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Surfers Battle Over The Perfect Wave In Baja

Evening Edition

For decades, Southern California surfers have enjoyed the relatively uncrowded waves of Baja California, Mexico. But, just as they've seen happen on their home turf, the paths to some of the best waves have been blocked in recent years by high-rise condos and private housing developments. From our Fronteras Desk, Jill Replogle and KPBS video journalist Katie Euphrat bring us to the perfect break causing an ongoing land battle.

Aired 3/15/12 on KPBS News.

There's a paradise for low-budget surfers way down south in Baja California, Mexico. But wherever there's a good wave, there also seems to be a battle over who gets the best access to it.

SAN JUANICO, MX - Nearly 900-miles down the Baja California peninsula on Highway 1, there is an epic wave.

“As far as I’m concerned,” mused a 73-year old surfer who goes by the name Lee of the Sea, “when it’s on, it’s as good a wave as there is in the world.”

He’s talking about the wave at San Juanico, or Scorpion Bay, as it’s more popularly known in the surf community. The place is remote: if you want to take the direct route — still about 650 miles — you have to brave a long stretch of mud and salt flats. One Scorpion Bay website warns surfers to “think twice” before taking this route. If you break through the brittle mud surface, “maybe no one will be along for days,” it says.

Despite the long, rough ride, in the summertime hundreds of American surfers make the journey in four-wheel drives and makeshift campers. They spend their days riding waves that can last up to a minute and a half. That’s a long ride.

The waves at San Juanico, also known as Scorpion Bay.
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Above: The waves at San Juanico, also known as Scorpion Bay.

Most spend their nights in the campground that occupies the rocky, cactus-studded point directly above the wave. This prime piece of land has caused a nasty legal battle.

It demonstrates the passion — and sense of possession — surfers feel for their favorite spots.

“We’re very selfish with our waves,” James Adkins, an Imperial Valley native, said matter-of-factly. Adkins, who now works as a real estate agent and developer in San Juanico, represents one side of the battle.

“I mean, we don’t want to have more people,” he said.

The conflict pits Adkins and another Southern California surfer turned would-be developer against each other. At stake may be the most sensitive issue in the surf community — access.

“Whoever ends up with that property has kind of a public responsibility to deal with it in a way that, I think, respects the traditional uses there,” said Ruben Andrews, the other side of the battle.

The sparse campground at Scorpion Bay.
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Above: The sparse campground at Scorpion Bay.

Andrews leases the campground land from the local ejido, which are communal agricultural groups that have been granted large tracts of land by the Mexican government.

Both Adkins and Andrews accuse each other of trying to block off the land. In the meantime, the ejido just wants to turn a profit from its coveted beachfront property.

“What good would it do me to have all these beautiful places if I don’t have the capital to develop them?” said José Jesús Meza, the ejido president.

Andrews and Adkins once ran the campground together, but Andrews eventually bought Adkins out. By then Adkins had moved on to a more lucrative business — negotiating land sales between American investors and the same ejido.

Adkins didn’t necessarily want to see his semi-secret surf spot developed, he said, but "I couldn’t keep putting on the brakes when the ejido wants to sell their property."

"It was either someone else was going to take my position, or I had to step up to the plate,” he said.

Eventually, Adkins and a group of Southern California investors offered $3 million to buy up the campground land and build a cluster of beachfront homes at that perfect wave. The ejido sold it, with Andrews’ campground lease still in effect.

That’s when the war began.

Adkins said his group tried to buy Andrews out from the start, but he didn’t want to sell.

Surfer Lee of the Sea, 73, has seen access to many of his favorite Baja Calif...
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Above: Surfer Lee of the Sea, 73, has seen access to many of his favorite Baja California surf spots restricted by development.

“So as in all negotiations, we tried to figure out a way to force him to sell out,” Adkins said.

For the past five years, Andrews, Adkins and the ejido have been filing suits, counter-suits and appeals against each other in Mexican courts. They’ve each spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers.

On a recent morning, the grizzled surfer, Lee of the Sea, played catch with his German Shepard, Sandy, outside of his well lived-in motor home. He had a cup of coffee in his hand and a rattlesnake skin tied around his forehead, holding back his blonde-gray, wispy hair.

His dog had killed the snake a few years back, he explained. So he skinned it and ate the meat.

Lee, who once lived in San Diego, has been camping and surfing in Baja California for decades. He has lost access to many of his favorite surfing spots between Tijuana and Ensenada.

“I mean, access has just about been completely cut off in a lot of those places,” Lee said.

Though he’d like young surfers to have what he had, he said that may not be possible these days.

Surf themed stickers mark the road sign to San Juanico, which some say gets v...
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Above: Surf themed stickers mark the road sign to San Juanico, which some say gets vandalized to discourage new visitors.

“It’s changing, everything changes,” Lee philosophized. “Like I’ve said, if you don’t change with it, you get buried.”

Adkins denies his group has plans to limit access to the wave for visiting surfers. But he thinks a more upscale, and restricted, use of the land along this prime surf spot is inevitable.

“In any project all over the world, when the property gets to be a certain value, there’s no way you’re going to stop developers from buying that property and changing it from camping,” Adkins said.

The lawsuits are ongoing, but it looks like surf bums will have at least a few years left to camp at Scorpion Bay.

Video by Katie Euphrat

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Avatar for user 'Sambo'

Sambo | March 15, 2012 at 9:10 a.m. ― 4 years, 9 months ago

Baja is a violent and dangerous place, you should definitely not go! Rincon, Malibu or WindnSea are much nicer.

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Avatar for user 'bajajulio'

bajajulio | March 15, 2012 at 3:56 p.m. ― 4 years, 9 months ago

BAJA is great, friendly and SAFE. Only those looking for drugs and trouble are at risk of finding what they probably deserve. DONT let people with a negative and or envious attitude put you off. Countles thousands of world class surfers will attest to the great atmosphere, food and waves just waiting for you. COME ON DOWN.

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Avatar for user 'billder99'

billder99 | April 29, 2012 at 5:49 p.m. ― 4 years, 7 months ago

Sambo, you really should refrain from commenting on a place you clearly know nothing about. Baja Sur (South Baja) has been removed from the US State Dept watch list, and in fact Baja Sur is declared one of the safest places to visit in all of North America (WAY safer than San Diego).

it is now very easy to get to San Juanico, with a high quality paved road all the way. The only problem is distance... you have to drive over to the Sea of Cortez side thru Loreto and then go back to the north. Total distance from San Diego is 880 miles, easy 2 day drive, lots of great places to visit and stay on the way down.

Baja Sur has the freindliest people you will ever meet. You should come visit... you will be surprised.

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Avatar for user 'surferpl'

surferpl | July 16, 2013 at 5:21 p.m. ― 3 years, 4 months ago

"Surf bums"? I guess drylanders will never change. Also... Americans battling over Mexican land... That kind of thing will never change either. Any place there's a buck to be made there's gonna be an all-American blue-eyed boy ready to take something away he doesn't own in the first place.

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