The World Surf League’s partnerships to stop the damage of coral reefs

Of the World Surf League’s World Championship Tour series (which kicks off on the Gold Coast of Australia this week) there are at least three events held over coral reef. They are three of the most famous coral reefs in the world – Teahupo’o in Tahiti, Tavarua in Fiji and Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu. But the planet’s reefs (at spots like these) are in trouble due to climate change – specifically human fascination with eating slabs of beef and driving kids to school in vehicles made for invading countries.

Reefs are actual living things. Coral polyps create exoskeletons of calcium, and when they cluster together, they create reefs (which are ecosystems themselves, supporting a massive variety of sea life).

A report released by scientists in the Netherlands called The Economics of Worldwide Coral Reef Degradation, found that the economic value of coral reefs is estimated around $29.8 billion annually. But, there’s no denying what they are worth to surfers (and no number value that you can place on that).

Photo: WSL
A healthy reef for now at Teahu’poo, home of the World Championship Tour’s Billabong Pro Tahiti. Photo: Courtesy of WSL

Coral reefs have been on the decline for decades, due to a process called “coral bleaching.” Algae and coral have a symbiotic relationship, depending on each other to thrive. Healthy coral has color, which signifies the presence of algae. Algae leaves the coral in times of heavy stress.

If you’ve seen pieces of coral washed up on a beach, it’s usually “bleached” white, and dead. Scientists have observed that rising ocean temperatures have caused noticeable bleaching and destruction of reefs around the world. El Nino has not helped.

To help turns things around and prevent further loss, the World Surf League has partnered with the digital app goFlow and Columbia University on a new project called Bleach Patrol. This data sharing smartphone app lets action sports athletes share the conditions they observe with their friends (or with the world) for surf, snow, skate (not sure exactly what kind of report you need besides raining or not), boating, cycling, diving, kitesurfing, paddling, fishing and even golf (you can keep your golf report).

Coral bleaching is harming reefs as ocean temps warm. Photo: Josi/Flickr.
Coral bleaching is harming reefs as ocean temps warm. Photo: Courtesy of Josi/Flickr

Now listed at the top of the app is a coral bleaching option, powered by the World Surf League. You can share your reports of coral bleaching on the app, although we’re not so sure how accurate a reading you can get on the health of a reef by surfing above it. This will be more effective for diving, which is covered by goFlow as well. The information will be shared with the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, an authority on coral bleaching.

So now, surfers and divers have been dubbed “citizen scientists,” collecting the data. And Columbia is clearly equipped to handle the science end, which leaves the marketing of the whole process to The World Surf League. That may not sound like much of a role in the big picture, but with over 4 million fans on Facebook and 6.2 million people tuning in to last year’s title race during the Pipe Masters, it’s a good reach and an engaged market.


“By giving us that information, we can start targeting some very interesting scientific questions about what’s going to happen to corals over the next year or the next 10 years or the next 100 years. Is bleaching going to lead to a lot of coral mortality? Or will corals gain enhanced ability to recover from bleaching? These are all really important questions in the field right now,” said Jesse Farmer, a graduate student and surfer in a press release from Columbia.

Farmer continued, “And hopefully with data from people who get to experience these reefs, we can start really chipping away at answering some of these hard questions.”

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