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Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Updated: February 24, 12:37 PM ET
Unmasking the Eco Warrior

For James Pribram, it's time to take the water you're surfing in a lot more serious.

Writing a check to the Surfrider Foundation and putting a "member" sticker on your car is one thing. Noble as it may be, risking life and limb to protect and save our oceans and beaches takes a bit more commitment. Meet Laguna Beach's James Pribram, aka "the Eco Warrior." From legalizing surfing in the Windy City to protesting Chilean pulp mills to paddling through BP's muck in the Gulf, Pribram takes pride in putting himself on the front lines of some of surfing's more serious environmental disasters. ESPN Surfing caught up with him recently to get a little more background on the man known as the Eco Warrior.

Politically, morally or otherwise, what is your stance on the environment? 
People need to get realistic about cleaning up the environment and our individual roles. I am trying to demonstrate that each of us can be Eco Warriors if we decide to make a difference in our own backyards. In addition to local Laguna Beach projects, I travel the world to help shine a spotlight on local challenges that folks are fighting in their own backyards. We can't just keep pissing in our playgrounds. For some kids the ocean is their only path to a normal and healthy life when they don't have the resources to be involved in after school programs and or sporting programs.

When not off saving the world's oceans you may find Pribram shredding at home in Laguna.

What do you do for a living? 
I travel around the world as a professional waterman/spokesperson bringing awareness to environmental threats such as ocean pollution, over development, and in the case of the Windy City, I helped the locals get surfing legalized. It's important that we keep a good balance in finding better solutions and compromise in these problems that plauge our oceans and beaches.

Where did the passion come from? 
My passion comes from growing up on the beach in Laguna and having my older brother John teaching me how to surf at age six, from that moment on surfing has always been the one constant in my life. Then sadly enough, I was teaching a surfing lesson in Aug. of 1997 and contacted MRSA [a strain of Staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria that can cause serious infection when entering the body through a cut, sore, or body passage] from the polluted water at Dohney. That was really the tipping point for the person the media likes to call the "Eco Warrior." The doctors that day said had I not come into the emergency room that I would have likely died within eight hours. That was a huge wake-up call for me on a personal level. Because of it I now I dedicate my life to giving back to the our beaches and oceans.


When did you officially become "the Eco Warrior" -- and does that come with a costume or any superhuman talents?
The Eco Warrior project was started as a collaboration between Op and the Surfer's Path magazine. I was hand picked to travel around the world to report and write feature stories about environmental threats around the world. I was already heavily involved in environmentalism as a spokesperson and a participant. It wasn't until a photograph of me walking in the south of Chile participating in a protest march for the Rio Itata holding a white cross with thousands of Chileans marching behind me that Surfer magazine's Scott Bass dubbed me the "Eco Warrior." The moniker stuck and people really started to take notice of what I was doing. The only costume I wear is my heart on my sleeve. I'm just one of tens of thousands who care about our environment, beaches and oceans. In all honesty I really don't like being called the "Eco Warrior," but if it helps my cause, which it does, then so be it. I can live with that burden.

Saving the surf in sweet home Chicago.

Can you talk about causes you've dedicated yourself to in recent years? 
Well, my first trip as part of the Eco Warrior project was back in the south of Chile and the march for the Rio Itata River. There was a pulp mill there pumping chlorinated water into the river. Another heavy one was in Taiji, Japan, where they kill thousands of small whales each year. It was featured in the documentary movie "The Cove," not many people know that I was involved and one of the first surfers to paddle out into the notorious "Killing Cove." That was by far the scariest environmental action I have been involved in. Getting surfing legalized in Chicago was a great victory for the locals there who really did all of the heavy lifting. The Gulf of Mexico fiasco last summer was just mind numbing and sad, just wtnessing the destruction of the coast. The recent South Atlantic voyage was a strong and personal lesson in life itself. I went through a lot on that voyage. Lost and gained a new perspective on life and people. Truly sad to see floating plastic debris out in the middle of the ocean amongst the most stunningly beautiful colored cobalt blue ocean. Hard to imagine, but it's true, not to mention all of the confetti pieces and other plastic litter scattered just below the oceans surface.

Chicago, you legalized surfing in the Windy City? 
I really just helped the likes of Jack Flynn, who was actually arrested for surfing there and spent the night in jail. Along with Todd Haugh, Mike Killion, Vince Deur amongst a host of others. It was really baffling to me that in this day and age in the United States of America that something like surfing was illegal. But is so goes to show you when you show respect to the other side more often than not they are willing to listen and listen they did. The City of Chicago along with the city parks district were instrumental in getting the ban lifted and truly great to work with. That was a great for everyone both sides included and that's what it all about it. In finding better solutions and compromise in today's growing world.

And your Gulf response, what your experience?
It was truly heart breaking visiting 'Grand Isle' which should be renamed 'Grand Oil' with all of the oil boom that ran horizontally along the beach for as for as one could see. The oil wells that littered the ocean in every direction you looked. The smell of oil that was just choking the breath out of you. It was like the twilight zone but sadly it was reality for so many who lost their jobs and a way of life. Heart breaking for everyone and our environment as well. 

How has all that changed you? Are you more motivated because of what you've seen?
It's a lonely life sometimes, and I've grown a lot as a person. I've been called names, threatened, questioned, but it has made me a stronger person with a clear vision of the person I am today. I lost a lot of friends growing up; to drugs, prison, death, but surfing was always been my savior, and perhaps more importantly, the beach itself. It has always been the one constant path in my life. It has taught me about life, love, desire, dedication and respect. I owe my life to it, not to say I'm willing to give it, but I have thought about it and that's a scary feeling. I'm not sure I could be anymore motivated?

Pribram, keeping the beach clean one piece of trash at a time.

Most recently you sailed across the Atlantic in search of a trash island, how'd that come about and what exactly were you doing? 
We sailed from Brazil to South Africa to document the South Atlantic Gyre which had never been seen before by the human eye. For ten days I was waiting for this huge plastic trash island and until I finally asked when we would see it and to my bafflement I was told it didn't exist. I felt embarrassed but that's why you have to go out and investigate these claims to make sure there real or not or as bad as claimed? In this case it was worse. Because of the small confetti sized pieces of plastic that are scattered below the oceans surface for miles in the middle of the ocean it makes a clean up almost impossible? Where as if were a big trash island perhaps one could find away of scooping up all of the trash?

What was the goal or objective? 
To be the first to witness it firsthand, document it and bring back all of the samples from the trawls that were set out to study. Perhaps through this course of action we can find a solution, one way is stop using everyday plastic thro- away's like water bottles.

You mentioned you almost fell off the boat while in the middle of the ocean, where is that line for you, how far are you willing to push your eco battle? 
I'm not sure? I would never say that I am willing to give my life, but I think I have certainly put myself in circumstances where something awful could have happened. I think I have demonstrated that I am willing to go pretty far for the cause. 

Lessons learned from all of this?
That's there always two sides to a coin. You have to show respect to both sides and not get emotionally caught up in these environmental battles. Stay calm, level headed and keep exploring better solutions and compromise it's pretty much just the same as I try to live my life.