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He's Got a PhD in Surfing

Jess Ponting talks about his new film Splinters



San Diego and Papua New Guinea may seem like polar opposites when it comes to lifestyle, but they do share a common hobby—surfing! The documentary film SPLINTERS, to be screened at Bird's Surf Shed on Saturday, Feb. 11, explores the evolution of surfing in this developing country. Dr. Jess Ponting, professor at San Diego State, served as cinematographer on the film and even holds the world’s first PhD in Sustainable Surf tourism.

San Diego Magazine: What was it like filming in Papua New Guinea and how long did you spend in the region?

Dr. Jess Ponting: Filming in Papua New Guinea was a blast. After college I spent 18 months living in the country, so by the time we started filming, I knew my way around, understood the customs and was fluent in the language.

The first filming trip was in late 2003. I had just wrapped up my PhD field research in Indonesia. There were just a couple of weeks between arriving home and leaving again for Papua New Guinea. Director Adam Pesce and cinematographer Jason Argyropoulos were kids fresh out of film school, which worried me. I think we spent two months up there on the first trip. We must have looked strange lugging our mountain of high-tech equipment into small boats, on small airplanes, through bush material huts and under developed villages. We had a great time going to the village market and buying fresh fruits and vegetables to live on. The tropical fruits in PNG are incredible but aside from that it’s not really much of a food culture in the way that most Asian cultures are so we were getting creative with the local ingredients.

Director Adam Pesce, Cinematorgrapher Jason Argyropoulos

SDM: Did anything surprise you about the surf culture in Papua New Guinea? 

JP: The fact that a surf culture exists at all in Papua New Guinea is surprising. We came across a quiet little village called Wutung tucked away under a towering headland at the foot of the Biwani mountain range. When we rolled through in the morning we noticed what appeared to be miniature wooden surf boards leaning up against houses. We came back through a few hours later and were stunned to see a bunch of kids from the village surfing on these tiny boards on a shallow gurgling reef break. They told me that they’ve always surfed in PNG, lying down on the broken sides of canoes. They call these splinters, which gave the name to the film. They told me that in the 1980s a traveler left a surfing magazine in the village and they saw pictures of surfboards with fins and people riding waves upright. Their response was to head into the forest and carve the rough board shape from the roots of giant rainforest trees. They carved fins and devised a way to attach them to the board to mimic the shape they saw in the magazine. Then they taught themselves to surf standing up. Completely amazing.

For the village of Lido, where the film was largely shot, surfing is an important part of village life. The village has achieved national recognition and quite a few of the best surfers have had the chance to travel internationally to compete against other South Pacific nations. Surfing is the one chance they have to see the world and they are passionate about it.

SDM: How is it different from the surf culture in San Diego?

JP: Surf culture in Papua New Guinea is very different to San Diego. There are not enough surf boards to go around so surfers take turns. There will be a bunch of people surfing and a bunch of people hanging out on shore. There are no surf shops and so not much in the way of specialized equipment. I remember thinking when I saw the guys surfing in Wutung that there was not a single item of surf industry merchandise amongst them. No trunks, shirts, leashes, boards, fins, watches, sunglasses, shoes, rubber bracelets, no wetsuits. Nada. Its difficult to imagine being a surfer in San Diego without all the commercial trappings that go with it.

What is perhaps even more interesting than the differences is the similarities. The bottom line is -- we are all surfers. The common experience of wave riding is a point of reference that both cultures understand. Papua New Guineans get just as stoked as San Diegans when they get barreled.

SDM: How and when did you first become interested in surfing? 

JP: I grew up in Australia and first saw surfing when I was about 8 years old. I fell instantly in love. My parents would take the family to play tennis on Saturday mornings and the courts were right by Blackhead Beach. I would ditch tennis and watch the older kids surf. When I finally convinced my Welsh parents to buy me a surfboard, every spare moment I had, I was in the water.

My parents loved to travel and so I got to surf in Bali when I was 12 and Hawaii when I was 15. I was hooked on surf travel from an early age. When you travel with the goal of finding great surf it leads you to the most incredible places that most travellers and tourists never get to see. My goal, through the Center for Surf Research at San Diego State University, is to make sure that our impact on the places we visit as traveling surfers is a wholly positive one. Unfortunately, this rarely the case.

SDM: You have the first PhD in Sustainable Surf Tourism. Can you explain a little about this and how it came about?

JP: When I first left Papua New Guinea in 1997, I hopped over the border to Indonesia and spent almost a year on an overland surfing odyssey. Along the way I noticed that surf tourism was supporting communities throughout the Indonesian Archipelago, but that it was coming at a significant environmental and social/cultural cost. Surf tourism accommodation was not adequately sewered, solid waste was being dumped directly into the environment. Visiting surfers were not on their best behavior and drugs and prostitution seemed to follow surfer driven tourism development into previously conservative Muslim, Christian, and Hindu communities.

I realized that surf tourism could become a force for wholly positive change if we could do some research into more appropriate management plans and use some of the tools that I’d learned doing community development work in PNG. I came back inspired and started on a master’s degree in tourism management that looked at the sustainability of surf tourism in Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands.

My university then offered me a full scholarship to continue the research at the PhD level, so I went for it. I look at how surf travel impacts the lives of surf destination communities.

SDM: What do you hope people take away from the film?

JP: I hope that people see the connection between the Lido community and themselves. Lido surfers are stoked on surfing just like we are. We are linked by our love of the ocean and the energy that pulses through it. We are in a position to be able to support these coastal communities achieve community development in their own terms and manage surf tourism in ways that they deem appropriate for themselves. This is why I created the Center for Surf Research. I hope the film will inspire people to think about the communities and environments they travel through as surfers. I also hope the film will inspire people to engage with the Center for Surf Research.

For more information visit snagfilms.com/splinters.

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