South African surfing legend, Shaun Tomson, shares what it takes to create a positive wave of change, with Ocean Pledge

Ocean Pledge

The insurmountable loss of what was then their only child, Mathew, could have been the end of many things, understandably so. Yet, Shaun Tomson, South Africa’s surfing legend and previous World Champion title holder has transformed this major adversity into a turning point for positive change and one that has enabled hundreds and thousands of people to make a positive change in their own lives too.

On a recent 2017 visit to his homeland, Shaun Tomson created a local groundswell of positive change. Using the ‘Code’,  a simple process he devised which uses surfing as a metaphor for life, Tomson addressed over 24 schools and more than 30 000 students to spread his positive message. Whether the students were from Ohlange in Inanda, Hilton or Micheal House, whether these kids had seen the ocean in their lifetimes or not, the premise remains the same: “Transformation of any kind always starts from within, and the first step to impacting change starts with commitment, just ‘like catching that next wave'”.

Having  flipped such a life-shattering hurdle into something so positive, Ocean Pledge speaks to Shaun Tomson about paradigm shifts and the possibility for humanity to overcome an issue as vast as ocean plastic. And this is what he had to say:

Ocean Pledge: What does the ocean mean to you?

Shaun Tomson: There are many layers of what surfing means to me and how it applies to my life. For one, it’s the feeling of freedom as you paddle out toward the horizon, toward that next wave. It represents hope, it represents freedom, it represents leaving the world behind and entering this special space of solitude. So that is one aspect. The aspect of freeing my spirit and soul. Then as an athlete, there is the aspect of pushing one’s limits. And thirdly, there is also the humility aspect. The ocean keeps you very humble and it keeps you empathetic. Because when you are out there in the ocean you are surrounded by a community of other surfers who want that same experience. Everyone wants that next wave. So you need to keep humble and you need to realise that all surfers are joined by that one ocean.

“Surfing gives me a sense of connectedness and rootedness. Even though I am floating on a surface, it roots me to a solid place”

Ocean Pledge: How did surfing begin for you?

Shaun Tomson: I started surfing when I was 8 years old. The beach was our lives from when we were born. It formed part of my earliest memories, with my mom taking me to the beach and my dad teaching me how to swim. The whole thing was a very organic -body surfing, rubber lilo’s, boogie boards. It was just a natural progression for me – on the beach, learning how to swim…until I stood up on my board for the first time.

Ocean Pledge: In what capacity have you been able to give back to the ocean?

Shaun Tomson: I am a member of many environmental groups. I was the first pro surfer to be a member of Surfrider Foundation back when it formed in 1984. I’ve been on the board numerous times and president of the advisory board. Surfrider (Foundation) is very dear to me. I’ve been involved in this environmental movement long before it was fashionable. To me, it was always was part of my spirit – part of my responsibility. I made a life and a career out of surfing, so I have always felt it was part of my responsibility, to give back. That is why i got involved with Surf Rider Foundation. i also decided to build a connection to children. I speak to 100 000’s students every year about the fundamental lessons that the surfing can teach you about life. I was on the board of directors for the Boys and Girls club which is the biggest youth empowerment group in the US, we serve about 4 million students every year.

“For some surfers, the ocean is all about a take, take, take. But a lot of surfers realise that if you give as well, the taking is even more special”. 

I think my biggest contribution to the ocean or surfing is the spiritual aspect of surfing that I describe in Surfers Code, a book about the lessons that surfing can teach you about life. It’s about making a commitment towards creating a positive future for yourself. In the context of surfing and using the ocean as a metaphor. Through this I encourage the kids to write their own code which consists of 12 lines of commitment, starting with ‘I Will…’. These are promises you make to yourself. And like in surfing, these promises commit you to the next wave. Many people are seeking transformation in their lives so I give them a little tool but actually, the work starts with themselves.

The code is a simple strategy for confronting everyday challenges and making positive, life-changing decisions.

Surfing is transformative. People love surfing. There is an emotional connection to the ocean for all of us. Even if you are not involved in the sea, the sea represents freedom and a place that can never be controlled. The transformative power of the surfing metaphor is so powerful and so fundamental, they just get it at the deep core of their existence. And this applies to many kids who have not even seen the ocean lives.

Ocean Pledge: What do you think creates a paradigm shift in human perceptions toward plastic and toward the health of the oceans?

Shaun Tomson: Paradigm shifts are generated by one thing: personal commitments. And the collectivisation of all those individualised personal commitments ultimately results in what you could call a paradigm shift. And the ultimate goal is to create a positive wave that rolls around the world.

“It’s about making a commitment towards creating a positive future for yourself”.

I think surfers have so much knowledge and they have a deep connection to the ocean. Sometimes you need some moments of critical introspection, literally and metaphorically, to just look beneath the surface. Such introspection can lead to inspiration and inspiration can lead to commitment and commitment can lead to behavioural change and behavioural change can lead to a paradigm shift! It’s just a simple process really, but it’s all built around that personal commitment. If you want to make a change in your life, it takes 30 minutes; 12 lines; every line begins with ‘I will”. Write your code, share your code, and activate your code!

And so it is that Ocean Pledge started gathering individual pledges to the ocean, because like Shaun Tomson, we also believe that if everybody were to commit to a single positive change in behaviour toward ocean preservation in their own lives, then together, like drops in the ocean, the individualised actions “turn into ripples, ripples turn into waves, and waves creates ‘the groundswell’ of change that keeps rolling around the world”. And so, through our personal commitments, we work together to turn the tide on plastic pollution for good.

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