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San Diego’s Surfing Culture Catches An Academic Wave

San Diego professor has taken a lifelong passion and turned it into the Center for Surf Research at San Diego State University in an effort to cast an academic eye on a multi-billion dollar international industry.

San Diego has long been the center of California’s surf culture, and a local researcher is riding that swell. Jess Ponting has taken a lifelong passion and turned it into the Center for Surf Research at San Diego State University in an effort to cast an academic eye on a multi-billion dollar international industry.

The marine layer drops a light coat of mist on the cars at the Tourmaline parking lot. The break just off shore is familiar territory for San Diego’s surfers.

“Tourmaline is a longboarding spot; it’s been a surfing park since the mid-1960’s,” said Jess Ponting, a professor at San Diego State University.

The gray conditions may be unappealing to swimmers, but not people looking for a wave. Surfers gather offshore nearly everyday. They sit on their boards, just outside the break, until they see a good swell.

“Then you paddle like hell and catch the thing,” said Ponting. “You’ve got to get your board up to the same kind of speed as the wave that’s approaching, and jump to your feet and ride the thing.“

The professor came to the school to teach a sustainable tourism class.

His research focused on the cultural, environmental and social impact of thousands of surfers in search of the perfect experience. His passion for surfing led to the creation of the Center for Surf Research in SDSU’s Hospitality and Tourism school - tourism and surfing are natural partners.

The Orange county publication, Surfer’s Journal, documented the connection.

“Our readers, and we just did a survey on this and our readers travel out of the country to surf two times a year in the majority,” said Ross Garrett, director of operations and development at the Journal. “So 70 percent of our readers travel outside the country twice a year, so I think that’s probably more than the general populace.”

Lifelong San Diego resident Beth Slevcove has made a habit of traveling to surf.

“Being from San Diego, I love Baja, California, and have traveled extensively all over Baja to surf down there,” said Slevcove. “Just camping along the beach and finding dirt roads, and finding great little treats and waves down there. It's just wonderful.“

Camping on the beach in Baja is just one kind of excursion. Many people travel thousand of miles to unique surfing locations, according to Jess Ponting. Some estimates put the value of surfing-related tourism at $7 billion a year, worldwide, but Ponting thinks it could be worth twice that.

Ponting’s research has him looking at the impact of surf tourism at Uluwatu, a busy Indonesian surf destination.

“And we figure that there’s somewhat in the realm of a quarter of a million surfers visiting to surf that wave each year. And that’s just one break on one island in one country that has over 2,000 islands,” said Ponting.

Studying an industry that’s scattered around the globe is challenging, but rewarding, and there’s a chance for Ponting to study bigger issues.

“Seeing how the imagery that surfers carry around in their head of that perfect wave, that perfect location. Which is the imagery that drives most of the surf retail industry. What does that image mean for the people who live in those destinations. We carry this dream around with us when we travel and we overlay it on different destinations,” said Ponting.

The new surfing research center will offer SDSU students a study abroad program next year. Ponting also hopes the research generated at the center will help governments around the world manage and preserve their surfing resources.

Video by Nicholas McVicker

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