From Iceland — How Iceland's Surfers Are Standing Up For Nature

How Iceland’s Surfers Are Standing Up For Nature

Published November 7, 2023

How Iceland’s Surfers Are Standing Up For Nature
Photo by
Berglind Johanns
Art Bicnick

Iceland’s unique gem is in danger: who benefits from this?

It seems like Iceland’s reputation as a quiet island with beautiful untouched nature is being overshadowed by yet another case where authorities turn a blind eye to environmental laws in pursuit of personal interests, trying to fill their pockets with as much money as they can get away with. Astonishingly, the extent to which they can act with impunity exceeds all expectations for a country like Iceland. Whether we look at the Kárahnjúkar case or new construction projects in Landmannalaugar, the interests of the communities in the vicinity or the long-term effects on the flora and fauna are seldom given the consideration they deserve. 

“When you’re the first generation of something in a country, people don’t see the value in it.”

In one such case, Þorlákshöfn – the heart of Icelandic surfing and home to the sport’s most consistent wave – now faces a threat from a controversial construction project. The project aims to transform the town with a population of about 1,600 inhabitants, less than an hour’s drive south from Reykjavík, into a major shipping hub for both cargo and tourist vessels travelling between Iceland, the UK, Denmark and central Europe. If the project is completed, ships would save time that they would otherwise spend travelling to southwest Reykjavík or Keflavík. Need we repeat that Reykjavík is less than an hour away?

While the economic advantages of the project may be apparent, what’s less evident is whether there has been a thorough evaluation of the potential repercussions of a project of this magnitude on such a close-knit community, the surrounding natural environment, and Iceland’s cherished surfing culture. In short, the answer is no.

The project in question

The expansion project involves dredging the harbour’s southern edge to create a deepwater turning area for large ships. However, the disposal of the dredged sediment would harm the naturally-occuring surf break, while the planned harbour wall extension would alter the wave dynamics. Additionally, there are allegations of law abuse, corruption and conflicts of interest associated with the project. 

The harbour expansion project was developed after German construction giant Heidelberg announced its plans to build a factory near Þorlákshöfn. According to the results of the survey conducted by investigative journalists at Heimildin newspaper, 44.7% of residents in the municipality were somewhat or strongly opposed to the project, while 19.3% were somewhat or strongly in favour of the construction. If completed, the project would also involve mining the whole mountain of Sandfell by Heidelberg Cement for export to Europe. Heidelberg, along with Ölfus mayor Elliði Vignisson and partner companies Elliði seems to have a suspiciously close relationship with, have been accused of bribing local companies by offering them grants to win their support. Ölfus is a municipality that houses Þorlákshöfn. Moreover, the mayor seems to live rent-free while receiving housing benefits from the government, in a house owned by Jarðefnaiðnaður ehf. – the company engaged in mining in Ölfus.

In an effort to understand what’s going on and what makes the surf break so unique, we took a trip to Þorlákshöfn with Steinarr Lár Steinarsson, the chairman of Brimbrettafélag Íslands, the Icelandic surfing association.

Legal and environmental concerns

One of the first things Steinarr Lár brings to my attention is the fact that no environmental assessment of the project has been completed. “You cannot change the coastline of Iceland without the approval of Umhverfisstofnun, the Environment Agency of Iceland,” he says. “He [the mayor] cannot change it by himself. Even if the town agrees to the change of the development plan in ​​Ölfus, he will have to apply for approval at Umhverfisstofnun. They did not do this when they changed the harbour jetty two years ago.”

Regarding whether the town faced any charges for breaking the law back then, Steinarr Lár answers, “No, nothing happened.”

He also points out that, in accordance with Article 9 of Act No. 33 of 2004 on the Protection of the Sea and Coastal Areas, it is illegal to dispose of materials or objects in the sea without the approval of the Environmental Agency. 

Photo by Art Bicnick

On October 8, construction works began in Þorlákshöfn without the necessary permits. Surfers who were at the break at the time contacted journalists and, as a result, the construction was halted. The mayor of Ölfus stated that if any construction was underway, it was not initiated at the municipality’s request.

“We, as the Surfing Association, are now asking the Environmental Agency and the National Planning Agency to conduct an environmental assessment that would take into consideration all aspects of the project, not only financial [benefit] for the local town,” says Steinarr Lár. He further explains that board members of the Surfing Association met with the harbour designer for the project, noting, “While he has an understanding of harbour rules, he has no understanding of surfing.” 

(Video: courtesy of Skjáskot) 

To work out a solution that would fit the needs of the town and protect the wave, the board of Brimbrettafélag Íslands reached out to Simon Brandi Mortensen, an architect for the Australian company DHI Group and “the world’s leading expert on surf waves and harbour design,” according to Steinarr Lár, who personally financed the alternative design. The proposed compromise would make the wave unsurfable for 30 days a year. It’s yet unclear whether the municipality will accept the alternative harbour design.

The birth of surf culture in Iceland

Steinarr Lár, a five-time Icelandic snowboarding champion and former World Cup competitor, says that surfing is an integral part of the boarding culture. He and his friends were pioneers of surfing in Iceland.

“Back in the late 1990s, nobody was surfing in Iceland. But we had heard that there were some guys on the navy base in Keflavík that surfed on the Reykjanes peninsula, in Sandvík,” shares Steinarr Lár, adding that this sparked the interest among his friends. 

Photo by Art Bicnick

“My two friends and I started driving the coastline when the weather was bad trying to find some waves. We were able to find some waves, but we did not have any clue about surfing,” he laughs, admitting that progress was very slow in the beginning. “We had no understanding of how waves are generated and what type of conditions are suitable. We didn’t know that you need the wind to come from land to create glassy waves, which is a very basic thing,” he says.

“We have built our surf culture here. Without Þorli, it would not exist.”

A few years later, Steinarr Lár got introduced to a group of Icelandic guys raised in Australia and Namibia, who knew how to surf. “In 2001, we took a big leap forward.” It was Steinarr Lár and his friends who discovered the wave in Þorlákshöfn. There is no record of people surfing there before them. Steinarr Lár reminisces, “When we hiked over the harbour wall and saw this perfect wave, we could not believe that it was so close to us – we had been driving all over Iceland trying to find something like this.” He fondly recalls, “Standing there with my best friends and discovering an appealing perfect right-hander that runs down 300 meters is one of the greatest moments of my life.”

Since that day Þorlákshöfn, or “Þorli” as surfers refer to it, has been the cradle of Icelandic surfing. “It’s the only wave that works on low tide, mid tide and high tide,” explains Steinarr Lár, adding that since we are so far North, the tides here can reach four to five meters (for reference, at the equator, the tides are only 30 centimeters). “The wave at Þorlákshöfn breaks 24/7. We have built our surf culture here. Without Þorli, it would not exist.”

Tides of change

I wait on the coast while Steinarr Lár and two fellow surfers give today’s waves a try. It’s an average day for surfing; the wind is blowing in the opposite direction we would want it too. Yet, watching a trio of men tame the ocean is a meditative experience, something inexplicably profound, yet grounding about it.

“The North is the final frontier of surfing,” says Steinarr Lár once he’s out of the water. “We need infrastructure, we need income for our country, but we also have to attend to our health. There’s a lot of stress in the world right now and the ocean is a place where you can really neutralise it.” 

In his opinion, guarding this location is in the town’s best interest. He is confident that if the municipality looks beyond their personal and political interests, they would recognise the economic advantages of preserving the surfing spot in Þorlákshöfn. Some of his surf buddies have already relocated to the area to be closer to the beach. This could just be the beginning.

“When you’re the first generation of something in a country, people don’t see the value in it,” he says, recalling a case from his teenage years when he was denied entry to ski lifts at the popular Bláfjöll resort with a snowboard because snowboarding was completely unknown in Iceland at that time. Thirty years later, no one would frown at the sight of a snowboard and if Þorli is preserved, surfing in Iceland would only continue to develop. According to Steinarr Lár, having Þorlákshöfn in your backyard is like having a ski resort in your backyard – it could lead to infrastructure development and new jobs.

For now, the future of the unique Þorli wave remains uncertain. But members of the Surfing Association take shifts to be at the spot every day, ensuring that the illegal construction doesn’t continue. “We are trying to be respectful and have a good dialogue with the municipality because we’re going to have a future here,” he concludes, emphasising that should the municipality proceed with the project illegally, the Surfing Association will file charges. 

Sign the petition to save the wave in Þorlákshöfn: bit.ly/save-the-wave

UPDATED: On Thursday, November 2nd, the municipality of Ölfus made the decision to proceed with the original project of the harbour expansion. Brimbrettafélag Íslands will be taking legal action.

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