A high-tension truce over personal watercraft that some say pits the safety of surfers against the protection of marine life came to a head last week on the eve of the Mavericks surf contest opening ceremonies.
Two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agents confronted a group of three surfers. The surfers were wearing wetsuits and standing by personal watercraft at Pillar Point Harbor, and the NOAA agents warned them it would be illegal to take out the watercraft that day. At the time, contest planners were working on safety plans and moviemakers were on the water shooting footage for the feature film, "Of Men and Mavericks."
That sparked an angry response, according to the government agents. One surfer reportedly began yelling insults, daring them to issue a citation if he went out. The NOAA agents say they were soon surrounded by about 15 men.
"It was a mob," said NOAA special agent Nicholas Call. "We're not out here to write tickets. Our main concern is the wildlife in the area. That's the main goal of our agency."
The NOAA agents were out at Pillar Point Harbor on an unrelated investigation and the encounter with the surfers was a coincidence, Call said. That's when they noticed the personal watercraft in the water.
Mavericks regular Adam Replogle was among those riding a personal watercraft for the filming that day. He explained the high-surf day was a rare opportunity to practice before the Mavericks surf event, and that it's unreasonable to ban them when they can be used to save lives.
"We've been having friends of ours pass away out there," he said. "The state or the feds aren't going to put anyone out there to rescue you, so we've got to do what we can."
The exchange touched on a larger conflict and the role of personal watercraft in the marine sanctuary. Bringing Jet Skis out to Mavericks is no simple matter. The surf spot is located right in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, a region specially designated to protect seals, otters and other marine life. Some wildlife advocates maintain personal watercraft can churn up the sensitive habitat and that the resulting commotion is inherently bad for animals. Some surfers counter that the machines have changed and do not pollute or damage habitat as they once may have done.
Last month, Mavericks contest organizers and oceanic groups finalized details of a one-day permit to allow 15 personalized watercraft at the Mavericks contest. They will be used to tow, film and - if necessary - rescue surfers. Mavericks organizers are expected to sign the new arrangement sometimes this week.
"Surfers are people who love the ocean," said Jessica Banks, spokeswoman for the Mavericks organizers. "It's one of those things where it's hard to say we're contaminating the ocean, when we're trying to save lives."
Both surfers and ocean advocates can point to other recent examples to make their case.
Surfers rallied to bring back personal watercraft this year after the death of Hawaiian surfer Sion Milosky, who wiped out at Mavericks in March and couldn't be found for a half-hour. His body was found after another surfer went out on a personal watercraft to search.
Officials with the Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary say witnesses saw a Jet Ski run over an otter at Mavericks in 2008. The otter's dead body was found later when it washed ashore.
"Primarily, it's a matter of wildlife disturbance," said Mary Jane Schramm, a spokeswoman for the Farallones sanctuary. "There's harbor seals out there, there's otters; even whales can migrate through that area."
Aside from the deal during the contest, personal watercraft can be taken into the sanctuary only for a rescue, but a high-surf warning must be issued first by NOAA.
Balancing the concerns of both groups, the new agreement for Mavericks sets up rules for how the small watercraft can navigate out to the surf break. A specific pathway has been designated for how Jet Ski drivers must steer from Pillar Point Harbor out to the Mavericks Point.
At least four observers will be stationed at the contest to make sure drivers are following the rules to the letter, Schramm said. r
Editor Clay Lambert contributed to this story.