Ocean Minders: An Interview with Pro Surfers Mary Osborne and Jennifer Flannigan

Posted by Stiv Wilson

This is part three Stiv Wilson's tour to better understand how plastic ends up in the ocean. Read the first and second installment here and here.

As I drive down Highway 101, I’m passing world-famous surf break after world-famous surf break. I'm in Southern California to surf and meet up with some other environmentalist surfers that I've been in email contact with for ages but have never officially met. I stop at Rincon, one of the best righthander waves in the world. I don’t paddle out because I have to meet pro surfer Mary Osborne just down the road, but I take stock of the state of synthetics on the shore. Among the rocks, I see what I have come to expect: tons of plastic debris, everywhere I look.

Mary was born and raised in Ventura and though she travels a lot, she always seems to come back. Ventura is home and it’s the small town feel of it that Mary both likes and despises. She can’t go anywhere without seeing someone she knows which is both a blessing and a curse. What keeps her here is family and an amazing array of really good waves. But over time, she’s watched the area change dramatically, seeing more and more garbage on the beaches, and more pollution in general. As a Patagonia Ambassador, Mary travels quite a bit and has seen first-hand how plastic has begun to dominate beaches worldwide: From Indonesia to Taiwan to Mexico, she says, the beaches are trashed. “People always say, ‘You’re so lucky to be able to visit all these tropical paradises,’" she tells me, "and yes, I feel fortunate, but then I’m like—really, they’re not actually that pretty anymore.”

This sentiment strikes a chord. We talk about the good old times when plastic wasn’t everywhere, and about how we might be the last generation to remember beaches the way we all like them: pristine. She tells me a story about a recent trip the the Bahamas. Tourist destinations like the Bahamas have a dirty secret: They hide their plastic pollution. “I road a bike around the island and the tourist areas are all clean like the postcards, but once you get away from them, you see the garbage. Plastic garbage everywhere and all you smell is burning plastic. I don't blame the locals for burning it because what else are they going to do with it? It's not like they have a system for dealing with so much plastic." Mary has made sincere efforts to curb her consumption of single use plastics and adds, “The solution to plastic in the ocean starts at home.”

Down the road in Encinitas, I meet up with another pro-surfer, the writer Jennifer Flannigan. Jennifer grew up in Florida, but has lived in Southern California for five years now. In both places, she’s seen all manner of plastic debris on her home beaches. Like Mary, Jennifer travels for surf photo shoots and has witnessed plastic garbage all over the world. But here, just south of the famous surf break Swami’s, Jennifer shows me a spot where she found the most disgusting plastic object yet—put it this way, it’s something plastic and it’s for personal use in private.

Though plastic pollution is something she sees everywhere, she admits that she’s no expert on the subject. I tell her that few people actually are and that’s the reason I’m doing what I’m doing: traveling the coast of the United States and Canada to share my stories of sailing to the center of the ocean and finding the same types plastic garbage out their that litter the beaches here. I hope some the high-profile people I meet along the way will spread the word, too.

I show her two samples taken by the 5 Gyres Project from the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. I like showing people the samples; they always produce a strong reaction and I like to speculate on what’s going on in their heads as they consider these little volumes of sea water taken thousands of miles from land. As she studies the vile I can see the wheels spin in her head. Jennifer is an eloquent speaker and when she articulates a thought she considers what she’s going to say before she says it. Especially when it matters. Her look is one of disbelief and quiet rage as she holds the sample, watching the colorful flecks of plastic spin—a gyre sample looks like a vulgar snow globe.

“The increased individualism and the modern constructs of the globalized society we live in creates more and more consumption and depletes our natural resources for things like packaging," Jennifer says. "Take Japan; everything in Japan is single-use, prepackaged—and it’s this garbage that ends up on the beaches there.” But despite the daunting scale of the plastic pollution problem, Jennifer remains hopeful.

You can hear from her directly in the following video and stay tuned for the next stop on the Beaches, People, and Plastic tour, where we link up with CEO of The Surfrider Foundation, Jim Moriarty.


Stiv Wilson is a freelance writer/photographer and the communications director for the 5gyres.org Project. He lives in Portland, Oregon.