A Surfer’s Journey From Source to Sea

National Geographic Young Explorer Shannon Switzer documents rivers from source to sea. Photograph by Evolve, IMG, courtesy Shannon Switzer.


Shannon Switzer—a savvy surfer, diver, sailor, writer, photographer, and conservationist based in San Diego—goes to adventurous extremes to help people make the often-ignored environmental and public health connections between inland surface waters and her beloved ocean.

For a recent photography project, Switzer trekked and documented large segments of the four biggest rivers in San Diego County, logging more thank 250 miles (402 kilometers) on foot.

“Once I began documenting the watershed systems in San Diego, I realized I could literally spend the rest of my life exploring and photographing them,” Switzer says. “They permeate every inch of the landscape.”

Her Source to Sea project explored vibrant wetlands, parks, and wildlife sanctuaries along the San Luis Rey, San Dieguito, San Diego, and Tijuana Rivers—all which end in either San Diego Bay or the Pacific Ocean. But it also led her through potentially damaging riverside development, mining sites, garbage dumps, agricultural operations, and several homeless camps.

(See More: “Pictures: Reclaiming San Diego’s Vital Rivers.”)

Walking the length of the rivers was no easy task. “In most places, the rivers in San Diego are tangled with shrubs, reeds, vines, and poison oak along their shores,” Switzer explains. “They dip into and out of steep canyons, disappear underground in some parts and, after rainstorms, rage with rapids in others. Our rivers are chopped up by fences, roads, and industrial operations every inch of their way from the mountains down to the ocean.”

Switzer, whose six-month expedition was partially funded by a National Geographic Young Explorer’s Grant, aimed to document the pollutants and man-made obstructions that plague the County’s waterways. Some of the contaminants dumped into the rivers are flushed downstream and suspected of making people from the local surfing community sick.

(More about degraded beaches: “Pictures: Worst Beach Destinations Rated.”)

Three of the rivers Switzer explored begin as snowmelt in mountain ranges between 50 to 60 miles inland. The fourth—the Tijuana—runs 120 miles (195 km) from the U.S. into Mexico, through the heart of Tijuana City, and back north into the U.S. before emptying into one of the last remaining undeveloped estuaries along the San Diego shoreline.

Beyond a few remaining pristine areas, these rivers are plagued by pollution.

Switzer was astounded by the “overwhelming amount of plastic trash” that she saw clogging the County’s waterways, especially on the San Diego River, the most urban of all four rivers she documented.

“In parts of it, plastic choked the water flow completely—plastic Easter eggs, water bottles, shopping bags, product packaging, Barbie dolls—you name it,” Switzer says of the San Diego. “This is the stuff that ends up on our beaches and has created the five plastic gyres (floating islands of plastic) that have now been identified in our world’s oceans.”

(Read more: “Huge Garbage Patch Found in Atlantic Too.”)

This is why Switzer advocates for using reusable items instead of plastic throwaway products. “It amazes me how simple this is and how few of my friends and colleagues do it, even people who I know care about the environment. It’s a matter of changing habits. Once people learn to switch to reusable items, they reduce the amount of trash created (most often plastic), which reduces the use of water needed to create the products and reduces the amount of trash that ends up in our rivers and streams.”

(Read more about Switzer’s passion: “Freshwater Hero: Shannon Switzer.”)

Spending half a year in and around San Diego’s rivers sparked something in Switzer. “Since I’ve spent time with the watersheds, I feel more personally invested in seeing them cared for and nourished in a way that I didn’t before the project. It was very encouraging to see how many organizations are working diligently to protect the rivers and coastline in San Diego.”

But there is a long road ahead for healing San Diego’s, and the world’s, waters.

“On the other hand, there is still so much work to be done. Three million people from very diverse backgrounds live in San Diego. That’s a lot of people to educate, motivate, and unfortunately clean up after. There’s also a great deal of legacy pollution from past and present industrial operations along the rivers.”

Switzer sees education, awareness, policy change, and smart urban planning as the keys to bolstering public and environmental health. “The health of the rivers has slowly improved over the past few decades, as more educational programs have been implemented in local communities and stricter environmental regulations have been mandated. If we really want to keep our water clean, we need to re-think the way we design our roads, buildings, and parking lots to prevent urban runoff from flowing directly into the watershed.”

So what will make the most impact: “I truly believe the most effective way for people to connect their actions with clean water is to first get them to care about it,” Switzer adds. “Not just intellectually or in theory, but personally. And the only way to do that is to get them outside interacting with it. I think that’s why surfers, kayakers, hikers, scuba divers, etc… tend to be more clean-water conscious. They are out in the elements everyday and see firsthand how they impact nature and how they are impacted by it.”

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E/The Environment Magazine, Environmental Science & Technology online news, Greenwire, Green Guide, and National Geographic News.