A few minutes’ drive from the Surfrider Foundation offices in San Clemente where he keeps a bevy of boards, Chad Nelsen zips into his wetsuit.
It’s the closest surf spot, T-Street Beach (Trafalgar Canyon) in San Clemente, just south of the town pier. Following the walkway over the rail tracks, down the steps and past the towering palm trees, Chad makes his way toward the breaks where at least a dozen surfers look like black seals in slick silhouette in the glinting sunlight on the water.
“It’s a gift to have an ocean life. If we’re not going to care about this ocean magic, who is?”
The son of a marine science educator who grew up surfing and was a lifeguard at Laguna Beach, Nelsen left California for a time to study geology at Brown University and environmental management at Duke. He first worked for Surfrider as a graduate student intern in the mid-1990s, and he went on to become the science director and then the CEO. Meanwhile, the organization has grown to dozens of employees and 50,000 members, and Nelsen brings his ocean-focused knowledge to bear daily.
While earning his doctorate at UCLA, Nelsen focused his academic research on something he calls “surfonomics,” which proves that the protection of clean water and waves results in surf culture adding millions of dollars annually to local economies. “There was a lot of research on beach-going and nothing, zero, on surfing. None. Still today I'm like, ‘I did this thing on the economics of surfing.’ And I always get a laugh.” This surfer-scientist is pragmatic. “There is no away,” he says about the idea that we can truly ever discard the trash we create. “I pull plastic out of the ocean, every time I go surfing.”
Plastic pollution is one of the top threats to healthy oceans, along with offshore drilling, and the vast effects of climate change. Surfrider is active in all of those issues, with grassroots supporters and volunteers in chapters around the country, and by making frequent contact with local, state and national government leaders. The issues are challenging, Nelsen admits.
“If we can get everyone pointed in the same direction and working together and showing up, there’s no stopping us for anything. There’s the optimism. There's a solution for everything.”
Faherty Brand is a corporate sponsor and partner of Surfrider Foundation.