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Surfing Explorers “Stoked to Collect Data”

National Geographic Emerging Explorer Gregg Treinish and his team at Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation bring us stories from around the world about adventuring with purpose. Here, ASC’s Emily Stifler Wolfe interviews French surfer Erwan Simon about the search for remote waves worldwide, his love of the ocean, and his involvement with ASC’s Microplastics Project. By Emily...

National Geographic Emerging Explorer Gregg Treinish and his team at Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation bring us stories from around the world about adventuring with purpose. Here, ASC’s Emily Stifler Wolfe interviews French surfer Erwan Simon about the search for remote waves worldwide, his love of the ocean, and his involvement with ASC’s Microplastics Project.

By Emily Stifler Wolfe

One day after surfing a new wave at the edge of the Sahara Desert, while sharing mint tea with their local guide under a traditional nomad Khaïma tent, French surfer Erwan Simon, Hawaiian photographer John Seaton Callahan, longboard champion Sam Bleakley and Italian surfer Emiliano Cataldi made a decision. They were no longer going to casually stumble upon new waves. They founded SurfEXPLORE and went out to find them.

Now, exploring surf worldwide in places including Haiti, China, Comoros, and Algeria, the team sees oceanic changes firsthand, and it’s had an impact.

Erwan Simon rides clear water and fine surf on a new wave in Africa. (Photo by John Seaton Callahan)

“Everybody knows environmental damage is happening, including surfers,” Erwan said. “Each of us has a responsibility and a role to play in these problems, but most people don’t know how they can help. I was wondering, ‘What can I do?’”

He joined the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC) Microplastics Project in January 2014, and has since collected water samples near his home in France and from the beaches of West Africa. These samples, combined with others taken around the world by ASC teams, will help reveal the presence, composition, and sources of microplastic particles, which could be moving toxins like BPA, DDT, and pesticides up through the food chain to everyone from small fish to birds and even humans.

Interview With Erwan Simon

ASC: Where are you from?

Simon: I am from Brittany, a Celtic region located in the northwest of France.

Simon collecting ocean water samples for ASC at home in Brittany, France. (Photo by Erwan Simon)

ASC: Where and when did you learn to surf?

Simon: I started surfing when I was 13 years old on the beach of Le Fort Bloqué. I live by the beach at Guidel, another village near Lorient. It’s cold in wintertime, but sometimes the surf can get really good. The Laïta River goes through the Toulfoën Forest and meets the Atlantic Ocean right in front of my home, a superb Breton landscape of cliffs and dunes and a good lookout on Groix Island.

ASC: Why did you want to volunteer for ASC?

Simon: We are facing unstoppable global development and every corner of the planet is now impacted by different kinds of pollution and environmental threats. Biodiversity is declining, the quality of the water and the atmosphere is altered more every day, with the earth and soil increasingly polluted by human activities.

Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation [offers] a great opportunity to improve the accessibility of scientific knowledge by connecting outdoor enthusiasts and scientists. It’s a new resource to bridge the people who are already going to difficult-to-reach areas and the professionals who can use their data for environmental research.

The SurfEXPLORE group has always had a strong focus on sustainability and entered the ASC research program with a focus on microplastic pollution. It’s the first step in having a clear and tangible positive impact on new shores and new surfing areas. I am now stoked to collect data.

The SurfEXPLORE team researching new waves in Gabon. (Photo by John Seaton Callahan)

ASC: Does collecting scientific data on your trips make it harder to surf?

Simon: As a surfer, I try to collect the samples near a surf spot. It’s not so difficult, but it is a strict methodology.

ASC: You must meet all sorts of interesting people while traveling. Tell me about a memorable experience in a foreign culture.

Simon: In early 2014, just before the ebola outbreak, our team [spent time] exploring the Turtle Archipelago in the south of Sierra Leone. It’s a group of sandy islands where the Sherbro tribe lives, with approximatively 1,000 people spread between 10 villages. They have no contact with modern life and completely live self-sufficiently in nature. We camped on the beach and had to live with them during one week. We had a chance to visit the sacred island of their secret society, a place where women are not allowed, and you have to leave yours shoes and watches in the boat. We met the chief, and they were doing some special animist practices there, but I cannot tell you what they are. It’s a secret between me and the chief.

ASC: Any wild adventures you’d like to tell us about while searching for a new surf spot?

Simon: We decided to explore the south coast of Gabon near the Congo border. It took two days of dusty and difficult off-road tracks to drive through one of the biggest forests in the world. Only in Gabon you can meet wild elephants on the beach or hippos swimming in ocean waves (read about Gabon’s vast new marine reserve). The hardest part of the expedition was driving across the Mayumba National Park with the local guides. But we made it to our destination and discovered a new surf spot at Banda Point.

ASC: Any exciting surf trips coming up? Will ASC be part of them?

Simon: Right now we’re doing some research for an expedition to southeast Asia in the next few months. I will volunteer and collect samples during our next surfEXPLORE expeditions, and also at home in France.

Learn more and get involved with ASC’s microplastics project on our website, our Field Notes blog, and by following us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+. Find more about SurfEXPLORE at

Read More by Gregg Treinish and His Correspondents

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Meet the Author

Gregg Treinish
Gregg Treinish founded Adventure Scientists in 2011 with a strong passion for both scientific discovery and exploration. National Geographic named Gregg Adventurer of the Year in 2008 when he and a friend completed a 7,800-mile trek along the spine of the Andes Mountain Range. He was included on the Christian Science Monitor's 30 under 30 list in 2012, and the following year became a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work with Adventure Scientists. In 2013, he was named a Backpacker Magazine "hero", in 2015, a Draper Richards Kaplan Entrepreneur and one of Men's Journal's "50 Most Adventurous Men." In 2017, he was named an Ashoka Fellow and in 2018 one of the Grist 50 "Fixers." Gregg holds a biology degree from Montana State University and a sociology degree from CU-Boulder. He thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2004. Read more updates from Gregg and others on the Adventure Scientists team at Follow Adventure Scientists on Instagram @adventurescientists, on Facebook @adventurescientists, and on Twitter @AdvScientists.