Eco-warrior battles Uluwatu pollution

Rachel Tanner

Due to pollution, surfers visiting Bali, Indonesia have experienced an upswing in infections, including Dengue fever.

Eco-warrior James Pribram is on a mission to tackle a pollution nemesis, but the warrior will go armed with antibiotics.

Once upon a time, Uluwatu, a legendary spot for surf in Bali, Indonesia, was pristine. Now, restaurants on the cliff over the waves drain raw sewage and oil directly into the sea. Tourists and residents overwhelm the little town's infrastructure with waste like food scraps, excrement and garbage.

Infections and Dengue fever are common. Local surf advocates enlisted the help of surfer and eco-warrior James Pribram to help. Pribram will answer the call of duty Oct. 18, when he lands in Uluwatu.

The entrance to Uluwatu is guarded by massive caves that loom over surfers. Beyond the cave are five wave breaks, with names like Racetrack and Bombie that create the beloved Uluwatu surf spot which seems designed for surfers. The waves roll in long tubes -- smooth, predictable and fast because of the reef formation and wave patterns. The warm, clear water and waves that routinely rise 12 to 15 feet in the winter, are difficult for any surfer to resist.

"It's so beautiful you can't imagine there's anything bad in the water," said surfer Suzanne Samuelian, who has been traveling to Uluwatu the past few years. Up until this year, there was only one reason Samuelian might resist Uluwatu's charms. The shallow water and fast waves mean surfers regularly cut themselves on the sharp reef or volcanic rock.

Matty Thomas

Pribram, seen shredding at home in Laguna here, spent his time in Uluwatu examing the pollution problem and working towards a viable solution for residents, surf locals and tourists.

Now, Uluwatu's water harbors an invisible foe. "Everyone is getting infections and they scar and get really nasty," said Samuelian. During her surf trip to Uluwatu in August, bacteria infected a mosquito bite above her ankle after she went surfing. At the pharmacy, antibiotics were sold out. When the infection persisted after two weeks, Samuelian, a fashion stylist, returned to the U.S. in early September.

"I have never been in so much pain in my entire life," said Samuelian. This week, a doctor diagnosed the rashes, fever and pain as Dengue fever, also called Breakbone fever, which has a long incubation period. "When I heard that Dengue was due to a lack of cleanliness, I thought of the litter that was just everywhere in Bali," said Samuelian.

"Our problem may be localized but it is a common fate of surf breaks found in many poor and developing countries that lack infrastructure," said Ferry Lee, a spokeswoman for Role Foundation which works with Uluwatu's Eco Surf Rescue.

Eco Surf Rescue was founded by two local surfers. Water samples by Eco Surf Rescue reveal Uluwatu water may be up to 12 percent sewage, with alarmingly high levels of fecal waste. Eco Surf Rescue wants to clean up Uluwatu, and work towards becoming a World Heritage site. Lee said they also want to provide a model for other developing surf destinations to follow.

Aussie and '70s surfing legend, Jim Banks, has been riding Uluwatu for 34 years and locals consider him a resident. "Gets pretty smelly around the cave at times," said Banks. A renowned surfboard shaper, Banks said, "Ulu is my laboratory, my testing grounds." He quit making boards for a while in protest of the toxic materials involved in the process.

Still, Banks is skeptical of the warrior approach in Uluwatu. "Without a good understanding of the culture here it can be very easy to offend the local people and make them feel disrespected which will make them resentful and hostile," said Banks. "If James' intention is authentic, I would be happy to advise him and listen to his ideas."

Courtesy of James Pribram

"2,000 miles out to sea in the middle of the South Atlantic gyre with trash I had just collected," says Pribram.

James Pribram has five years and 12 advocacy trips around the world under his belt. In Chile, he helped get a sandbar rebuilt that made surf waves possible. In Chicago, Pribram fought for Chicagoans to be permitted to surf in Chicago parks. In Uluwatu, part of his research included getting in the water. To prepare, Pribram consulted his physician father about what antibiotics to pack. "But nothing prepares you for what you can't see," said Pribram. This is particularly personal because Pribram almost died in 1997 due to a Staph infection.

Out of the Uluwatu surf, Pribram was more diplomatic, and less warrior. Pribram said he spent most of the week looking at the problems and talking with everyone involved.

"The most important weapon is patience and understanding that there will always be two sides with their own agenda," said Pribram. "I've seen a lot of tragic things go on in our environment. In the end you always look for better solutions and compromise." Uncommon words of wisdom for Uluwatu from an unconventional warrior.

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