January 17th, 2024 | By Oriana Smy
Now entering the fourth year of the “Ocean Decade” we are thrilled to see more UN Decade Actions getting endorsed to help expand this network of incredible activities, projects, programs, and contributions, each working towards this collectively dedicated decade of ocean science solutions. We are particularly excited to continue strengthening our relationships with those behind these actions – the people of the ocean decade.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Diego Sancho Gallegos, the Data Coordinator for Save The Waves Coalition and an Early Career Ocean Professional (ECOP), to discuss their UN Ocean Decade endorsed project, the Save The Waves App, as well as the other coastal programs they facilitate in the Northeast Pacific region and around the world.
Originally from Costa Rica, Diego’s deep appreciation for the ocean and surfing formed at an early age. He went on to pursue his postsecondary education at Stanford University in California where he completed his bachelors and masters degrees in Geological and Earth Sciences, specializing in Coastal Ocean Dynamics and Management. Diego first began his working relationship with Save The Waves through a research internship in 2019 where he developed a Geographic Information System (GIS) infrastructure to map conservation priorities in Costa Rica.
Save The Waves Coalition is a non-profit organization with an international dedication to the conservation and protection of not only surf ecosystems, but also the surrounding communities and coastal environments. Although their outreach and user base has grown to many countries around the world, their home base and headquarters remains located in California, with Diego splitting his time between there and Costa Rica – both equally excellent surfing locales.
Save The Waves has three main conservation programs: The World Surfing Reserves Program, the Surf Protected Area Networks Program, and the previously mentioned endorsed Save The Waves App, which is their main coastal marine monitoring tool designed to respond to coastal threats. The App aims to empower coastal communities and engage all coastal users to utilize this technology to tackle hazards such as marine debris and coastal erosion.
“There are a lot of benefits for a project like ours being part of the Ocean Decade,” Diego tells me. “Collaboration and partnership building are integral aspects to the work we do, so having access to a wide range of people in the Decade Network that may otherwise not know about us is huge – that’s half the battle.”
The Save The Waves name may suggest their programs are only for surfers, but Diego informs me that’s definitely not the case. “We cast the widest net possible, particularly with the App. It’s not just about surfers reporting at a surf break – they’re definitely using it and are some of the eyes and ears on the water, but it’s also paddlers, divers, kayakers, and all coastal users and other community organizations that use and love these regions and are motivated to take care of them.”
Through this, Save The Waves has built a dedicated stakeholder group of citizen scientists who help them document and respond to many threats to coastlines around the world. “We really rely on our partnerships to make this project successful. That’s why Save The Waves is a Coalition and our partners are at the heart of that.”
Although Save The Waves has an international reach, there are still many regions without partners and coastal users to document these issues. “We can’t be everywhere, but with our partners around the world, they can help draw attention to those pockets that may need attention.”
The App also comes with a set of resources for users to take their impact one step further and be able to connect to other global networks and programs, learn about beach cleanups, and even help you conduct a brand assessment of the materials retrieved after a cleanup. “Ultimately, we’re building a resource library that can add to the benefits and impacts for users and the environment.”
The Save The Waves App focuses on the UN Ocean Decade Challenge #1 and one of our Regional Themes: To Understand and Beat Marine Pollution. Through community-based science, this reporting app empowers surfers and coastal users to report and track threats or hazards in real-time. There are six different categories for users to report: Coastal Development; Plastic Trash and Marine Debris; Sea Level Rise and Erosion; Water Quality; Coral Reef Impacts; and Access.
“We’re monitoring improvements as well as threats.” Diego adds that they’re working on positive updates with the new iterations of the App to include ecosystem improvements. “This way, we’re not only tracking threats and presenting negative reports, but also celebrating coastal victories and solutions.” He informs me that these reports are constantly generating data, which then flow to the organizations that are tackling the issues of a specific region.
Marine debris is the most prevalent and widely ranging of all the threats Save The Waves tackles and makes up about 60% of app reports. “One of our main priorities is to make the App accessible and simplify the steps to make a report, as well as making the data flow seamless to be able to get the data to our partners quickly so they can act on it right away.”
Even though it only takes about one minute to file a report, some of these entries require long remediation processes. The Save The Waves App is different from other marine debris tracking apps, Diego informs me, in that it is primarily created to act as a coastal alert and monitoring system. Their app shows the step before remediation happens and engages the steps that follow.
“We identify the issue before an action is taken, and then we mobilize those organizations responsible and capable of facilitating the required next steps for mitigating or cleaning up the hazards.” Save The Waves can triage these larger events through the avenues of their various partners. Diego adds, “these reports also help us map out trends and locations of where these threats are occurring.”
So, why surfing? Diego reminds me that not only does the ocean provide livelihoods for coastal peoples globally, but surfing brings a sense of joy and well-being practiced by over 35 million people worldwide, enjoyed in over 40 countries, with a collective impact of over $60 billion USD annually, in terms of tourism revenue. “That’s really why we use surfing as a platform for ocean conservation,” he adds. “Not only is it a powerful constituency for marine conservation, but it’s an avenue to reduce land-based marine pollution, and also, a lot of people really love surfing and want to continue doing it.”
Save The Waves aims to mobilize surfers and other coastal users around the world to protect these surf ecosystems that they all love. The App has features that can integrate with other surf tracking apps that makes it easy for those who are already out on the water and are essentially frontline reporters, to document and log these issues in real-time.
Diego defines a “surf ecosystem” as having three main factors: “It’s the geophysical conditions that make a unique breaking wave for surfing; it’s the important habitat for biodiversity in coastal zones; and also the human wellbeing factors that are associated with surfing and spending time in and around the ocean.”
In 2023 Save the Waves Coalition celebrated their 20-year anniversary. Their team spent three days off-the-grid in California to reflect on the past 20 years and chart the next 20 years ahead, particularly highlighting coastal protection and conservation, water quality monitoring and improvement, policy action, and community engagement – and yes, you guessed it, there was also surfing to be had.
One of the most well-known initiatives that Save the Waves runs is the flagship World Surfing Reserve program. This global program helps to create a designation of protection for ecosystems in high quality surf regions and is led by the local communities vying for this protection. Save The Waves’ role is to support the facilitation to gain this designation.
With this designation of protection comes amplified attention on the region. “This tends to draw media attention, and of course surfers to the region,” Diego tells me. “With increased traffic to an otherwise ‘hidden gem’ comes the responsibility to handle this influx of travellers without having detrimental impacts on other parts of the region,” he adds.
Everything humans do has an impact on the environment, however well-intentioned that may be. Save The Waves aims to work with communities to mitigate that impact through protection and long-lasting management tools. “In addition to incorporating surf-break management plans, it’s our hope to equip communities with the right tools to protect these surf regions beyond the break.”
“At the end of the day, if you want to protect the wave, the value of that place must be known. And to do that we provide a set of tools that can ensure an equitable and efficient management plan is in place.” One of these tools, Diego explains to me, is a “surfonomics study,” which quantifies the economic value that a surf break brings into a community, inclusive of factoring in tourism revenue and ecosystem services.
The Surfing Protected Areas Network program stemmed as a result of the popularity of the surrounding communities of World Surfing Reserve designations. This year Save The Waves started the World Surfing Reserve Stewardship Fund, which provides access to funding that can be dedicated to these campaigns and projects every year. “This will help keep that stewardship component going, which is the day-in-day-out protection of the wave to maintain the long-term stewardship plans when government funding isn’t built in.”
Save The Waves aims to make projects self-sufficient and build in financing and education. “We like to focus on public outreach and focus on things like the importance of keeping the beach clean and supporting the youth through learning how to surf to create relationships with the ocean.”
Each Save The Waves program aims to create long-term plans for communities or stretches of coastline that may be facing threats or require remediation or protection. “One of the most valuable things the App brings,” Diego tells me, “is being able to identify issues in places that wouldn’t have a voice otherwise. But with a few resources directed their way and the right tools and knowledge, the situation can improve significantly. Small things, like waste infrastructure at a surf break, or education around proper waste management can go a long way and don’t really cost that much. These things can also gain traction into much bigger initiatives.”
“At the end of the day we protect surf ecosystems, which is not just the wave itself, but the geophysical characteristics that make the wave break, which in a lot of places involves sediment flow from the watersheds, the communities that rely on that wave, and the flora and fauna that live in that general space. So, when you look at it like that, it’s a whole interconnected space that can go upstream and extend to many miles out to sea.”
Save The Waves has over 700 public reports that are accessible on their website for anyone who may find this information useful. “We currently share this data with other global initiatives that can help drive the understanding and policy change that is needed.”
Save The Waves fully supports others to use this data for research, business, policy or any other needs that may be beneficial. Some data management skills may be required to collate and synthesize the data depending on the purpose or presentation outputs, but Diego offers that anyone interested can reach out to Save The Waves for a more specific aggregate data set. “We’re always happy to help with this process so others can find and use this information.”
“I’m excited about the role that technology can play in the Ocean Decade, and how it can engage citizens, and grow the whole idea that individuals can also make a difference.”
The Save The Waves App is available in four different languages, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French, and is built for both Apple and Android operating systems.