The Scene: An intercontinental Zoom chat between Emi Koch on US’ West Coast, Andrea in South Africa and Kaspar Switzerland.
The Situation: Early 2020, at the start of the Covid19 Pandemic Outbreak.
The Vibe: Getting to know the background story.
Emi Koch is a pro surfer on the world league, National Geographic Adventurer and digital storyteller and educator, using her love of surfing as a tool for empowerment in coastal fishing communities across the globe.
Emi, what’s most alive for you in this very moment?
Definitely the red tide off the coast here in California. It’s a phytoplankton bloom with bioluminescence happening on the coastline. As they’re now dying off you can smell them too – it’s a strong sulfur smell. At night, when the waves are breaking, you get this really beautiful glowing in the water.
What’s the wildest thing you’ve experienced in or at the ocean?
Once in Barcelona, we pulled up to the beach at nine o’clock at night and were just sitting on the sand. Suddenly, this red thing slowly rises over the horizon. “I honestly thought like, oh my god, like, the world is going to end, like, what is that?” It turned out to be the moon! I’d never seen it like that – this red moon coming up out of the ocean! I remember being awestruck by the natural cycle of nature! Also surfing sessions in India, during sunset and moonrise – I don’t know, me and the wild moons I guess.
What would your relationship status with the ocean be?
Committed, for sure. Or unconditional love. Especially as someone who does watersports, you’re taught many lessons by the ocean, and sometimes you’re held under, you get slapped on the sand and whatnot, but you still come back, you still love the ocean, so that’s unconditional love.
”It amazes me that something that is so simple, and that we all need to do – eating – has such a big impact on this vast ocean.”
If you were the ocean, what would your message to humanity be?
“Notice me!” Notice everything I do for you, and appreciate me that I’m not limitless – I also have needs. We have such a crazy relationship with the ocean – we take so from it, and in exchange fill it with trash and other harmful/toxic objects and substances. I don’t think we recognize yet how dependent we are on the ocean.
Why did you decide to support Oceaneers? What is it about Oceaneers and this initiative that excites you?
Iggy (Oceaneer’s Marine Iguana and Logo) is responsible for this! I liked how you explain his values and who he is as one of the first things on the website, but I also thought it was so simple. The mission of Oceaneers isn’t about shaming people, but it’s receptive to everyone’s situation. It’s so simple that we’re addressing this huge ocean problem, through something so simple that we all need to do. We all need to eat, and so it’s just about bringing awareness to what we’re putting into our bodies and how it affects our health and the health of the ocean. I feel really honored to be part of it.
“I eat healthier when I’m closer to nature.”
What do you eat on an average day, or when you go surfing?
Oh man, that’s a three-part answer.
- If we have enough funding… acai bowls with almond butter.
- If I’m in fishing communities (for my work)...I’m an ‘appreciatarian’ of available local fish and veggies.
- If I’m shopping for my regular home budget…vegetables or lentils, often prepackaged meals.
“But I eat healthier when I’m closer to nature.”
I’ve taken on this diet of being an ‘appreciatarian’, which is basically gratitude for whatever food is available to me. When I’m working in fishing communities, I know the person who caught the fish, or I know the woman selling the veggies. That’s worth a lot to me. It’s eating transparently – seeing every ingredient in front of you versus reading it on the back of a label.
“My dad always said you ‘never turn your back on the ocean’ because a wave can come out of nowhere – but I’ve always remembered it metaphorically as well”
Let’s talk a little bit about you and the ocean – how did that all begin? What’s your first memory related to the ocean?
My dad used to be an ocean lifeguard so he’s definitely responsible for introducing me to the ocean at an early age. We’d go out to the tide pools, where my grandparents used to live, and it was just so magical. Going around and looking for octopus and hermit crabs felt like pure adventure.
My dad would teach me about how a hermit crab needs to get to a larger house, so it was also like a classroom for me. And then we would paddle out on his long rescue board and I would just be watching the Garibaldi while he paddled, these bright orange fish, swimming through the kelp beds. Because of all this, the ocean was like an imaginary friend to me. As it turned out, quite a dangerous friend at times, but with so many playing and learning opportunities.
How did you get into surfing?
I realized I was better at that than I was at school. I have ADHD, so in the classroom, I often ended up in detention and would often be reprimanded. Don’t do that, stay still, no, no, no. Whereas in the ocean it was like, “oh great, you’re so fast, catching those waves.” I put two and two together and just spent more time doing that.
What influence did surfing have on your life? How did it shape you as a person?
Surfing took me on an adventure I never even fathomed was possible. I had this goal to become a professional surfer and I was very committed to that goal. But I also realized how much focus I put on myself on that journey – everything was about me, about my sponsors, my time, my modelling contract.
I then had a change of heart.
Growing up in San Diego, we had this opportunity to go do a social service trip to Mexico in high school. I was really going for the ‘social’ part – to be in Mexico for the first time with friends. There were people living in such extreme poverty that I remember looking at the neighborhood where I grew up from the other side of the border.It blew my mind to realize that my entire life, I hadn’t been exposed to this reality, not knowing that people here were living in a garbage dump.
Right on the coast and right on this ocean. On the other side of the wall that property would have been astronomically priced. So, that really shook my foundation. And as a result, I felt this drive to change the world and decided to go to university. I wrote a heartfelt essay, and I got into this school of diplomacy in international relations in Washington DC and I moved there at 17, having barely worn shoes – it was such a shock to my system.
During that first year, I kind of lost sight of who I was. I wanted to address these issues but didn’t know how – so I decided to take a year off to figure things out. I was no longer in the surf scene but I was also no longer in school – a scary and vulnerable time.
That’s when a friend and I decided spontaneously to go on a trip to Nepal to live in a monastery.
There were art and science teachers teaching in Tibetan and Nepalese and we got involved helping to teach the kids about solar systems through fun art projects. It was the first time that school felt fun to me and learning felt like an exciting thing. It was there that I also met a group of skateboarders from Skate-istan, this organization in Afghanistan that uses skateboarding as a tool for youth empowerment. That’s when it all clicked.
Suddenly I saw where I was and where all of these big issues were, and where I could meet them. It wasn’t coming from this pedestal of charity of “oh I have this thing and I’m going to be giving it to you”. More like we’re participating in a shared activity. That’s when I started the nonprofit. “So it was at that moment that I was like, wait, could surfing be used as a tool for youth empowerment and ocean conservation?”
“So it was at that moment that I was like, wait, could surfing be used as a tool for youth empowerment and ocean conservation?”
Beautiful – and how did you end up getting sponsored by Billabong?
I was 19 and I had just bought the book on ‘How To Form A Nonprofit For Dummies.’ I spent so much time trying to get sponsored before and nothing happened and then suddenly things aligned in this area too. I told them I’d just started this nonprofit (having read about 5 pages) and asked if they’d be willing to support my project. My question was if they would help me funneling and dispersing gear like wetsuits to these initiatives. To my big surprise, they were keen. This was in days before Facebook, but I was still posting pictures about what they were doing and trying to get sponsors for the kids etc.
Tell us more about your Beyond the Surface (your organization). How did the storytelling component become part of it?
I would just give the kids a GoPro – now they could film themselves surfing, and I could see how excited they were to share their own stories. That’s also when we started to explore the issues in their community, and I love that it came from them! They were pinpointing the problems that they wanted to address. It was very organic. I think it was only made possible through surfing because we had established a relationship with one another based on friendship. So because of this, the families trusted me with their children and invited me over for dinner, and they would share challenges they wanted to talk about.
The storytelling component kind of just came about because it just felt good that the kids were telling their own stories.
The mindfulness angle came later. When you’re filled with this desire to change something, you can either address this through command & control or through nonviolent communication. The latter resonated much more with me, and before we knew it breath-awareness and mindfulness became important tools for us. “…her caption was basically that rice and fish are best friends, but then fish doesn’t come around as much, and so rice feels sad.”
You founded Beyond the Surface in 2008. How has this journey been in the past 12 years?
Much like Oceaneers it was just organic in its development. There wasn’t a pressure to succeed, it was just doing what felt right.
“…her caption was basically that rice and fish are best friends, but then fish doesn’t come around as much, and so rice feels sad.”
Is there one story from a person somewhere in the world which for you exemplifies Beyond the Surface, what you do or the impact you’re having?
I remember two. So the one was when we were doing a photography workshop in Indonesia. One of the little girls in the workshop had taken a picture of her grandmother making food in the kitchen and on the plate was fish and rice. When we asked her to write a caption for her photo, she wrote that ‘rice and fish are best friends, but then fish doesn’t come around as much, and so rice feels sad.’ That moment helped us to crystallize and understand that we want to work with small scale fishing communities. It also drove me to want to get a graduate degree in marine biodiversity and conservation. I felt like I owed that to the communities we were working with. I wanted to come back better prepared, and more knowledgeable. So yeah, that was a really powerful moment.
And the other one?
We started up a girl surfing club in Peru in the community where I’m more or less based. Hearing feedback from the moms after just 3 years in action about how they have seen their girls grow, transform, and find that their voice is stronger. To me, that’s just the best.
How big is your Beyond the Surface team?
Very small! Actually, it’s me, and my partner. We met actually in Lobitos. We just started to add friends that like to collaborate with us, I would say.
Emi, is there anything from your side that wants to be said before we close here?
Thank you for what you guys are doing. It speaks to the power of just two people who have a really genuine relationship. I mean, that’s the thing I keep coming back to, what you’re building just feels honest. The message is so simple, and it’s really exciting what you guys are doing. I’m so happy to be a part of it and see where it goes from here.
Thank you so much Emi, it was a great pleasure.
To find out more about the ocean and coastal communities conservation work of Emi Koch’s Nonprofit check out Beyond the Surface International and follow her beautiful work and adventures on Instagram here.
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Oceaneers is a community-driven initiative created by two ocean lovers who wanted to inspire others to see that the biggest positive impact they could make to ocean sustainability was to change their food choices.
© 2018 Oceaneers.For.Life