Localism: The Dark Side Of Surfing


Localism is like surfing’s dirty little secret.

If you didn’t know any better you’d think all surfers are a happy bunch, smiling from ear to ear, just happy to share in the beauty of the ocean, right?

Not exactly. While this may be true of some surfers, more often than not, surfing is a competitive sport that relies on a limited resource, waves!

This lack of resources can lead to aggressive behaviour, territorial mindsets and sometimes even violence in extreme cases.


What Is Localism In Surfing?

Localism in surfing happens when surfers who are local to a particular surf spot assert their dominance and territorial rights over that area. This typically involves ensuring locals get their fair share of set waves.

The whole premise of ‘localism’ stems from a feeling of ownership over a specific surf spot or area of coastline.

Your typically a ‘local’ at your home break, but how long it takes to achieve this status is entirely down to the local surf community. 

Localism can manifest itself in a number of ways, ranging from silent looks and verbal confrontation to physical intimidation and acts of vandalism on cars or equipment belonging to non-locals. 

The video below gives you a rather nasty insight into what it’s like for an outsider to experience localism first-hand when he made the mistake of paddling out at the notorious Tamarin Bay, Mauritius.  

Why Is Localism Even A Thing?

It’s easy to write off localism in surfing as a small group of surfing extremists who’ve adopted unnecessary tribal tendencies to stop an inevitable conclusion, but it’s just not that simple.

While I would never condone violence of any kind the recent interest in the culture of surfing has led to a massive increase in the population of surfers globally.

And recent years haven’t been kind to lesser know and even secret surf spots.


The advent of social media and a stampeding surf media hungry for new content has meant that many previously quiet waves are now packed with travelling surfers.

Imagine if your local wave made it onto a magazine cover on the day of days and now the surfing masses are all turning up in the parking lot for a surf check, you’d be kinda bummed.

And it’s not even just surf magazines now, anyone can take a photo of a wave and post it and all it takes is a telltale landmark in the background and internet detectives will have it figured in no time.

Cheap travel 

Despite cost increases in recent years, surf travel is still relatively cheap if you’re willing to work on a budget and skip a bit of luxury.

This means finding the perfect wave and hunting down the next surfing paradise is well within reach for many surfers.

But for the locals, it’s their worst nightmare, waves that may get a few visiting surfers when the swell kicks in are starting to get packed all year round.

Exposed spots, too much competition, it all builds up to a point where local surfers feel like they have to take action in the form of territoriality.

And these aren’t always surfing extremists, after enough disrespect from visiting surfers local communities can close ranks, leading to a cold welcome at best, and sometimes much worse.

How To Avoid It

Now it’s not all doom and gloom, localism is reserved for a small amount of surf breaks and there are some simple steps you can follow to make sure you’re not on the receiving end.

Learn surf etiquette

Surf etiquette is a whole subject in itself but there are some key takeaways that you’ll need to learn to avoid the wrath of local surfers when you’re travelling.

Whenever you paddle out at a new surf spot make sure you:

  • Are surfing waves within your ability level
  • Don’t paddle around surfers or drop in (head over to our guide on back-paddling to learn more)
  • Respect the locals at all times
  • Don’t paddle around people waiting for set waves
  • Wait your turn and don’t get greedy

By taking note of the above you’ll stay respectful in the lineup and won’t ruffle any feathers.

Bonus tip – One of my best tips for avoiding localism is to let a wave go to another surfer. It’s as simple as a nod of the head when the set waves come but it shows a level of respect that won’t go unnoticed.

Avoid well-known local surf spots

Sadly the best waves in the world are normally the most crowded surf spots.

And as a general rule, the better the wave, the more tightly knit the local tribe that dominates the spot.

This couldn’t be more true than at some of the world’s most dangerous waves like Pipeline and Teahuppoo where a carefully organised hierarchy rules with local surfers well and truly at the top of this pecking order.

Don’t travel in a group of surfers 

Turning up to a quiet surf spot with four of you in the car and the surfboards on the roof is a perfect way to make some enemies before you even paddle out.

Travelling around in what I like to call an ‘instacrowd’ is a definite no-no if you want to avoid confrontation, especially at more localised surf spots.

If you are going to surf a spot with a heavy local crew then my best advice would be to go alone and be ultra-respectful.

Bonus tip – Avoiding roof racks and obvious surf stickers on your vehicle is always the way to go in my opinion. The last thing locals want is for you to advertise their lesser-known spot with a massive mal hanging off the roof.

Examples Of Localism Through The Years

Now we know what localism is and why it happens let’s take a look at some of the times it’s reared its ugly head in recent years.


It was ancient Hawaiians that first took to riding waves on long carved pieces of wood so it’s no surprise that it’s here that we find our first case of localism in surfing.

A marginalised Hawaiian people began to fight back against the colonisation of their island by controlling one of the few areas still left to them, the ocean.

They famously dictated who could and couldn’t enter the water, got into fights with GIs and bedded many of the affluent women who came to stay at the beach resorts.

In modern years the Da Hui (a crew of modern surfers all hailing from Hawaii) regulate the lineup out at Pipe and make sure the locals are being shown respect at all times.

Southern California 

Now we head over to the mainland USA to Malibu in the 1960s where the rise of surf culture was still in its early infancy.

Miki Dora the ‘King Of Malibu’ was less than happy with the increasing numbers of strange faces arriving to surf the now classic wave.

Alongside other surfers, they formed a group known as the ‘surf nazis’ which set about decorating local coastlines with territorial graffiti designed to intimidate any surfers from out of town.

In more recent years Lunada Bay has been in the spotlight with several attacks and legal battles centered around the heavily protected surf break.


Our next instance of localism centres around a surf gang hailing from Maroubra, Australia.

Their story is well detailed in the surf documentary ‘Bra Boys’ narrated by Russel Crowe.

In short, they essentially take over a wave called Cape Solander from a crew of local bodyboarders before renaming it ‘Ours’ to really stamp their ownership all over it.

My Thoughts On Localism

Surf localism results in nothing good as far as I’m concerned but that doesn’t mean it’s not a symptom of a very real problem in surfing.

I don’t think fighting surf localism is really an option and we need to look at how we act as surfers as a whole to try and solve the problem.

Tourist surfers need to make the effort to do everything they can to respect locals and enter lineups with the knowledge their not going to be catching as many waves as they would at their home break.

As locals, I think we need to try and give everyone a chance rather than tarring all with the same brush in some deluded effort to protect our waves.

Let’s face it we’re all trying to achieve the same thing, we just need a little more understanding on both sides to truly solve this for good.

If you’ve enjoyed this short read then don’t miss our other surfing discussion below packed with insights into the lesser-known parts of surfing.