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Surf Cams Bring Serenity, Temptation and Crushing FOMO

For two decades, these streams have provided surfers a glimpse of waves around the globe. But under quarantine, are they bringing zen or inspiring risky behavior?

Years ago, before these dirt times dictated our dirt lives, my weekend routine was simple. It began around 5 in the morning with a text from my uncle, asking me if I wanted to go surfing. Before I could flatly refuse and go back to sleep, I’d fumble around enough until I could feel the cool metal shell of my computer against my fingertips. Barely conscious, I’d flip open the screen, type the words into the URL and sleepily poke my way on the trackpad until I could see — with one eye barely open — the waves, breaking, on any number of Malibu’s renowned beaches. Looking back, I can attest that without those surf cams teasing me with the promise of a perfect wave, on most of those days I’d have gone back to sleep. 

I’m not alone in this. Jon Chester, an artist and graphic designer in San Francisco, has, for the last 10 years, also checked the surf forecast before driving to the beach. “I feed the dogs. I get coffee. I usually take a bath. And then I come over to my computer,” he says. “And then… I just look at them.”

The “them” he’s referring to are the waves, via surf cams, at his local beaches near San Francisco. “Sometimes it’s not really even for a specific reason to go surfing,” he says. “It’s almost like I like looking at the beach, you know?”

Chester tells me that when there’s a swell, he usually surfs three or four days a week. “So there’s a definite function in that way,” he says, referring to the cams. But nowadays, since most beaches are closed, the surf cams are mostly meditative. “It’s just sort of a feeling of checking in with the ocean,” says Chester. “And then sometimes I’ll even turn it on in the evening to see how the sunset’s going. So it’s not really goal-oriented, it’s just sort of, I’ve gotten attached to getting this little view of the ocean.”

This “little view of the ocean” via live stream has been around for a while now. Surfline, “the pioneer of the so-called live surf cam revolution,” according to Surfer Today, and the world’s foremost surf forecasting service, has been around in one form or another since 1985. Sean Collins, the late founder of Surfline, wrote a blog post in 2009 explaining that the basis for the forecasting service is built around the fact that surfers will go to great lengths “to figure out what the surf is doing if they aren’t near the beach.” “Wherever we were, we would all dream about how insane it would be to somehow tap into a camera at the beach so we could actually see the surf and wind conditions,” he wrote in his blog post. “That dream finally came true, and today there are hundreds of surf cameras only a mouse click away and we can even use a mobile phone to check local breaks or international spots on the other side of the world.”

Before live stream cameras were available, Surfline employed “between 20 and 50 local surfers who would send morning reports to the company’s central office in Huntington Beach, [California],” the site reports. “By dialing (213 or 818) 976-SURF and paying 55 cents for a 90-second recorded message, Southern California surfers got valuable information on the wave conditions for some of the best spots in the region.”

It wasn’t until the 1996 U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, however, that the first-ever live surf camera was set up by Collins and his team. “Using a computer software called ‘Snap and Send’ and a closed-circuit video security camera, he was able to share a single frame to the world every five minutes,” per the same Surfline post. 

Soon after — thanks in large part to the porn industry for helping ensure the rapid development of online video-streaming technology — in December 1996, Collins et al installed their first-ever “streaming video” surf cameras at Pipeline, at the famed North Shore. “The investment expense for the surf cameras was staggering but we learned to cut the cost by building, assembling and installing our own computers and camera systems ourselves,” Collins wrote in his blog post. “By the end of the 1990s, Surfline had more than 25 surf cameras that were streaming live video on”

Today, Surfline boasts more than 500 cameras — many of which are HD quality — all over the world, and are available to watch at any given time of the day. “It’s weird, because it was a part of my daily routine,” says Aimee Nolte, a jazz pianist in L.A. “You check in the morning when you wake up, you check in the night before you go to bed, like, what’s the tide going to be? Where’s the swell coming from? It’s a thing, just like checking your email.”

The only difference now is that Nolte is less inclined to look at her local surf cams — “Since I can’t go surf there anyway” — and instead opts for those further afield. “A lot of times I’ll watch the pipe cam in Hawaii nowadays,” she says. “I’ll tune into that just to see an empty wave that’s beautiful. There’s something really cool about being able to watch waves around the world in real-time.”

At a time when few things in our lives feel like part of our usual routine, being able to watch the ocean from the safety of your bedroom is a nice reprieve from nearly every other reminder that nothing else is or feels normal. It’s a little moment of comforting familiarity. 

The only problem is, not everyone agrees. 

Strange as it might sound after hearing others wax poetic about the importance of the web cams, some of Surfline’s most ardent fans — those who pay $7.99 per month for the website’s premium service — have vowed to cancel their membership if the website doesn’t shut down their cams. Their argument is, on the surface, a sensible one: that the “virtual escapism” provided by the live stream is just added “temptation.” Even Chester says that watching the cams on days when it’s good, gives him added FOMO. “I probably shouldn’t admit it, but I have a beach break where it’s really hard to get to. You have to climb down this cliff, and it’s a mediocre beach break,” he says. “But I can get there and be totally away from people. I don’t see another person in the water for miles.”

This is precisely the argument those who want the cams taken offline during the quarantine are making: By leaving them up, surfers like Chester will inevitably be tempted to risk infection for a decent wave. 

The other issue with keeping the cams online is that they cause greater confusion for those attempting to stave off the urge to go paddle out. “When I check out the cams, you can still see some people surfing,” says Nolte. “And that kind of confuses me because I thought people were getting in trouble for that. Especially at Huntington [Beach] — every time I look at Huntington, there are some people out there.”

To be clear, people have gotten in trouble for that. In late March, one “Manhattan Beach surfer was issued a citation that carries a fine of up to $1,000, after ignoring a Los Angeles County Lifeguard’s order that he not go in the water,” according to Easy Reader News. 

While that may seem excessive, according to scientists at the University of California San Diego, despite the fact that surfers can keep their distance from each other, surfing is still unsafe during the quarantine and could worsen the crisis. Kim Prather, who researches how the ocean sprays bacteria and viruses into the air, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that ocean breezes can carry drops of saliva and other fluids far. “Surfers are saying that they’re safe if they stay six feet away from other people, but that’s only true if the air isn’t moving. … Most of the time, there’s wind or a breeze at the coast,” she told them. “Tiny drops of virus can float in the air and get blown around.” 

But again, it’s not clear if shutting down the Surfline cams will have any effect on keeping surfers out of the water. If I know anything about surfers and surfing, it’s that rules mean very little if you’re jonesing for a wave. I’m more inclined to believe that the cameras could even help people like Nolte and Chester stave off the urge to take a dip in the ocean. “I use the days when it’s been looking really crappy around here, and it sort of makes it easier to be home when I see that the surf is crappy, because then it assuages that fear of missing out, because you know that there’s nothing really to miss out on,” says Chester. “It’s sort of like a rainy day where you stay at home and you don’t feel bad about staying at home, because it’s raining outside.” 

Nolte agrees, telling me that most days, instead of driving to the beach herself, she just looks at the cams “hoping that it’s bad, hoping that I’m not missing anything.”

Surfline didn’t respond to my questions about whether they plan on keeping their cams online through the remainder of the quarantine. Their last comment on the matter appears to be a blog post from March 22nd titled “Shred at Home, Shred Safely.” In it, they concede that people are still going to surf, and as such the blog post identifies “six suggestions to Shred Safely.” One of the recommendations: surf shitty waves, “because the best way to practice social distancing in the water is to find the worst, weirdest, wonkiest wave and froth out all by yourself.” 

But again, as I mentioned earlier, the issue of social distancing isn’t the reason the ocean is an unsafe place right now — it’s the fact that the virus is transmittable via the air above the waves. Still, I’m here to advocate that the surf cams stay online. Because while they do inherently further the temptation to surf, which can be deadly, I’m not convinced that switching them off will deter the most avid surfers anyway. In which case, it will just result in needless punishment for the rest of us.

There’s also little doubt that, for most law-abiding citizens like Nolte, these live streams are essential to their sanity amidst isolation. I may be sleeping in more, but as this crisis continues, small nodes of good — like watching the waves break on the beach at sunset — can make all the difference in keeping our last fragments of hope, balanced, above the waterline.