Photo: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock

Surfing for Change: Pro-Surfing Activist Kyle Theirmann

Surfing Photo + Video + Film Activism
by Desiree Bilon Nov 15, 2011
Desiree Bilon interviews surfer / filmmaker / activist Kyle Theirmann right before his recent Brower Youth Award win.

KYLE THEIRMANN IS surfing for change.

His inspiration? Travel.

The sponsored surfer from Santa Cruz, California, is catching waves around the world and making films about social and environmental issues. In his Surfing For Change series, Thiermann puts current natural resource and social justice conflicts into perspective by focusing on simple solutions, helped by how short his films are (all under five minutes).

Recently, while compiling research for an upcoming trip in Sri Lanka, I stumbled across Kyle’s work. I was surprised to learn that even though he is only 21 and still in college, Kyle has already inspired fellow athletes to be activists through his work. As a dedicated surfer (and, therefore, clean water advocate) this resonated with me. I felt compelled to reach out to Kyle to learn more about his organization and specifically about his second film: Buy Local, Surf Global that took place in Sri Lanka.

[DB:] Where do you go to university, and what are you studying?

[KT:] I am getting my BS in Green Business through Gaia University; it’s the coolest school ever! Gaia accredits you to do real social and environmental change work in the world. Students do it from all over the world. I graduate this September.

When did you start the following activities and why?

Surfing: I started surfing when I was like 10 years old. It’s weird to think that I’ve been surfing for 11 years, wow. I just love what a challenge surfing is every time you go out. Every surf session is new because no two waves are the same.

Making films: My parents make movies so they taught me how to do it from a really young age. I just love storytelling and making movies is a great way to tell a story.

Being an activist: I think traveling inspired my activism. It allowed me to see how other people live and how my daily decisions were having an effect on their lives.

“The world is a book, and those who don’t travel read only one page.”

You have filmed four documentaries. Can you summarize each of them in one sentence?

Claim Your Change: Chile. Stop funding coal, and start supporting your community through local banking

Buy Local, Surf Global: Sri Lanka. The power we have to change people’s lives through our shopping choices.

BP, You, and Me: Who are BP’s funders and who should you be banking with?

Where Is ‘Away?: Solving Plastic Pollution in 4 Minutes: Where does your plastic bag go–maybe Oahu?

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m going to South Africa next to do my next movie on nuclear energy.

How else do you think traveling is important [for your work or for you personally]?

Traveling has helped me because it’s allowed me to be exposed to different cultures and to see how many different kinds of people there are in the world. Traveling was what inspired me to start my online TV series, Surfing For Change. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel from a really young age, all through Latin America, some in Asia like Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Tell me about your trip to Sri Lanka. Do you have any recommendations for travelers going there?

Sri Lanka is awesome! I visited clothing manufacturing companies and did a story on how we at home have an effect on Sri Lankans’ working conditions through the clothes we buy. Check out the movie at Surfing for Change. [And] if you ever have a chance to go to Sri Lanka, check out Arugam Bay and stay at the Freedom Cabanas. Tell them Kyle sent you!

What kind of relationships did you establish with the local residents, and what is it like to do work in places like Sri Lanka?

In Sri Lanka, I made a bunch of friends who I still stay in touch with. I think it’s great exposure to see how other people live. The world is a book, and those who don’t travel read only one page.

What awards have you received for your activism? [Note: I interviewed Kyle just weeks before he won the Earth Island Institute‘s Brower Youth Award, which provides a cash prize, a week of activities in San Francisco, ongoing leadership support and mentoring and project sponsorship to young environmental leaders.]

Um, yeah I got a big one last year called the Peter Benchley Blue Vision Award. Not in activism, [but] I won a ping pong tournament in Santa Cruz recently. It was just a bunch of our friends… I was stoked though.

What kind of lasting influence do you think your effort has had?

Today, I was getting out of the water, and this kid walked up to me and told me that he wants to do a project on solving plastic pollution because of me. That made my day.

What else is part of a typical day in your life? [Note: His answer made me jealous.]

6:30 AM: Walk down the street and look at the waves.
7:00 AM: Read the news or watch a TED Talk
8:00 – 11:00 AM: Surf
12:00 – 2:00 PM: Research for my next project on nuclear power
3:00-5:00 PM: Surf
6:00-9:00 PM: BBQ with friends
9:00-10:00 PM: Answer this interview

Who would you want to thank for all their support, and what are some final thoughts?

Thank you [to] Patagonia, Sector 9, Pacific Wave Surf Shop, FCS, Screwball Surfboards!


If you are feeling inspired, follow Kyle’s three easy steps to make a difference on a daily basis.
1. Bank locally
2. Shop Locally
3. Support Responsible Companies

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