Heath Joske drives a 1997 Toyota Hilux truck. It’s rusty, dusty and held together by protest stickers. The truck has done half-a-million miles, most of them off-road.
Joske lives with his young family on an old sheep run outside of Streaky Bay, a small fishing town in the Great Australian Bight. The tarred road from town ends just up from his driveway, and from there it’s all dirt roads to the coast. The Bight is a sprawling, sparse coastline, and chasing waves here needs a reliable set of wheels. The Hilux has served him well.
“It’s an old banger but I’m quite attached to it,” he offers dryly. “Down here as a surfer, you spend half your life driving. You get to know your car pretty well.”
Chasing surf on this coast requires a lot of miles and a lot of fuel. It’s with just the faintest irony, then, that Joske’s car sports a “Big Oil Don’t Surf” sticker, and Joske has found himself leading a campaign against the development of a deep-water oil field out in the Bight. It’s been a controversial issue, and he’s stuck his neck out. He’s heard every criticism and made peace with them all.
“The ‘not in my backyard’ line, I get that a lot,” he says. “The ‘hypocrite’ line, I get that a lot too, and it’s true. Absolutely. I drive a car that burns fuel. My boards are made from oil derivatives. But what choice have I got? The system here in Australia and all around the world is rigged to keep us using oil, despite knowing full well it’s killing off any kind of liveable future.”
The transition away from fossil fuel use has been glacially slow—particularly in Australia, where governments act as agents of the fossil fuel industry and continue to drive a wholesale expansion of the coal, oil and gas industries. But for now, if Joske wants to keep driving to the surf, he doesn’t have a lot of options.
“I heard the other day they’re bringing out an electric Hilux in 2024,” he adds with a wry laugh. “I’m just not sure my truck is gonna last that long.”
That said, if you were wondering what the “Big Oil Don’t Surf” sticker is all about, it’s a reference to the fact that Norwegian fossil fuel leviathan Equinor has its eyes on a well site 230 miles out in the Great Australian Bight, in waters almost a mile-and-a-half deep. If drilled, it would be the deepest, most remote oil well in Australia—and one of the deepest and most remote wells anywhere in the world. It’s frontier drilling. The Bight is currently free from any offshore oil and gas development and is one of the last great tracts of marine wilderness on earth. It’s home to breeding grounds for southern right whales, blue whales, Australian sea lions and southern bluefin tuna. Eighty-five percent of the species in the Bight live nowhere else, and a worst-case spill would present a potential extinction event.
Joske knows the Bight well. As well as surfing huge swells along the Bight coast, he’s worked for years as a fisherman on an oceangoing prawn trawler. He knows the ocean out there, and has challenged the oil company about its assessment of the sea state.
“I’ve had arguments with these guys face-to-face about the swells they’re going to be drilling in, and they’re almost arrogant about it,” says Joske. “It’s like, ‘We drill in the North Sea, we can drill anywhere!’”
The immediate argument against the drilling is the danger of a well blowout. If that happened, the Southern Ocean would do the rest. The oil would move quickly east on the Leeuwin Current, and Equinor’s own spill modelling shows the potential for oil across almost the entire southern coast of Australia. When that spill modelling went public, what had previously been an issue for the small towns down in the Bight quickly became an issue for the whole nation.
Now, surfers are joining forces with other passionate campaigners to Fight for the Bight. There was a time, generations back, when surfers in Australia were frontline activists. In the ‘70s, they led protests against sand mining and coastal development; they spoke for the coast and they spoke loudly on big social issues like Vietnam and Apartheid. In the ‘90s, surfers massed in protest against ocean sewerage outfalls and French nuclear tests in the South Pacific. But for decades now we’ve had it almost too good. On the whole, the Australian coastline remains breathtakingly beautiful. For surfers, this is the land of milk and honey, and there hasn’t been much to protest against. But in recent years there’s been a slow creep of development, some of it just over the horizon in both a literal and figurative sense, and many surfers have felt it. There’s been a movement waiting to happen and Australia’s surf community just needed an issue to kick-start it.
The Bight was that issue.
Joske has become a figurehead for the campaign, and in May he travelled to Norway to deliver a speech to shareholders at Equinor’s annual general meeting, also leading a symbolic paddle-out protest in Oslo’s harbor. Equinor is two-thirds owned by the Norwegian people, and its oil revenue has helped make Norway one of the richest countries in the world—and, paradoxically, also one of the most progressive. Domestically, Norway is well down the road of a clean energy transition, yet, through Equinor, continues to develop massive fossil fuel reserves in other parts of the world. The Bight issue landing back on Norway’s doorstep has raised some big questions.
After arriving back in Australia, Joske loaded up the Hilux and hit the road to produce a short film, The Head of the Bight, that tells the story of the people living along the Bight coast.
Most Australians never visit the Bight. It’s a long way from the east coast and a long way from the east coast consciousness. It’s a mythical coastline where the red billiard table of the Australian continent drops off squarely into the sea; the Bight’s cliffs are the Great South Wall beyond which lies the great Southern Ocean. The area’s remoteness initially made it more difficult for the oil-drilling issue to gain widespread traction, so Joske grabbed a camera and spoke to the surfers, fishermen, scientists and local activists along the Bight coast who’ve been battling oil and gas leviathans for years now, largely on their own. [Patagonia, through its Environmental Grants program, has been supporting the Bight campaign since 2016.]
The Head of the Bight also features conversations with the Bight’s traditional owners, who have been largely excluded from the consultation process over the oil drilling. They’ve already experienced a history of tragic dislocation from country and culture. Anangu elder Mima Smart tells the story of her people being moved on from the Spinifex country to the north in the ‘50s, when the British military used the area as a test range for nuclear weapons. Mima’s people called the atomic clouds “the black mist.” Now they’re facing the prospect of another black mist, this time sweeping in from the ocean.
The Bight campaign gained momentum this year with a series of protest paddle-outs around the country, followed by 31,000 people lodging formal submissions on Equinor’s environmental plan with the oil and gas industry regulator. A global social media campaign then followed, forcing Equinor to shut down its social accounts. As to why the surf community rallied and stood up for the Bight despite most surfers never having been there, Joske has a theory.
“There’s two things. There’s the spill modelling that could see oil wash up anywhere between Albany and Port Macquarie. That’s a hell of a lot of coastline, and Australians are coastal people who enjoy surfing and fishing and whatever else. That’s one side of it. The other side is they’re sick of the government going down a dead end of history, pushing ahead with these huge fossil fuel projects at a time when we need to be building some kind of a sustainable future.”
Other issues have flared and converged, too. The eastern states of Australia are in the grip of one of the worst droughts on record. Inland rivers are dry and temperature records are being broken all over the country. Great stretches of the New South Wales and Queensland coastlines have been on fire for weeks, and most politicians have flatly refused to answer any questions about climate change and its contribution to the severity of these fires. “Not today” was their stock response, their positions severely compromised by their almost evangelical support of the fossil fuel lobby. The temperature of the nation rose.
This was the background to the National Day of Action for the Bight. With a decision on the Bight’s future looming, it was designed to be a show of unity—people all along the Australian coast paddling out en masse to save the Bight and call for meaningful action on climate change. Saturday, November 23, was set as the date. Damien Cole—son of iconic surfboard shaper Maurice Cole, and the guy who’d led the first round of paddle-outs earlier in the year—spent weeks on the phone, rallying surf and coastal communities around the country. They didn’t need much encouragement. They were more than ready to show up.
Early that morning, I’d stopped by Byron Bay’s Main Beach, where the crew from the Surfrider Foundation and Patagonia Byron Bay were getting ready for their paddle-out. Byron is a former country soul enclave and the original activism capital of the country, and the Byron paddle-out promised to be something else. Surf artist Ozzie Wright pulled up and dragged a 12-foot, three-headed, humanoid bat creature out of his van with “Fight For The Bight” splashed across its wings. It became the mascot of the Byron protest. The paddle-outs taking place all over the country were united in cause, but took on their own local feel. Byron was always going to be a little different.
From Byron I headed north to the Gold Coast. By the time I arrived, I had to park four blocks back from the beach, and by the time I walked into the Currumbin Alley, there was a crowd of two or three thousand people already there. The crowd didn’t much look like your usual protest crowd, though—it looked more like an average Gold Coast day at the beach. There were coast lovers of every stripe: surfers, lifesavers, fishermen, beach walkers. Half of the crowd were family groups, and there were kids everywhere.
Just the week before, while addressing a meeting of mining and energy industry executives, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison promised to draft new laws to penalize anyone specifically protesting against fossil fuel companies. He’d labelled them “radical activists” and promised to throw the book at them. Looking around at Currumbin, I didn’t see anyone who looked arrestable. These weren’t radical activists; they were coastal communities taking a stand. Most of them had never protested anything before in their lives, and that’s why these gatherings were so powerful. There was nothing fringe about this crew, and they weren’t easily dismissed as a result. The protests tapped into possibly the most Australian thing you can do—going to the beach and throwing yourself into three-foot shorebreak.
The real power of the paddle-outs, though, was their sheer number. They spot-fired all around the Australian coastline, far beyond the reach of any potential oil spill. From Kalbarri in the northwest to the Capricorn Coast in the northeast, 60 surf towns and more than 10,000 people paddled out in what was the largest collective coastal environmental action Australia has ever seen.
Heath Joske returned to his childhood home of Coffs Harbour to lead their paddle-out. Having been there at the start of the campaign, when just a handful of Bight locals stood up against the oil companies, he took a moment as hundreds of people, thousands of miles from the Bight, paddled out in support.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he offered later. “To know this was happening all over the country—from coast to coast—was hugely powerful. This campaign had started around kitchen tables down in the Bight, in tiny towns like Penong, Elliston and Streaky. It was just them against these ruthless, billion-dollar oil companies, but look where it’s come. Look how big this movement has become. There’s a long way to go, and I’m not having a beer to celebrate just yet, but Saturday was a proud day to be a surfer, for sure.”
Update: In December, as deadly wildfires continued to burn in Australia on an unprecedented scale, the Australian government granted Equinor environmental approval for exploratory drilling in the Bight. But the Fight for the Bight is not over, and Patagonia’s Bight Alliance partners at The Wilderness Society are leading a legal challenge against the approval.
To learn more and support the #fightforthebight, take action here.