August 17, 2005

Spanish Surfers’ Paradise Loses its Wave

MUNDAKA, Spain -- U.S. surfer Mike Dobos emigrated to this tiny Basque village just to ride its wave. Eight years later, one of the most famous waves in the world has disappeared.

Thousands of surfing enthusiasts used to descend on this northern Spanish village every year for surfing's premier competition, the World Championship Tour.

This year, the Mundaka leg of the Billabong Pro championship has been canceled because the wave, known as the best "left-hand" in Europe, has vanished.

"I'm shattered," 37-year-old Dobos said. "I left everything behind exactly to do this, to surf this wave."

Where once a powerful wave created by a sand bar curled into a long fast-moving tube, the sea is now calm like the Mediterranean. Instead of surfers, sailing boats and canoes dot the clear blue water.

Foreign surfers stumbled on Mundaka, an ancient village with strong Basque nationalist feeling, in the 1960s. The locals soon realised what could be done with their barrel-shaped wave and bought boards from the visitors.

Bruce Smith, from Perth, Australia, was one of the first to make surfboards here, arriving in 1982.

"Getting a tube is the most exciting part of surfing. Here you get very deep, intense tubes," he said.

Smith and other surfers are convinced the wave disappeared because the estuary was dredged in 2003 to make way for a newly built ship. The sand was used to restore a huge dune nearby and provide a home for endangered plants, and birds such as plovers.

Local officials have ordered a study into what happened to Mundaka's wave. Some scientists say it is just not clear why the vast tubes that drew surfers from around the world no longer roll across the bay.


Mundaka lies on a river estuary, wedged between the rocky forest-covered mountains and the sea. The area around it has been declared a Biosphere Reserve by the U.N. cultural agency


The village, home to 2,000 people, has resisted becoming a typical surfers' haven -- even though locals have adopted the sport and the championship has been held here five times.

Basque nationalist flags deck the town's buildings and walls are covered with posters demanding an amnesty for jailed members of the Basque separatist group ETA. Old men in traditional Basque berets chat by the sea and there is just one surf shop.

But the wave was a major earner and the regional government has ordered a study into why it disappeared and how to get it back. Officials and scientists involved in the study declined to comment until the results are published later this year.

The surfers have their own theory. Guillermo Lecumberri, spokesman of the Mundaka Surf Club, said 260,000 cubic meters were dredged from the estuary in 2003, about four times as much as in previous years.

Surfers say the sand bar which created the wave has been affected by the dredging, which removes sand from the seabed. They say the dredging changed the way sand is deposited, robbing the wave-making sand bar of its source of renewal.

"We've observed a change in the currents and that sand is deposited where it never used to be," Lecumberri said.

Elisa Sainz de Murieta, director of biodiversity in the Basque government, said the practice of dredging to let ships out from a nearby shipyard has taken place for years. Local officials declined to say how much had been dredged.


Oceanographer Tony Butt said dredging might not be the only factor behind the change.

"It's chaos really ... We don't understand how this works. You can't just wind back the chaotic clock," Butt, a research fellow at the University of Plymouth, told Reuters.

Butt said the wave could also have been affected by a dearth of big storms in the Atlantic Ocean over the past few years, compared to 10 or 15 years ago.

Last winter, there were very few big swells and then suddenly one storm created 10 meter (30 foot) waves.

Surfers also criticize the Urdaibai Reserve Trust, a local organization responsible for the area's conservation. It was behind the plan to recreate the nearby dune.

The surfers say rebuilding the dune is tantamount to meddling with nature, and argue the wave should be protected as part of the Biosphere Reserve.

"We want Mundaka to be a symbol for keeping the Basque coast virgin," Basque surfer and documentary maker Eduardo Araujo said. "We don't just want the wave back ... we want the area to be truly protected."

For now, Mundaka's surfers have to get their thrills elsewhere. Some travel to nearby France in search of waves while others like Eukem Iturri, 29, have branched out.

"You have to look for other things," Iturri, who has surfed since he was 11, said. "I've bought a motorbike."