You see them wearing their wetsuits, Converse sneakers too ... but Auckland's surfers have more on their minds than waxing down thier boards. They want to save our coastline, reports

Edward Rooney

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Our rolling, salty, foam-flecked waves have plenty of admirers - few more so than Matt Skellern.

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Matt is a former coastal consents specialist at Auckland Regional Council. He now works as a consents planner for major projects. He's also a keen surfer. Living on Auckland's North Shore, he knows as well as most people how badly Auckland has been treating its saline playground: "There are places in Auckland where sewage is piped straight to the sea. That goes back into the surfbreaks. Next thing you've got surfers getting sick.

"The whole North Shore catchment is like that after heavy rain. I was out on a North Shore surfbreak and the wax just peeled straight off the board by whatever was in the water. That's not an unusual occurrence, that's actually typical."

I sit with Matt in the artfully surreal lobby of Auckland's tallest office building, the Vero Centre, the 38-floor one with what looks like a partly raised toilet seat on top. He speaks with the authority of a council planner about recent gains in taking care of our coastlines - and the work still needing to be done in Auckland.

Matt is throwing his planning expertise in with efforts by the Surfbreak Protection Society to preserve the natural wonders where our surf strikes seabed and shoreline.

A breakthrough in surfbreak protection came largely unheralded in December last year with the release of a Governmental document called the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement. The statement directs local authorities on how coastal management should be dealt with in Resource Management Act planning documents.

Any surfer worth their salt should be versed in "Policy 16: Surfbreaks of national significance". The full policy reads: "Protect the surfbreaks of national significance for surfing listed in Schedule 1, by ensuring that activities in the coastal environment do not adversely affect the surfbreaks; and avoiding adverse effects of other activities on access to, and use and enjoyment of the surfbreaks."

Schedule 1 lists two surfbreaks in Northland, three near Raglan, two in Taranaki, three around Gisborne, the Whangamata Bar in Coromandel, two in Kaikoura and four in Otago. Nineteen surfbreaks across the country are specifically named by a Government policy statement as worth preserving, but none is in Auckland. Not even the world-famous breaks of Piha or Maori Bay.

I ask John Shaw of the Surfbreak Protection Society why not.

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John - a real estate agent who specialises in executive leases - looks even less like a surfer than Matt Skellern. He responds by outlining how surfbreaks are rated. There's a system known in typical surfer speak as the Stoke Meter. Any surfbreak that rates 10 out of 10 on the Stoke Meter has been put on the schedule.

The top rating Auckland surfbreaks - South Piha, Muriwai Beach and Maori Bay - rate 8. A boat ride away, Whangapoua at Great Barrier rates a 9.

John hopes the 19 surfbreaks of national significance will be the first of many more to be granted some saving grace. He hands me a list of 49 surfbreaks in the Auckland region he believes worthy of care.

I'd met him at the launch party of an awareness initiation called Sea Week. He'd been chatting with Local Government Minister Rodney Hide and I nosily went over and asked what they'd been discussing. John told me he'd asked the minister when a promised second phase would come for more surfbreaks to be added to the list of national significance.

"I asked Rodney Hide what's happening with phase two and he had no idea," John shrugged. "There's still a high amount of education needed with politicians and even within the surfing community."

Whangamata in Coromandel is where New Zealand's surfbreak protection effort was born. Called the "jewel of the Pacific" by Hawaiian surf legend Gerry Lopez, its surfers believe the perfect tubes are being ruined by dredging for the Whangamata Marina, which opened last year. The protection society was founded during a 17-year legal battle that ultimately failed to halt the marina.

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Says John: "In Whangamata, the wave quality is depleted after every dredging. A natural repair occurs, but that takes time and who is to know what the long-term outcomes are."

He believes surfbreaks need protection from sea-based economic activity that affects the swell corridors; any impediment to public access; and inappropriate development along the coastline.

Matt, naturally, points out that water quality is a big issue, too.

Next up, the Surfbreak Protection Society is trying to get hard evidence that surfbreaks are under threat or deteriorating. Says Matt: "It's all still anecdotal. We haven't got enough checking processes in place to verify what many people believe is going on. Currently, we have a $100,000 application in with the Quicksilver Foundation to set up monitoring of 19 surfbreaks."

John says the protection movement is still evolving as it feels out the way ahead. "I prefer the word 'sustain' to 'protection'. We are trying to sustain waves, by using legal processes to achieve that. They are a finite resource and there's still no proven technology to repair them."

Adds Matt: "It's not just for surfers. Surf lifesaving needs them for competitions, kiteboarders need breaks. Then there's passive observers, people who just like to sit and watch a good set of waves while eating fish and chips with the family."

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More info:

Sophie Bond reports:

Bethells Beach/ Te Henga, 2-3ft with a 25-knot offshore easterly at mid-tide outgoing. Overcast but mild.

I've got black sand in my nostrils, under my nails and behind my eyeballs by the feel of it. The surfboard under my arm is a sail; strong gusts are shoving me towards the waves. Matt McNeil is beside me, lacquered in black - 20 years of surfing experience to my two.

"You're not going to drown, are you?'' he asks as the brownish water swirls at our toes. I promise not to and we wade, then paddle, out to join a handful of other seal-like surfers. I'm soon lagging behind and cursing my weak arms. I feel as though I am floundering in one place, watching Matt become a tiny speck out with the other seasoned pros.

Bethells/Te Henga is one of Matt's favourite Auckland surf spots, along with Maori Bay, Tawharanui and Te Arai. Matt praises Bethells' unique character, fairly consistent surf and accessibility. "On occasion, it has very high quality waves, and there's a lot of space if you're prepared to walk a little way down the beach.''

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"It's like a wilderness experience, too; a lot less built up than Piha and Muriwai. You can only see a couple of houses from the water and it feels so removed from the city.''

Auckland surfers, he says, have it pretty good. "Perhaps we lack a bit of quality, but Auckland certainly has a large number of breaks and it's quite unique that we can surf both coasts. There are not many places in the world like that.''

He believes our surf breaks need to be seen as important recreational assets: "It needs to be recognised that they can be fragile. On Auckland's west coast, the threat is not so much from engineered structures that affect the breaks themselves, but from further landward development that affects the experience.''

He is concerned by murmurs of seabed mining exploration off the west coast.

When I look back to shore I see I'm out much further than I thought and, suddenly, the waves look about the right size to send me into a tumble. I watch Matt wait for a big one then drop  into a wall of spray. He carves and slides and pushes off the lip of the wave.

I'm resigned to just lolling out here for a while, enjoying the spectacular sweep of sand

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against the green valley, the dramatic rocks, the refreshing salt spray. I look over my shoulder and realise there's a wave about to break. On it, rapidly bearing down on me, is a surfer with a bowl-cut and anger in his eyes. Oh dear. Guilt washes over me. I'm going to spoil his ride, sticking up like a thumbtack on a cycle path. I panic and splash forward, hoping to clear space behind me.

He just skims past my feet, and, unbalanced, falls into the churning water. "Sorry, mate,'' I blubber weakly when he resurfaces. He shoots a glare in my direction and, chastised, I head for shore to practise by myself in the small waves.

- Sophie Bond

Hayley Hannan reports:

Omaha Beach, 1-2ft with a norwester cross-shore wind at mid-tide, incoming. Sunny as.

"It's tiny!'' we're warned of the morning surf at Omaha Beach. I breathe a silent sigh of relief.

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Nick Paul and I wind our way over the sand dunes to the beach anyway. I've barely set my bags down before Nick runs to the water, board under arm. He easily paddles out to the back of the set, his strong, fluid movements making the trip look easy. I recognise my limits and clutch my board in the whitewash, cheating by allowing the churning water to carry me forward.

Surfing's an addictive activity. Once you manage to stand up on the wobbling board, you catch a fleeting second of gliding. You're gone.

Nick began surfing at age 16 in the late 70s. The sport has remained a big part of his life. "What keeps me surfing? It's the lifestyle, really. It's more than a sport, it's a lifestyle; it's healthy, it's fitness.''

Thirty two years on, Nick is teaching his son to surf. After school and at weekends they join the lineup, his 11-year-old "lapping up the banter out in the waves ... I think 30 or 40 years ago it was a bit of a counter-culture and people used to look upon surfers as crazy loons. Nowadays, it's a respected sport. The surfers are amazing athletes. It's a global industry, it's a lot more respected and people of all walks of life are doing it.''

The waves are bigger than I'd expected. A few bigger sets roll in, two, three, four large ones in a row. Between sets I squint, hand to forehead, to catch Nick cutting neatly across the waves.

The Leading Edge Communications chief executive surfs mainly the coast at his disposal; Omaha, Daniels Reef and Pakiri. The northern coastline offers a feast of white sand surfbreaks, all a manageable drive away.

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The surf drops and time catches up with us, so we head back up to Nick's hilltop house. Out on the deck, the northern tip of Omaha beach lies in the distance. He points to Omaha Bar, a small inlet of placid water which was once a pumping surfbreak.

"In the 1970s, large groynes were placed in the sea to protect the Omaha bach development from erosion. It made the sand build up towards the sea side, and ruined the surfbreak. I've seen videos and pictures of the break -it was amazing. A top quality wave.''

Sadly, Nick can see a parallel situation in Whangamata, where he fears the Whangamata Marina could ruin a world-renowned wave.

``Development is a good thing, but there's got to be a better balance between the understanding of a unique resource and of what it delivers to the town in terms of tourism. "Surfbreaks are a unique feature of nature. If you mess with that you can change it forever. And once it's gone, it's gone.''

On that sobering note, the photographer and I hop back in the car. My bare feet leave a small imprint of sand on the dark carpet. I've got tired arms, salty ears and face, and lingering endorphins from the exercise. It's a pretty good way to spend a morning at work.

- Hayley Hannan

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