The Scene: A rainy day in a little coffee shop called Cocoa Oola in Cape Town, South Africa.
The Drink: Coffee (with almond milk)
The Vibe: Chilling hard between admin and surf missions, both – interviewee and interviewer – are dealing with a cold
James Taylor is an entrepreneur by day and a pro big-wave surfer, spearfisherman and true waterman in his spare time. That’s when he’s not being dad to his one and three-year-old.
What are you currently most excited about?
Oh I would have to say my children. I have a 1-year old and a 3-year old, and they’re very very cool. They take up a lot of my time, but they’re just very cute at the moment, and I really enjoy spending time with them. It’s a lot of fun.
What are you currently most worried about?
Hmmm – I suppose work a little bit, that’s always a bit of a worry. Where the next deal comes from, growing a business, ensuring that I’ve provided for my little boys – those are probably my biggest fears at the moment, but it’s not that scary – it’s just work.
Where do you feel most alive?
That’s still the ocean, that’s where I feel most excited, most scared (in certain scenarios), most at peace.
How many hours on average do you spend in the ocean, per week?
Right now I’m just really busy at work, and my 1-year old is teething and thus not sleeping at night – so the past weeks haven’t been so ocean-intense. But even on a hard week I usually get 6-7 hours in the water. On a more balanced week, I try to do 12h, and in a week where things are really lining up with swell and conditions, it can easily reach 3h per day.
What’s your favourite activity when you’re in the ocean? What if you had to choose one going forward – what would that be?
That’s a very hard question to answer, I hope it’s a choice I’ll never have to make, because it all depends on the conditions.
What if you could choose one set of conditions?
If I could choose conditions, I’d have one day that is good for surfing, one day that’s good for kite surfing, one day that’s good for foiling, and a day that’s good for fishing – I’d just rotate them all the time! I really do enjoy all elements of being in the ocean and it’s very hard for me to pick one specific one.
“But if you’d really force me to make a choice, the 1st thing that would come to mind right now, that’s spearfishing. I look at the weather forecast, and I find myself hoping that’s it’s good for fishing.”
James on becoming the James Taylor who surfs big waves
So, it’s very obvious that you’re passionate about the oceans – what’s the story behind that? How did you become ‘the James Taylor’ that you are now?
I actually don’t know. My mother has told me that since I was little, you couldn’t stop me from running into the water.
We never lived by the ocean while I was growing up, but my grandparents lived in Cape Town, so every holiday we would come down here and from my earliest memories, whenever we were here, I just wanted to go into the water. My parents weren’t going to spend money on wetsuits. They thought ‘ah this is just another thing he wants to do’. So I would swim in super cold water, with my bodyboard, and wear clothes to try and stay warm.
And that was just during a holiday, right? How far away from the ocean did you grow up?
All kinds of different locations, always in the country and never near the ocean. My father worked in the mines, but every June/July holiday we’d come to Cape Town, and during April we’d go to Durban. At some point a friend of mine lent me his surfboard. I’ve still got a picture of one of the 1 st waves I caught. I’m wearing short pants and a t-shirt, and it’s that big foam single-fin board, catching a little wave in Melkbos. Lips sunburnt to pieces.
And then I also used to swim a lot competitively, I just loved being in the water. But I learnt to surf in Melkbos, caught my 1st wave when I was around 12.
The move towards surfing bigger waves came about ironically because I didn’t grow up by the ocean. I never became good at doing aerials or small wave surfing. When you have to compete with all these people that are way better than you, you get fed up. So, I just went to other places where there was no one. And usually, these places are perceived as a bit scarier, for example at a reef behind the kelp. And everybody would say that there are sharks there, and I’d just say that can’t be, there are no sharks in cold water.
“My mother used to tell me there aren’t sharks in cold water.”
Wait – you really believed that there are no sharks in cold water?
Yes, my mother used to tell me that there aren’t sharks in cold water – so I blissfully went through a good part of my life believing that. It all made sense – after all there were shark nets in Durban, but not in Cape Town. And when I found out that there are sharks in cold water, I believed that they don’t eat people in cold water – that only happens in warm water.
Anyway, I started to venture more and more to remote places where I wouldn’t have to compete for waves, and we started to look for more challenging and bigger waves.
Share some key moments/experiences with us during that ocean journey that shaped you as a person?
When I finished school, I said that’s it – I’m not leaving the oceans anymore. So, I studied in Stellenbosch. By that time, I hadn’t surfed any proper big waves, and I remember a Zigzag coming out with a picture of Cass Collier surfing Crayfish factory – I looked at that and thought “That’s in Cape Town!? I have to surf that!”. So seeing that picture was a key moment – I didn’t even know up to that point that there were waves like that in South Africa.
Shortly afterwards I drove to Kommetjie, and Pierre de Villiers had a little surf shop there, where he sold his boards. I told him about the picture and that I wanted to surf this wave – and he gave me invaluable advice about what board I should use and took me along to the factory the same day. I couldn’t believe my luck! So we paddled out to Crayfish factory, and it felt like a dream come true – that’s exactly where I wanted to be.
Pierre became my big-wave idol, and he showed me sunsets and the other waves out there. So, meeting Pierre was definitely a big moment towards big wave surfing – especially Pierre telling me that I need to get a bigger board to get into these waves.
One of James’ first waves in Meklbosstrand on a friend’s styrofoam board.
How did breaking your back influence you?
In the 30 years I’ve been surfing I’ve broken many things – but breaking my back surfing Dunes was indeed a bummer. I was out for 6 months, and only properly recovered after a year. It took a year of proper surfing away from me, and in the 2nd half of that year I was a bit more hesitant – so it was a bit of a mental thing. But it didn’t really impact me long-term, never made me question if I wanted to continue
surfing or not. After that year I didn’t think about it too much.
How did you remain mentally balanced during the time that you were bed-bound?
I was flat on my back for 6 weeks straight, I couldn’t even move. I would definitely get a bit frustrated every now and then, but it wasn’t like I had options – it would have been way worse if I had felt fine, but somebody would have told me that I can’t go yet. Once I could get back in the water, I would feel a bit stiff and wanted to get back to where I was before, but once again, there wasn’t much of an option. I just had to give it time.
“And I celebrated the little things – the first time I could sleep on my stomach was huge for me and tried to focus on the little steps and celebrate those.”
And what about the big wipe-out at Jaws? Was there any moment where you thought “If I get out alive, I’ll stop”? Making a deal with the higher powers?
No – nothing ever happened to me in the oceans that made me want to stop surfing big waves. But I did feel invincible for a long time in my life and didn’t fully understand the consequences of what a wave can do to you. I was never worried about wiping out and would look at it as kind of temporary discomfort.
And then I went to Mavericks for the 1st time, and it was a serious day. I saw the guys wiping out there and thought to myself: “You can die here, you’ve got to be careful. There are consequences here.”
Back to that wave at Jaws: It was unfortunate – I hit the water with my ear, and I burst my eardrums. That meant completely losing any sense of orientation. You don’t know what’s up and down, left or right. It’s a horrible feeling. Usually, the only way to breathe is to find your leash, pull yourself up to the board and then put your head on the board – so that you can breathe. The worst-case scenario was always the combination of burst eardrums, snapped leash and no flotation.
In Cape Town the wetsuit will always bring you up, even if it might take a while. Even big waves usually don’t break in water deeper than 10 -12m, so you’ll come up. But with no wetsuit on, you sink. So, that day at Jaws, that worst case scenario happened; I burst my eardrums, my flotation vest popped, and my leash snapped. When I realized that I started panicking a bit – but I could feel that I was slowly floating back towards the surface, even though as I was getting up another wave hit, and by that time I started worrying about my breath. But I came up eventually, got half a breath as the next wave came which pushed me down again. At that time I started feeling symptoms of blacking out (euphoria etc.), which I knew from training. So I knew I was getting close to a blackout.
“I wasn’t worrying about dying because I was still floating a bit. However, I didn’t want to be ‘the guy who blacked out at Jaws.”
And then luckily, the next time my head popped up my friend on the surf ski was right next to me and grabbed me.
Have you ever been in a situation where other people went into the water, and you didn’t?
No, that’s never happened.
Great! Let’s chat about Oceaneers. Why did you agree to be the 1st Oceaneers ambassador?
I think it’s a great opportunity to encourage people to make a change that’s good for all of us, and for creating awareness. And I’m confident that the way you guys are approaching this is going to be very impactful.
It’s important to set realistic goals and make people feel good about small changes, instead of going down the blame and guilt road. Making people aware of the facts and the daily actions they can take is powerful.
It’s a great cause to be a part of, and it makes me feel good each time I make a small choice to help the cause a little. And that, in turn, makes me want to do even more. It’s a bit selfish, it should obviously be for the Earth and the greater good, but it also helps if it makes me feel good about doing something.
Can you chat a bit about the sense of empowerment you get from consciously choosing this lifestyle?
Yes, each day I can make a choice 3 times toward what I believe in by eating and buying foods that align with this belief of sustainability. So, we can vote with our money.
“My choices by themselves aren’t going to have a massive impact, but there’s power in numbers. If we manage to convince millions to make more conscious food choices, all of a sudden, we’re a force and we’re going to have a big impact.”
And I love to be a part of something that has a big positive impact! So well done for creating Oceaneers, and for the time and effort you’ve put into this! Thank you for letting me be a part of it, I appreciate it!
Great to have you on board! So, what do you eat on a normal day, obviously including ocean-time?
Usually, I eat some porridge with honey in the morning. And then for lunch, I often eat a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich or a vegetable soup. For dinner I get lucky because my wife is a fantastic cook – we’ll have some kind of vegetarian meal 3-4 nights a week and the remaining days we might have some mince from an Impala I’ve shot or some wild-caught fish. So about half of the days, we eat vegetarian, and the other half meat from animals I’ve hunted.
I try to avoid factory-farmed meat as much as possible – but if we’re invited to a braai, we usually eat that meat as well.
Why did you decide to start the journey of reducing animal products from sources you don’t know? What was your initial motivation behind it?
What got me thinking about the whole thing was a movie called “Earthlings”.
Broadly speaking, I see 3 reasons to reduce:
1.Protecting our environment
2. Animal ethics.
That movie triggered the ethical side. It didn’t seem fair that other living things would have such a horrible life, just so that I could enjoy something. So I became vegetarian but started eating meat again after a week – my justification was that in South Africa, conditions weren’t as bad as in the US. My dad farmed cattle for a while, and I knew that it was not as bad as over there.
But then I became aware of the environmental impact of livestock farming, especially the greenhouse gas emissions, and I thought to myself “this just makes sense”. I wanted to do my part, and so decided to ditch factory-farmed animal products.
Finally, I started looking into the health aspect of it, such as the extremely high use of antibiotics used to keep animals from getting sick because they’re in these terrible environments. So that became an additional reason to stay on that journey.
By now, I look at factory-farmed meat and have absolutely zero desire to eat it – it’s not even an effort anymore, knowing how that meat is produced.
Tell us more about the hunting you do
I know that a lot of people are vegetarians because they don’t want to kill animals. I respect that, but that’s not my path – I hunt.
“Everything in nature dies, and when I die you can feed me to the crayfish, I really want that. I actually told me family that they should just leave me there at the beach – they’re not thrilled by the idea though. But that’s how life works – I eat crayfish, and when I die they should eat me!”
Or I might be surfing and a shark eats me, that’s just part of it!
When I go and hunt, that animal has had a good life, and the next moment it’s over. The alternative is a slow, painful and often – in the wild – quite a cruel death. If you’ve ever seen predators eat something – it’s horrible. It’s a long, drawn-out and agonizing death. Even as humans, we’re at a stage now where most of us are dying a slow and drawn-out death. I’d rather have a shark eat me and then it’s over.
So I don’t have a problem with hunting if you eat the meat – however, trophy hunting doesn’t sit well with me.
What makes you so passionate about spear-fishing?
Fishing gets very exciting. The fish I’m after is yellow-tail – they’re on the Sassi Green List which means it’s sustainable to fish them. They’re hard to catch and not always around, so conditions need to be right and you need the right skills. You can freeze them and eat them half a year later, they don’t go bad. And they taste fantastic – so I really like that fish!
When the conditions are right and they’re around, the birds usually show where they are. But once you found them they’re not just giving up – you’ve got to catch them, and that’s hard. I’ve had entire days where I wouldn’t catch a single one. So you never know – it’s very very exciting.
Back to industrial livestock farming and large-scale fishing – how many people in your circles are aware of the impact that these industries are having on the living planet?
I suppose it’s quite representative of the overall population: Some of my surfing friends are aware and are making conscious choices, some are aware and haven’t changed their behaviour yet, and some just don’t want to know about it. I think that in general, people who are spending more time in the wild are a bit more aware though.
How do you feel about the distinction our current system makes between livestock animals, pets and wild animals?
You know, every year they cull dolphins in Japan and there’s a massive outcry – and I don’t like it either. But where’s the same outcry for the cows and the chickens? Nobody is doing that! And they’re just as sentient as dolphins.
“I’ve walked around cattle – they’re super cool! The more you spend time with animals, the more you understand that they should be treated with dignity as well!”
I think everybody who is eating meat needs to realize that an animal has to be killed for that. Cause it’s not nice to see an animal die. And that brings me back to my initial point: I don’t have a problem with eating meat in general.
What’s crucial though is how that animal was treated while it was alive and how it died.
What’s your recommendation to somebody who wants to reduce consumption of animal products, and stay strong?
There’s no doubt that you can stay strong on a purely plant-based diet, that’s been proven by many people. If you still want meat, make sure it’s game meat – for example, there’s a butcher now around our corner who serves that. If you look a bit harder, you can find it anywhere! Just make sure that these animals had a good life.
I actually don’t miss the taste of beef and bacon anymore – I don’t want that anymore. So my recommendation is to replace the factory-farmed meat with game meat, it’s not so hard to find!
But you can also become pure vegetarian – that’s not going to affect your health negatively.
How do you feel about dairy products, such as milk, egg and cheese?
I used to drink a lot of milk, but I don’t anymore – now I use almond milk. One of my dad’s good friends had a dairy farm, and not all of them are as bad as what they show in Earthlings. So if you want to keep on drinking milk, make sure that you get it from a good supplier.
I do eat eggs every now and then, and I try to get free-range – even though I know that the ‘free-range’- label can be deceiving. I’m also trying to find suppliers which are treating their chickens well.
Favourite post-surf beverage?
It’s very nice drinking beer after a surf!
If for some reason you couldn’t live in South Africa – what would be your next choice?
Probably Hawaii – it’s also a tough call, because I can’t imagine myself living anywhere else but South Africa. But Hawaii is just a really cool place, not just because of the waves, there’s also great vibes and people.
Last question: What’s your recommendation for us as we’re launching Oceaneers, given your entrepreneurial background?
Your focus should be on inclusion, and the use of positive messaging. Pressure/guilt can change behavior in the short-term, but it’s usually less sustainable. We also need to recognize that different people have different histories, social environments etc. – embarking on that journey is not the same for everybody. That’s why I like small achievable tasks, for example, Meat-free Monday. Once you do that,
you realize that it’s not all that hard, and then maybe you have elk instead of beef on Tuesdays. And so on.
Thanks so much for the catch-up James! We look forward to having you on this journey of awareness and change with us!
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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