Ryan Craig

Lookout: How would you describe our surf environment and what makes it so special?

Burns: Monterey Bay is a pretty special place. Having just the bay itself, and then how Santa Cruz is situated facing south with pointbreaks and then north swells wrap in. It’s very consistent, so you get to surf almost every day throughout the year. I think it’s a special coastline in that it has a lot of surfing spots and it offers steppingstones. You start at Cowell’s, looking out at Indicators and try to work up the confidence. Then you see the Lane and how much more powerful and how much more speed you can get out there. It offers so much surf for any type of skill level. And then when you add in how alive the bay is with kelp and marine life, ocean cliffs. It’s pretty rad.

Lookout: When you come back from other places, you feel pretty lucky.

Burns: Yeah, and we don’t even have to drive very far. You can go to West Cliff, and there are 10 waves all within 3 miles or so. You can hop out in the water and catch a wave almost every day.

Lookout: How many applications does Save The Waves get annually and what do you look for?

Burns: This year was five, which seems about the average. The environmental characteristics, if there are conservation opportunities, that plays a big role. As much as the title — World Surfing Reserve — can bring attention to a location, and that’s exciting, you don’t get the name unless you’re doing the work. A world surfing reserve is about protection. And so with those applications, we want to see how are you going to protect these waves. How are you going to preserve these ecosystems? That’s how we like to work with local communities.

Lookout: What are our biggest environmental challenges here?

Burns: Making sure that the water quality at Cowell’s stays below harmful levels. Then working with the city on the West Cliff adaptation plan, like what was done at Pleasure Point to ensure that the waves aren’t going to be affected in some poorly managed way.

Lookout: How can people who love the ocean be better stewards every day?

Burns: One way is the Save The Waves app, which is a coastal monitoring tool where you can take photos and report an issue if you see maybe a big pile of trash or some type of coastal erosion. Or if you see maybe some poor water quality, oil spills, a bunch of dead animals, you can report those things on the app. That comes to us and we can then take that data and get it to the right people and work with that.

Lookout: And surfers are uniquely positioned to go the extra mile, right?

Burns: Surfers, we’re the ones that are out in the water, seeing things every day. We see the ocean and the environment from such a different lens actually being out in it. It opens your eyes. And there are such great scientists and people working on things that relate to the ocean and cliffs around here that it would be great if surfers could just speak up a little bit more and be more involved in the action.

A surfer runs toward the lighthouse through the Santa Cruz dusk
Credit: Via Ryan Craig

Follow Mark Conley on: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Mark joins Lookout after 14 years at the Mercury News and Bay Area News Group, where he served as Deputy Sports Editor on a staff that covered three...