Big-wave surfer rides giant waves to save coral

Durkan at Jaws. Photo by Fred Pompermayer
Durkan at Jaws. Photo: Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer
“This year’s significant El Nino episode will lead to larger swells, but also an increase in coral bleaching, so I put the two and two together,” Maui big-wave surfer and environmentalist Torsten Durkan told GrindTV.

“I’ve started a project called Surfing Be Cause to raise money for coral research by having people donate on a per foot basis for the biggest wave I catch this season.”

All monies raised by the 24-year-old will go to the marine programs ran by Dr. Ruth Gates at the University of Hawaii Foundation.

Durkan explains that the stronger El Niño episodes lead to warmer ocean temperatures and a more acidic environment in Pacific waters, which are deadly to coral.

Torsten in Nazare in December. Photo by WSL / Helio Antonio
Durkan in Nazare in December. Photo: Courtesy of Helio Antonio/World Surf League
“In 1998, the last comparable El Nino season, the coral reefs of the Pacific were decimated,” he says.

With Durkan having already ridden enormous waves at Nazare and Jaws this season, he is quick to make sure donators are aware of the potential outlay.

“Somebody recently pledged 10 dollars per foot,” says Durkan. “I was like, ‘You do know the waves I am surfing? It’s Jaws, not Huntington, so if I ride a 40-foot wave, you are up for 400 bucks.’”

Durkan moved to Maui, Hawaii, with his family from Pittsburgh when he was nine, but didn’t develop a love for the ocean until he was in the 8th grade after he started kite surfing.

It is most probably surfing his homebreak of Jaws that Torsten will raise the most money.
It is most likely that surfing his home break at Jaws is where Torsten will raise the most money.
Durkan started surfing soon after, but it was a move to Oahu, Hawaii, for college when he studied biology and psychology at the University of Hawaii, that ignited his passion for big waves.

“In my freshman year my friends and I were tired of dealing with the crowds on the North Shore and it looked liked the outer reefs were pretty empty,” says Durkan. “So we got some big boards and starting surfing the outer reefs. That’s where I gained my first experience in big waves.”

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At college, Durkan also became involved in a range of environmental projects and worked with a research lab investigating native and invasive terrestrial snails.

“Sexy stuff, huh?” laughs Durkan, “but those little buggers are pretty important and I spent a great three years traveling and camping all over the Hawaiian Islands.”

After graduating, he moved back to Maui where he now works with the Pacific Whale Foundation, leading education and reef tours to tourists, as well as teaching kids in schools about the ocean.

Durkan is a Maui waterman and most at home in the ocean. Photo by Cody Lang
Durkan is a Maui waterman and most at home in the ocean. Photo: Courtesy of Cody Lang
With Jaws only a ten-minute drive away from his house and having grown up with big-wave stars like Albee Layer, he also started paddling the infamous big-wave spot upon his return. Not being sponsored, though, Durkan was looking for added motivation.

“I’m not a professional and I’m not making any money, so I wanted to make my surfing a little more meaningful,” he says. “This project is about giving back, especially to the community and the environment that nurtured me. And hopefully it will motivate me to catch bigger waves.”