One breezy summer day while arriving to surf Lake Erie with friends, Antonio Lennert witnessed something startling: over a hundred dead fish washed up along the shoreline. “It was a very scary moment,” he says. “None of us had ever seen that many dead fish on the beach before.” As the group got in the water, they saw algae all around, but since they’d driven for two hours to find good waves that day, they paddled out and surfed for a couple hours anyways. “Every now and then a dead fish would pop up next to one of us,” says Antonio. “It was pretty gross and terrifying.”
The Brazilian-born surfer and community activist has been noticing more and more changes in the Great Lakes over the years, and the damage is something he desperately hopes to repair. As the founder and Chief Experience Officer of Surf the Greats, a northern surf culture and community organization and Toronto-based MEC Outdoor Nation collaborator, he leads beach cleanups, educational workshops and meet-ups in hopes of instilling a need to act in the local surf community. For Antonio, Surf the Greats is the manifestation of passion for adventure, exploration and the power of nature – something that was ingrained in him when he grew up by the ocean in Brazil, and when he lived in California and Australia before moving to Toronto in 2009.
“[I’ve] lost count of how many times I saw people putting their lives at risk without fully understanding the dangers of our riptides,” he laments. “And water is becoming a commodity as the years go by. But surfing the Great Lakes puts us in a privileged position, [one where we] witness all the pollution in the water. And that needs to change.”
Pollution, contamination, debris and harmful algal blooms are some of the largest threats to Canada’s waterways. The blooms are particularly concerning. A result of rapid algae growth due to the presence of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, they tend to occur in late summer and early fall, and produce toxins as cells die. For surfers, paddlers and swimmers who want to enjoy the water, the health issues that result from contact with the blooms can be wide-ranging and serious: muscle cramps and twitching, nausea and vomiting, cardiac or respiratory difficulty, liver failure and even paralysis.
Antonio has witnessed the blooms first-hand. “Sometimes we leave the water covered in algae or aren’t able to surf at all because of the toxicity,” he reveals. “Although many surfers still risk their health and go in.”
Wanting to enlighten fellow surfers and increase his safety knowledge, Antonio went to Costa Rica to take an open-water rescue course as well as the Surf & SUP instructor course put on by the International Surfing Association. Surf the Greats events, meet-ups and wave forecasting workshops are where he gets to pass that knowledge on. At a recent MEC Outdoor Nation and Surf The Greats event in the Toronto Islands called “Castaway,” 100 people gathered at a secret beach to SUP, do yoga, swim and participate in a beach cleanup. “We removed over 100lb of garbage from the beach and more than 10 tires from the lake,” says Antonio. His desire to connect people with nature through surfing goes hand in hand with a drive to care for it; it’s a new wave of thinking that plenty of Toronto-area residents are eager to catch a ride on.
“Next summer we want to expand our offerings to Prince Edward County and other parts of Ontario while growing our programming for Toronto,” says Antonio. Surf the Greats devotees and wave watchers can keep an eye on their inboxes and social media channels for sweet bonuses too, including info on pop-up shops, reggae night dance parties, surf photography exhibits and yoga classes.
Photos by Lucas Murnaghan.
Want to try surfing and get involved? Check out MEC Outdoor Nation and Surf the Greats for the latest events and tag your freshwater Instagram pics with #myhomewaters to help share the love of Canada’s waterways.