Kyle Thiermann: Surfing for Change

By Dave Soref

Few things conjure up more idyllic images of paradise than tanned surfers riding tropical waves all day long under a bright sun and making it look easy. But for one professional surfer, enjoying the beach, pocketing the paycheck, and moving on to the next contest was not good enough.


Kyle Thiermann began surfing professionally as a teenager growing up in the wave-riding mecca of Santa Cruz, California. He first started paddling out into the Pacific at age eleven. “I’m the youngest of five and all my older brothers and sisters surfed, so I just kind of naturally gravitated to that,” Thiermann explains. “We also grew up with a half-pipe in our backyard, so even before I started surfing I was really into skating. It was something that all my friends and siblings did.”

Five years later, Thiermann was surfing competitively and traveling internationally. But unlike the stereotypical surfer-dude who remains blissfully unconcerned with the plight of the world around him, Thiermann has a natural curiosity that compels him to see what’s behind the postcard views of the areas he visits.

“The experience of travel has taught me that you can go to a beautiful place like Hawaii, which at first look is just a tropical utopia, but as soon as you take a side street off the main tourist strip you will understand that they are facing some really big issues, like being ground zero for GMO companies’ testing and development worldwide, and that they have an excessive amount of pesticides and chemicals being sprayed right near residential areas,” Thiermann relates.

“Opening my eyes to that also opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of the food that was being tested in Hawaii was most likely going to be exported out to California, where it would be fed to a cow that would be in my next Happy Meal or something. I realized I was directly part of that food system whether I chose to believe it or not.”

In order to get the message out to a wider audience about the environmental depredations he was witnessing, and to inspire people to get involved, Thiermann started Surfing for Change, which is the name of his website, YouTube channel, documentary film series, and also his philosophy.

His philosophy? That’s right. In addition to its waves, the city of Santa Cruz is known as a hub of environmental activism, thanks largely to its University of California campus, which is at the forefront of all sorts of progressive causes. In common parlance, UC Santa Cruz is what is called a hippy school (it did not start issuing letter grades until the 1990s, and its sports teams’ mascot is the Banana Slug).

“Growing up around all that activism definitely shaped my philosophy, but probably not in the way you’d think,” Thiermann discloses. “I found that a lot of activists within Santa Cruz were much more problem based rather than solution based. I kind of identified ‘activist’ as being a type of person who is pretty angry and really good at talking about the problems of the world, but doesn’t have a ton of solutions and doesn’t frame arguments in an attractive way.

“So when I started doing the Surfing for Change series, I made a strong point of having the documentaries be solution based and shine the light on people or organizations that are in the trenches doing really important work; because I think it’s essential, especially for people my age, to know that there are folks working on these issues and that not all hope is lost.”

Surfing for Change’s main project right now is a documentary short called Pro Surfers vs. GMOs, which goes on location to a surf contest on the north shore of Oahu to explain what GMOs are and to detail how multinational corporations are currently using Oahu as a GMO testing ground. Among the Oahu locals Thiermann interviews is Dustin Barca, a professional surfer, mixed martial arts fighter, and environmental activist who is leading the island’s protests against GMOs.

Pro Surfers vs. GMOs informs us that Hawaii’s lax regulations allow GMO companies to test chemicals in the Aloha State that would not be allowed elsewhere. The video documents a grassroots protest in which several pro surfers participate, including Kelly Slater, who is usually described as the greatest professional surfer in the history of the sport. “I think that a lot of athletes have really important things to say, but most of the time they don’t get interviewed about their positions on topics like GMO,” Thiermann points out. “I would like to give them that chance.

“Growing up in Santa Cruz shaped me to want to rebrand activism in a way that wasn’t so doom and gloom,” the twenty-four-year-old continues. “In Pro Surfers vs. GMOs we really showed the scope of the issue, but then moved forward toward fun and solutions. I’m a big believer in the idea that whatever it is you are most passionate about, you can be the most effective role changer possible by using that and combining it with what you love and putting it toward something bigger than yourself. I love surfing and I love traveling, so it made sense for me to combine them.”

Like surfing and traveling, filmmaking is also something in Thiermann’s blood. Both his parents are documentary filmmakers. “My mom produced Thrive and my dad was nominated for an Academy Award back in the eighties for a documentary called In the Nuclear Shadow.

“I don’t do a lot of competitive surfing these days like I did when I was in my teens, but I still surf professionally as a ‘free surfer’—meaning my sponsors support me making these movies and going on photo trips, which is great,” Thiermann says, adding, “I’m currently touring with the film around to different universities, trying to show it to as many students as possible. It is also on YouTube, and we have an active campaign on the Surfing for Change website with a bunch of really simple tools for people to get involved with the movement for Hawaii or to learn more about GMOs in general.”

As for Thiermann’s goals with Surfing for Change, he says, “At this point we are just working to get this film out to more distribution outlets—ideally a big network that we might partner with so that we can start getting our films out, instead of to hundreds and thousands of people, to millions of people.”

To find out more about Kyle Thiermann and Surfing for Change, visit www.surfingforchange.com