Paddling from Trestles to Tijuana

Shannon Switzer at the Tijuana Rivermouth Marine Protected Area at the end of the paddle.

One of the most important tools for evaluating the state of our coast, is to carry out a transect from top to bottom. Two San Diego County coastal advocates and surfers, Shannon Switzer and Kristian Anders Gustavson, recently organized and led a seven day padding expedition from Trestles to Tijuana to get a better sense of the challenges we face in protecting our greatest natural resource.

Shannon, 28, is a National Geographic Young Explorer and 2012 Freshwater Hero.

Kristian, 27, is the Director of Research & Explorations for Below the Surface, was named one of Outside Magazine’s Chief Inspiration Officers for 2012 and ‘Hero of the Heartland’ from the American Red Cross.

I caught up with them last week as they finished their paddle in Imperial Beach just north of the new Tijuana River Mouth Marine Protected Area.

Patch: You recently paddled from Trestles to the U.S.-Mexico border. What was the purpose of the paddle?

Kristian Anders Gustavson: This paddle was the first annual event to celebrate the anniversary of Below to Surface, which was founded in the summer of 2008. Trestles to TJ was meant to draw attention to the impact of riverine water pollution on the coastline, and is the official launch of the Riverview Mobile App which is part of Below the Surface’s Riverview Project, or “Google’s Streetview for Rivers.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has worked closely with Below the Surface to develop the Riverview Mobile App, particularly to include information about the health of waterways for spurring grassroots stewardship of our rivers, lakes and coastal waters.

Shannon Switzer: I envisioned this paddle as an up close and personal way to see our coast in one connected piece, rather than in snippets, which is how I usually view it. I wanted to show the San Diego community that this connectivity means all of our actions, both on land and at sea, have a direct impact on the coastline and motivate people to do their part in caring for the beaches we all love and enjoy.

Patch: What were your favorite parts of the paddle and coastline?

Shannon and Kristian: Paddling along Camp Pendleton was a treat. So was paddling Sunset Cliffs, through the kelp forests just offshore, and coming around Point Loma to see downtown San Diego and the Coronado Bridge along the horizon. That was pretty epic.

Patch: Why was it necessary to highlight the conditions of our coast above and below surface?

Shannon and Kristian: Everything in the environment is linked together, and an action like dumping old household cleaning supplies down the drain at home can have a negative impact on both people and wildlife in the ocean. Because of our unique location on the coast, we have a responsibility to be aware of these connections and to modify our behavior accordingly. 

Patch: How many people participated in the Paddle at the start, how many finished and what were the unique challenges that you faced logistically and paddle wise?

Shannon and Kristian: The first day we began with about 15 paddlers, by the end of the week we had about eight. This was because we started on the weekend, when more people were available, and then continued through the work week. Also, our first day was our longest at 20 miles, which I think weeded out a few paddlers. Logistically it was tricky getting all the boards and paddlers together in the right place each day.

15 paddlers from a variety of organizations including Below the Surface, the SUP Spot, the Mission Continues, National Geographic Young Explorers, the Eco Warrior Project, SUP Core, Expedition 1000, Red I Nation, Namaste SUP and endurance athlete Ryan Levinson came coming together for this inaugural event.

Patch: Were any parts of the coastline distressing in terms of pollution and or other human impacts?

Shannon and Kristian: We were happily surprised with the condition of our coastline. The most heartbreaking thing to me was all of the trash in the water. Every hundred yards or so we would find plastic shopping bags, water bottles, balloons, etc. It is frustrating to see something that is so easily prevented. The only specific stretch of coastline that was distressing was at the sewage outfall near Point Loma.

Patch: What were some of the wildlife species that your team spotted. Were you surprised to see so many animals off of our coast?

Shannon and Kristian: We saw heaps of wildlife: seals, sea lions, porpoises, bottle nose dolphins, a shark or two, garibaldi, tons of jellyfish, marine birds. We weren’t surprised by the number of species we encountered, because we see a lot of this marine life while surfing, but it’s always a thrill when wildlife pays a visit. The average visitor or tourist may be surprised to see how truly wild it is off San Diego’s shores.

Patch: From the vantage point just offshore, does it seem to make the problems that we face coast-wise less challenging or more challenging?

Shannon and Kristian: Seeing the immensity of the coastline from offshore on a little board definitely puts things into perspective. It didn’t make coastal problems seem more or less challenging, but rather confirmed the need to continue moving forward with policies and personal practices that will benefit our coast and the San Diego community too.  

Serge Dedina is executive director of WiLDCOAST, an international conservation team that conserves coastal and marine ecosystems and the author of Wild Sea.