By Tony Butt
When the first surfers turned up at Mundaka around the late 1960s and set their eyes upon those perfect lefthanders, they had no reason to think the waves wouldn’t be there forever. Almost half a century later, we now know that Mundaka is a very special wave, perhaps unique in the world; not just because of its perfection, power or length, but because of the miraculous circumstances that made it the way it is. Sure, there are waves just as long and hollow as Mundaka, but the vast majority break on immovable rock or coral platforms. Mundaka, on the other hand, relies on a rivermouth sandbar.
In the early days, the overriding concern was how the surfers themselves could make the best of the wave. How could they improve board design and riding techniques to get in and out of those freight-train barrels as easily as possible? They had no idea that the principal concern would eventually turn from dominating the wave to protecting it.
This article isn’t just about Mundaka, although Mundaka is the central theme running through it. It is also about estuarine systems, chaos, Nature and us.
Above: The Mundaka sandbar behaving itself, winter 2014-15. Spain. Photo: Javi Muñoz
Those first surfers also had no idea that, around 1972, a project was proposed by the Bilbao Chamber of Commerce which would have meant an early death for Mundaka. Almost the entire estuary would have been blocked apart from a narrow channel, and a huge breakwater would have been built exactly where the wave is, instantly destroying it.
What would have happened if that project had gone ahead? Most of us would be here now without the slightest clue that the spot even existed. At most, a few older surfers might remember a mythical wave that they rode once or twice but which disappeared soon afterwards.
One thing is certain: if the Bilbao Chamber of Commerce had decided to go ahead with the project, nobody would have stopped them. Surfing in that part of the world was virtually non-existent, and only a handful of foreign surfers had been there. Spain was still under a dictatorship until 1975, so the local population would have been too scared to protest. (Spain’s favourite punishment for speaking out against the state was the garrote catalán, a large iron peg screwed into the back of one’s neck).
This is what they were going to do to Mundaka in 1972. The large breakwater sticking out on the right-hand side of the picture would have cut straight through the middle of the peak.
By the late 1980s, board design and surfing technique had evolved to match the difficulty of the wave and a run of winters with just the right swell and wind conditions meant that things had never been better at Mundaka. The first pro contest in 1989, held in epic eight- to ten-foot surf, put the wave firmly on the global map. I arrived in the Basque Country the following year and enjoyed a couple of winters at Mundaka before defecting to Meñakoz.
Over the next decade or so, a growing mix of local surfers, ex-pats, winter migrants and passers-through continued to enjoy Mundaka. The pro contest continued to run and Mundaka became fully established as one of the best surf spots in the world. Meanwhile, the local shipbuilding company just up the river continued going about its business. Every time a large ship was finished, it was floated down the river and past the Mundaka sandbar, dredging the estuary to make the water deep enough. In 1992, 1996 and 1999 large dredges were made, moving on average 50,000 cubic metres of sand. In each case, there was no noticeable effect on the sandbar or the wave—if the estuary was temporarily put out of equilibrium it recovered fairly quickly.
Then, in 2003, they performed the mother of all dredges: 250,000 cubic metres. This time, the estuary was seriously affected. The dredge set off a chain of events that changed the trajectory of the main river outflow, which meant that the Mundaka sandbar was no longer being fed with sediment and therefore no longer being held in position. Instead, a new bar formed towards the middle of the estuary. The barrelling lefthanders of Mundaka were replaced by a backing-off closeout that could hardly even be considered a surf spot.
People were convinced that Mundaka was dead. Nobody was able to predict whether it would recover the next year, next century or never. However, around 2006, it did actually recover. The estuarine system had decided to simply teach us a lesson: interfere with something you don’t understand and you might come off worse in the end.
The near-loss of a world-class surfing wave generated a lot of public awareness. Many Basque people from inland villages who had never heard of surfing suddenly started talking about the ‘left-hand wave’ at Mundaka. They realized that their country, Euskal Herria, in addition to having many other unique features, was also home to the best wave in the Iberian Peninsula, Europe and perhaps the world.
The global surfing community was made fully aware of the near-loss of Mundaka through hundreds of articles in magazines and on the internet. A group of scientists from AZTI Tecnalia did a comprehensive study to better understand how the entire system works and what went wrong in 2003. In short, a lot of fuss was made about the near-disappearance of Mundaka, so much so that, nowadays, it would seem unthinkable for anyone to even consider doing anything that might have the tiniest chance of affecting the sandbar again.
Until 2015, that is. You may or may not have heard, but at the time of writing—June 2015—some 40,000 cubic metres of sand are being moved from the intertidal zone to a beach called Laida on the other side of the estuary from Mundaka. The potential effects of the intervention were studied beforehand by the scientists at AZTI. They are pretty sure that it won’t affect the Mundaka sandbar; although of course nobody can be one hundred percent certain.
But that’s not the point. The people behind the project, the Ibarrangelua town council, want it done because they want some sand on the beach this summer so that tourists can come and spend their money in the local businesses. To my mind, that is an extremely weak argument.
The sand was eroded from the beach mostly due to a run of particularly high-energy winters from 2009 onwards, which caused severe erosion along the entire west coast of Europe. Instead of waiting for the sand to return naturally, or just accepting what everybody knows—that coastlines continually adjust themselves according to the prevailing conditions—the Mayor of Ibarrangelua and his town council want sand on their beach, and they want it now.
If you don’t think that is absurd, listen to this. Even if the wave at Mundaka were affected, the instigators would still be able to justify doing the work because, apparently, Laida is worth around five million euros, and Mundaka is also worth five million euros. I don’t know how they worked that out but it means that, if necessary, Mundaka could be ‘sold’ in exchange for Laida. How ridiculous is that? Valuing Nature in terms of the amount of money it generates.
In the age of social networking, the Mundaka problem has gone viral. Every major surfing website is running a story on it and over 20,000 people have signed a petition to stop the digging. [Editor’s note: There’s a second petition here.] The problem is that most people have jumped to conclusions and assumed that the wave is doomed when it probably isn’t. However, the reaction shows just how many people around the world know about Mundaka and how nobody wants a repeat of what happened in 2003.
Around 1,000 of these truckloads are needed to shift the 40,000 cubic metres of sand.
Why is Mundaka so special?
In a moment I’ll carry on talking about how Mundaka urgently needs to be protected so that it never comes under threat in the future, and, importantly, so that surfers and other members of the population understand when it really is under threat and when it is not. But first, I want to focus on why it would be such a shame to lose Mundaka.
The reason is not because the wave generates a large amount of money for the local economy, nor is it because a huge number of people enjoy riding it. It is because Mundaka is a very special phenomenon, perhaps unique in the world. Just like, say, the geysers of Yellowstone, Victoria Falls or the Northern Lights.
Think of all the thousands of estuaries there are in the world. Not all of them have a wave like Mundaka. In fact, only a very small proportion of them have any kind of surfable wave at all. The reason is that the existence of such a wave depends upon a number of factors all of which must be exactly right. For example:
- The scale of the river and the estuary must be just right compared to the scale of the waves. Many estuaries only have a bar that produces perfect two-centimetre waves, while others have a bar that would produce perfect waves if only it received 200-foot swells. Some estuaries might be set up perfectly for waves between three and twelve feet but be in a fjord where it is always flat. Along the coast where Mundaka is located, the incoming swells are the right scale so that they can happily produce eight- to ten-foot barrels.
- The shape and length of the bar must be just right. This dictates the shape of the wave itself: whether it ends up being a 400-metre barrel or a short, slow, backing-off or sectioning wave. At Mundaka, the orientation of the outer edge of the bar with respect to the orientation of the incoming swells is at exactly the right angle so that the wave is not too fast and not too slow. Also, the outer edge of the bar is straight enough so that the wave continues to break at almost the same speed along its entire length. And the depth graduation of the outer edge of the bar is the perfect angle so that the wave is a round, open barrel from beginning to end.
- The shape of the bar depends itself on a combination of other factors such as the type and size of the sediment and the characteristics of the river flow. At Mundaka, the average river flow and tidal current bring the right amount of sediment down the river at key times of the year, and the sediment is of a material and grain size to create a sandbar of the right size and shape.
- The prevailing direction and quality of the incoming swells must combine perfectly with the orientation of the bar. This might depend upon not just the orientation of the coast where the estuary is situated, but also whether the waves have previously refracted around a headland or been interfered with in some other way before reaching the estuary. At Mundaka, the raw swells first wrap around a headland called Cabo Matxitxako, about four kilometres before they get to the break. The filtering action of the headland means that the waves reaching Mundaka are long, ruler-edged lines. If they approached at the wrong angle or were shifting peaks rather than long lines, the wave might be sectiony or unpredictable.
- The prevailing wind conditions must be right. It’s obviously no good if the prevailing wind is onshore. At Mundaka, if the wind is from the west-southwest, southwest or south, the action of the river valley will funnel it round to the south, which is offshore. This greatly increases the number of surfable days, particularly since Mundaka is still surfable with strong offshore winds.
There are probably many more factors, but the point I want to make is that only a small percentage of the estuaries in the world comply with any one of these factors, let alone all of them. For example, maybe ten percent have a bar that is the right scale to produce the waves we want. How many of these ten percent will also have a bar that is just the right shape to produce a good wave? Not many, maybe two percent. Then, how many of these will also have good prevailing wind conditions and regular, long-lined swells of the right size and direction? Again, not many. So in the end, the number of estuaries that have the right combination of factors to produce a wave like Mundaka is extremely small. Then, the system has to be stable and consistent. A perfect wave might appear from time to time in many estuaries, but usually just due to a freak combination of circumstances. It is much more difficult for a perfect wave to appear on a regular basis; it requires all those factors to be right, all of the time.
Tony on a rare day at a different Spanish rivermouth. Photo: Guillermo Alvarez
If good waves are produced on a regular basis and not just with some freak set of conditions, we can say that the state of the system has a certain resilience. It will tend to ‘spring back’ automatically to that stable state even if abused with, say, excessive river flow or wave action. We can even abuse the system ourselves to a certain extent, perhaps by digging out sediment in one place and dumping it in another. Usually, the system can cope and it will eventually revert back to its state of equilibrium. We can borrow a term from the jargon of chaos theory and say that the system reverts back to an attractor state.
If any of the long-term or ‘fixed’ characteristics of the system change—for example, the range of wave heights and river flow rates normally encountered, the angle of wave approach or the physical dimensions and shape of the estuary—the system will probably look for a different attractor state. In other words, the bar will permanently change. This kind of thing normally happens over geological time scales but it can be accelerated by human activities such as a dam that permanently cuts off the sediment supply, or a harbor or pier that blocks off the waves or changes their direction of approach.
The system can also ‘flip’ into a different state if it is temporarily over-abused or pushed beyond some threshold. Rare climatic anomalies such as extreme droughts, heavy rains or uncharacteristically huge swells from unusual directions can do this. So can over-dredging or dumping of too much sand in the estuary. That’s what happened in 2003. Luckily it came back after about three years, but next time it might take three or four decades. The forces that control coastal morphodynamics don’t give a damn about human time scales.
The way forward?
So, what is the way forward? Simple, just get Mundaka recognized for its uniqueness, and declare it some kind of world heritage site which will protect it so that it never comes under threat again in the future.
Well, maybe not so simple.
At the moment, nobody really knows when it is under threat and when it is not. Surfers are angry and confused; people are jumping to conclusions; scientists are tearing their hair out; and politicians still don’t understand why you can’t just buy and sell a surf spot as if it were a marketable commodity.
To get rid of all this confusion, a comprehensive set of guidelines would have to be drawn up, stating where the limits are in human intervention before the wave starts to be threatened. These guidelines would have to be absolutely clear and unambiguous so that everybody—including the mayor of Ibarrangelua, the local population and the global surfing community—understands exactly where those limits are.
The guidelines would have to be based on an exhaustive scientific study of the break, understanding how it works and what would stop it from working. Quite a lot of work has already been done on this by AZTI Tecnalia. They have collected data from a series of instruments deployed at specific points in the estuary to measure the hydrodynamics and morphodynamics over a number of months, and have a camera system in place to collect longer-term data.
The scheme put in place to protect Mundaka would have to be legally valid. To work properly it would have to be backed up by some sort of deterrent, like a fine of millions of euros imposed by some kind of overseeing body that’s immune from corruption and free of any vested interests. I know, it sounds a bit ambitious, but it is the only thing that would work.
The justification for protecting Mundaka is its uniqueness as a natural phenomenon, as I pointed out earlier. There is no reason why other surf spots in the world could not be protected in this way too, based on scientific studies of the physics behind the way they work, to identify those spots as unique natural phenomena. It wouldn’t matter whether a large number of people already surf the spot or whether it has only just been discovered. And it wouldn’t matter whether it brought in millions of dollars or zero tourist revenue. The protection would only be based on the physical uniqueness of the spot, nothing else. This type of protection scheme would be quite different from, but complimentary to, the World Surfing Reserves program. And even if a spot were already part of a Word Surfing Reserve this would simply add an extra layer of protection.
Perhaps there is a carbon-copy of Mundaka somewhere in the world which is just about to disappear because the local government is building a scheme like the one in the picture. Maybe it’s an impossible dream, but one day I would like to see waves as unique and special as Mundaka already protected before anybody thinks of doing something like that.
Tony Butt holds a BSc in Ocean Science and a PhD in Physical Oceanography. He divides his time between Northwest Spain and Southwest South Africa. He makes a meager living teaching and writing about waves and the coastal environment, and works with NGOs like Surfers Against Sewage and Save the Waves. For more from Tony, check out his books Surf Science: an Introduction to Waves for Surfing (2014), The Surfers Guide to Waves, Coasts and Climates (2009), A Surfer's Guide to Sustainability (2011) and his previous articles here on The Cleanest Line.
Do you live in Spain? Join Patagonia Donostia-San Sebastián, Ramón Navarro and Chris Malloy on Saturday, June 27th for a special open-air beach screening of The Fisherman's Son at Surfilm Festibal 13. Starting at 8 PM, Ramón will be signing books in the Patagonia shop. At 9 PM, they’ll kick things off on the Patagonia Stage with a concert by WAXHEAD, a band from Byron Bay currently touring Europe. Then, when the sun goes down, Ramón and Chris will take the stage and introduce their film.
Surfilm Festibal have also published a detailed blog post about the present problem at Mundaka. Check it out here.