A SURFER wants the big wave; a fisherman does not. This simple formulation – more a statement of the obvious, really – sounds almost like a koan when spoken quietly at dusk on a promontory above the Cantabrian Sea. Gaizka San Justo came up with it years ago, telescoping into a few words the vast dispositional difference between himself and his father.
“I’m so happy when the waves are pumping down there,” says San Justo, looking out over the small Basque port of Mundaka. “But my father is like … [he mimics a barnacled harumph]. He’s only happy when he’s fishing, which means the waves are no good for me.”
San Justo talks of waves, plural, but also of “the wave”, singular, and “our wave”, possessive. His hometown is renowned for a particular swell pattern that recurs right below us, where the Oka River flows out through the Urdaibai Estuary and into the Bay of Biscay. Current, tide, and prevailing winds converge upon a sand bar just beyond the harbour wall, often forming the kind of barrel wave more common to Indonesian coral islands than gusty North Atlantic shorelines. Surfers call it “the longest left in Europe”, and they can ride it for a good 90 seconds, perhaps 10 of those spent gliding through the “tube” itself.
Conditions tend to be best in autumn, but the sea looks calm from where we stand, by the old clifftop hermitage of Santa Kataliña. The clouds are pink and gold at sunset, the weather ominously balmy for October in that ominous way we’ve all been getting used to. San Justo would have expected stronger winds and bigger swells by now. If and when they come, he tells me, later in the season, we might see 150 surfers on the water. From this same vantage, in times past, we might also have witnessed any number of wreckings and drownings around that fateful sand bar, which has been a mortal hazard to local fisherfolk for centuries. But this not to say that they hate it. They are even inclined to defend it, says to San Justo, “as part of their culture”.
He has heard all the stories about their animosity toward the first surfers. A few Spanish pioneers of the sport appeared as colourful anomalies of the late 1960s – the end phase of the conformist Franco era. Word spread to foreign hippie-looking types who lived out of brightly painted vans, and a certain nativism gave rise to fistfights. San Justo is not yet 30, but his lifetime corresponds to the slow decline of one tribe, and the rise of the other.
He opened a surf school here a decade ago to teach villagers and visitors alike, while very few of his peers have followed their parents into work on trawlers, or cargo vessels, or the shipyard in neighbouring Bermeo, where his fother is now a welder after many years at sea.
Today, San Justo Senior goes fishing only for his supper. “When I was a kid he’d be away for four months, come home for four, then have to leave again. For my grandfather it was six and two. Nobody wants to do that any more.”
In the early 21st century, various attempts to shore up the local economy have involved dredging the delta. Sand layers were scraped out to deepen underkeel clearance for larger ships built upriver, and later to refill the eroded village beach. In effect, this changed the hydrodynamic profile of the estuary, and sapped the surf break down to nothing.
“The wave got very crook, very sick”, says Craig Sage, Australian owner of the long-standing Mundaka Surf Shop. Having first arrived to ride it back in 1980, Sage stayed to plant the flag for his sport. His business grew from second-hand board rentals to hosting pros like Kelly Slater at annual world championships on this break. When the dredging made that event unviable, the most informed and impassioned objections were met with a contempt that reminded Sage of the old days. “We’d go to all these meetings to be called a bunch of bums who had no idea, even though we had doctors and lawyers speaking for us.”
But fishermen, for their part, showed solidarity, says Sage. “For years, they’d watched us paddling out in wild weather, floating on very small objects, getting in and out safely, having a good time. By now these guys had realiised that we’ve also got some real sea knowledge.”
He goes on to tell a story that has long since entered legend in Mundaka: One stormy day in 1977, two fellow Aussies happened to be out surfing the same big seas that capsized a fishing boat named the Beti Salada. They used their boards to help save crewmen weighed down by heavy woolen workwear, and their heroism earned the whole cohort a new respect and tolerance. A generation later, most of the local mariners lent their support, or taciturn approval, to the viral campaign that saw Mundaka declare itself a Surf Reserve in 2015.
In practice, such terms rarely mean much in themselves, serving more as promotional devices than substantial conservation measures. In this instance, the Basque Government also made Mundaka the first surf break in Europe to be formally listed as a natural heritage feature, when annexing it to UNESCO’s Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve the following year. And in 2023, this particular wave has now come under the express legal protection of the Spanish state – a high-value landmark mapped onto the new management plan for national marine space (POEME) in such a way that any future damage can be duly sanctioned. In the meantime, without further interference, the underlying sands have shifted back to their natural position, more or less.
“The wave is healthy again, though it still suffers a bit from what happened,” says Sage. His own livelihood depends on it, he admits, but the village does too, especially after the busy summer season. This year’s heat has lingered well past the holidays, and the place seems pretty lively on my own visit, with plenty of weekenders out on the terraces and promenades that frame the harbour. I find good solid Basque taverns like Bar La Leñera tucked into tight lanes and tiny plazas, serving hot bowls of martmitako (fish stew) with cold glasses of txakoli (the region’s signature crisp, dry, slightly fizzy white wine).
My corner room at Apartments Mundaka overlooks the beach, and I sit by the open window to feel that warm, salted breeze off the Bay of Biscay while I read the Manifesto For The Protection of Waves, by Professor Juan José González Trueba. That document makes the case for the natural, cultural, and socio-economic value of surf breaks. It proved instrumental in legal opposition to the dredging at Mundaka, and has since been cited in similar campaigns as far away as Chile. It was also written right here in 2011, when González was teaching nearby at Leioa, and surfing this break every chance he got.
“Some breakers are unique places, as deserving of protection as a forest, a waterfall or a mountain,” says González when I contact him in his present post at the University of Cantabria. A lifelong surfer turned geographer who now lectures in territorial planning, González was first in his field to advance the concept of “hydrodiversity”. To his thinking, any given gulf, wadi, brook, or rock pool is worth cherishing in itself, and not just as a habitat, or “fish tank” for aquatic flora and fauna. “The non-living can also be essential to the planet.”
When it comes to our own species, says González, coastal management policy might be better informed by “the wisdom of indigenous oceanic cultures [for whom] the sea was a place of memory, and identity”. And when he advocates for a recurring wave as a “legal entity”, he is speaking not just for fellow surfers, but for our common human heritage.
Such is mission of his NGO, the Surf & Nature Alliance, which is now using Mundaka as a model for how specific waves might be granted a statutory right to exist. “A lot depends on social demand, political context, local agents … ” Mundaka also has the distinct strategic advantage of standing at the seaward edge of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, established in 1984 to prevent this landscape going the way of Spain’s overdeveloped Med coast.
River guide Cristina Krug takes me up there the next morning on a decommissioned naval patrol boat that she bought online, and had a murallist friend paint in tesselations, something like a wartime dazzle ship. She steers us inland through a delicate ecosystem of sandbanks, salt marshes, and holm oak forests. Krug is from Bilbao but spent her childhood summers around here, and eventually married a merchant crewman from Mundaka.
She’s a qualified anthropologist who knows a great deal about the ancient Basques of this coast and their watery mythology. The lamiak, for example – mermaids with duck feet who drown or save sailors according to their whims. “I’ve never seen one,” says Krug, but she points out the places they dwell, and shows photos on her phone of Mundaka’s February carnival, when the women come out after dark dressed as lamiak, with long white spectral hair and deathly black-ringed eyes. That monochrome midwinter feels pretty distant today.
From hillsides to waterline, this delta plunges bright green into deep blue, as vivid as the Earth seen from space. The ebbing tide exposes glinting marsh grass; a blue kingfisher zooms in low and straight between the blades. This channel can be difficult to navigate, says my captain, watching the riverbed very carefully. “The colour of it shows you the way.”
A fisherwoman herself, if only for recreation, she’s got no problem sharing the water with anyone else who understands it. We turn back toward the sea on a rising swell, and by the time we reach Mundaka there are beautiful waves curling over the sand bar, albeit the gentle kind that an amateur might just ride for a second or two. So I borrow a board and wetsuit and head out with one of Gaizka San Justo’s instructors, a moonlighting maths teacher from Bilbao named Imanol Mingo. I had a few surf lessons in my backpacking youth, but they don’t help much with my “pop-ups” more than 20 years later.
That much older and less flexible now, I flail in the foam like a yak in a mudslide. “Don’t think, just feel,” counsels Mingo, in the common parlance of his tribe. Would that I could, my man, but I’m a classic overthinker, too busy positioning hands and feet to relax into the proper state of vacancy. At the same time, my mind is elsewhere, on Professor González’s manifesto.
Every wave begins in the sun, he reminds us, its energy transferred across the galaxy to stir the winds and waters of our planet. To ride one, however unsteadily, is to put your mortal body in sync with the cosmic direction of travel. The act must have metaphorical value to creatures like us, who rise on shaky legs to stand for one mystifying moment before splashing back into the murk. Or so I am thinking, as my face scrapes the sand bar at Mundaka.