Saving the Waves in Punta Borinquen

Photo Roberto Lebrón

Surfer Otto Flores on Preserving PR’s Waves

You can’t fight a wave. That’s what they say. All you can do is surf it and try to hold on for the ride. But just because you can’t stop a wave doesn’t mean that the world’s best surf doesn’t face its own threats.

And it also doesn’t mean that you can’t stop a wave of destructive development.

Puerto Rico is still reeling from hurricane Maria in 2017, and recovery is a top priority for every city. Despite the damage, Puerto Rico’s beautiful coastlines still attract a booming tourism industry. One eight-kilometer strip known as Punta Borinquen is particularly significant in the global surfing community. And, like the rest of Puerto Rico, it’s particularly vulnerable right now.

Protecting coastlines prime for surfing is a job that’s fallen to Save The Waves, a global nonprofit based in California. Internationally, they operate 11 different World Surfing Reserves, of which Punta Borinquen will become the latest this spring.

Photo Francisco Javier-Gil

What makes Punta Borinquen so special?

Local communities play a huge role in designating and protecting a World Surfing Reserve. One reason Punta Borinquen won the competitive designation was the concerted effort, led by anti-poverty nonprofit Olita, to gather experts and community members into a Local Stewardship Council, which in turn crafted Punta Borinquen’s application for WSR.

Photo Roberto Lebrón

Characteristics like the variety, quality, and consistency of the waves, the site’s regional and national significance, and its ecological significance all add weight to a site’s application. Punta Borinquen is one of the few undeveloped coastlines left in Puerto Rico, and the Playuela Valley has long been a point of contention between developers and local activists fighting for its natural preservation.

Within Punta Borinquen, there’s quite a lot to preserve. It’s home to a wide variety of beautiful endangered and endemic species, from hawksbill sea turtles to vibrant coral reefs. The site has seen some history: it was a colonial Spanish port in the 1600s; a U.S. military installation in the late 1900s; and artifacts indicate it was indigenous Taino land long before any of that. Then there’s the surf—some of the biggest and most reliable in all of the Caribbean, with over 300 days of rideable surf per year.

If anyone is an expert on Punta Borinquen’s value and future, it’s pro-surfer-tuned-local-activist Otto Flores who will become Punta Borinquen’s new WSR ambassador. He’s a Patagonia Ambassador and had the support of the company, which has been a longtime backer of Save the Waves, in PR. We chatted with him about his experience with the site and with Save The Waves.

Gaby Escudero, Dylan Graves and Otto Flores. Photo Roberto Lebrón

How did Hurricane Maria affect the selection process?

Otto Flores: We experienced a direct hit from Hurricane Maria… right at the cusp of turning in our proposal. We submitted it anyway and were up against NUSA who was awarded a WSR designation. As luck would have it our proposal was strong but due to the Hurricane and everybody dealing with the aftermath the proposal was lacking some endorsements. Save The Waves considered our situation and granted us a 6 month grace period where we could resubmit a more complete proposal and have some time to gather the missing pieces.

What does a WSR ambassador do?

OF: As the ambassador, I have become the spokesperson for the designated reserve here in Puerto Rico. Working as part of the Local Stewardship Council we develop creative and educated ways to work alongside the community and other parties involved to achieve the common goal which is to protect our surf spots, coastlines and green spaces in danger of development and other threats.

This is one of the only green spaces left in the northwest coast, and together we can help change the mindset of what development looks like.

What role will Punta Borinquen’s community play moving forward?

OF: This is where the real work starts. Working in unison with local stakeholders is key. We will reach out to many sectors of the community to unite efforts, for example, the artisan fisherman who have a lot to benefit from this area not becoming overdeveloped. This is one of the only green spaces left in the northwest coast, and together we can help change the mindset of what development looks like. Keeping green spaces for the value that they hold. Studies have shown that this area generates millions of dollars as is.

What is so special about Punta Borinquen?

OF: I feel very honored to be working alongside such a great crew of humans, but in reality, this place is deserving of becoming a reserve for its quality of waves and Punta Borinquen is a great representative of the Caribbean.

Okay, but as a surfer…

OF: I hold this place very near to my heart, as a kid I a had the fortune of growing up surfing a diversity of world class waves in this 8-kilometer stretch. To this day I still enjoy and remember many memorable sessions, amazing moments in and out of the water. Most important of all it’s a big part of the lifestyle that I enjoy and share with my community, family and friends. The ocean has given me so much, it is my turn to protect it. I will do whatever is in my power to help this magical place for generations to come.