Five hundred miles off the Chilean coast, there’s a small island that carries the name of a famous castaway.
It’s a stark place surrounded by thriving seas and powerful surf, and when Léa Brassy, Ramón Navarro and Kohl Christensen traveled there to ride waves, they found themselves challenged by its unruly weather and wind. But they also found that the island had much more than surf to offer, and they spent their time between sessions learning how its residents are successfully protecting their wild waters and fisheries—and why, on Isla Alejandro Selkirk, the word for outsiders is “plasticós.”
Our new short film about their trip is streaming below, and we’ve included a few of Léa’s journal entries, too.
“When we were on a recent trip to Punta de Lobos, Patagonia Chile surf ambassador Pato Mekis shared the idea to visit Alejandro Selkirk Island in the Juan Fernández archipelago. He’d already been there twice with his brothers, Lucas and Fede, to produce the beautiful documentary, Más Afuera. The waters around the Juan Fernández Islands had been officially designated as a marine park in early 2018, and Pato wanted us to experience the unique vision of the local fishing community who’d fought to protect the biodiversity that makes their lifestyle so special.
We knew we had to go, so we made the necessary travel arrangements and eventually reached Selkirk aboard the supply ship, Tio Lalo, after a 14-hour trip from Robinson Crusoe Island. Although surfing was our main excuse, our crew—Ramón, Kohl, Pato and I—all have strong connections to our coastal communities, which are trying to preserve traditions in a renewable way. But still, we were ‘plásticos’—the nickname locals gave to visitors from the South American mainland, who began arriving with single-use plastic items back in the 1960s.”
“Selkirk’s harbor is the center of its community. Nestled in a valley on the southwest coast of the island, the tiny settlement is made up of around 30 men, 10 women and a dozen kids, who spend October to May there without returning to Robinson Crusoe. When supplies arrive, a human chain appears to distribute the goods, with everyone shouting names and kindly teasing each other.
Behind the harbor, there are wooden houses, a tiny chapel and a soccer field to sweat and recreate on rest days. There are also dead trees that lend a spooky atmosphere, until you learn that they’re invasive eucalyptus that have been poisoned on purpose to protect native and endemic species. Every day has its routine, with the crews gathering at 7 a.m. to launch their boats and start their labor at sea. In the evening, someone rings the bell to call for help to start the hauling-in process. Difficult tasks are shared with a heartwarming enthusiasm—they describe it as communal work, but I saw it as genuine brotherhood.”
“Local fishermen Tonio and Chiqui drove us around in their boat, Popito. As we started talking about the island, they couldn’t wait to tell us that there was nowhere else they’d rather be. Both their faces shone with genuine smiles, and they both had the same sparkle in their eyes. As we transferred lobsters from traps to the boat, they showed me how to hold them properly, teasing me as they did it. ‘No son papas, Léa, hay que tener cuidado—they’re not potatoes, Léa, be gentle.’
The lobster fishery is the main commercial activity on Selkirk, and the community has known for generations that their resources need to be carefully managed so they can continue to prosper. Their fishery is Marine Stewardship Council certified, and they stop harvesting for four or five months each year to ease pressure on the lobster population. There are other conservation measures in place, too—only island residents are allowed to fish, they use handmade wooden traps and the lobsters must be a certain size to harvest. The lobsters are sold live at a higher price, ensuring a better quality of life for local families, and at the end of each season the traps are pulled up by hand from 150 fathoms deep.
Strong values and purpose drive the community, and we could feel the sense of accomplishment in how they do their work—and how they work to protect their seas.”
“Imagine the electric-blue intensity of the Pacific. Lines of overhead waves wrap around the rocky shores. Foam is dancing in an infinity of turquoise shades. Close your eyes and you’re riding one of those waves, feeling the speed, embracing the momentum, with giant walls of volcanic rock overlooking you, their golden robes of grass brightened by the sun. When you open your eyes, it’s only you and a few friends. The brotherhood is cheering on each wave, and you find yourself yelling with stoke, the moment stretching to a lifetime memory.
But for me, the most special moment comes before the sun even comes up. All the guys nod to me, ‘Your turn, Léa, are you ready?’ The wave is a massive outside reef, with 15- to 18-foot waves swiped by a strong offshore wind. I’ve never towed in conditions like this—in fact, I haven’t ever towed at all.
Ramón drives the ski, and all I have to do is keep control of my stress. Everything else is instinctive. I don’t want to disappoint my friends, as they’ve brought me all the way here on this mind-blowing adventure. We circle the takeoff zone a couple of times until the right moment comes; the speed helps me dodge the bumps, and when I feel the energy of the wave, I let go of the rope and remember what I love doing—feeling the ocean carrying me down a large face of water as it whistles and roars behind me. The feeling is incredible, and back on the ski I hug them with so much gratitude for sharing their knowledge and brotherhood to give me the first wave of the day.”
“I spend my last hour on the island polishing a wolf engraved in black coral by a new friend on the island. It’s time to go—the boat is full, and so is my heart. I’d need at least a month or two to fully imprint what’s going on here—and I’d need a lot more words, more of my native French words, too.
Everyone exchanges warm hugs, and someone hands me a letter carefully wrapped in plastic film to protect it from ocean spray. We launch the boat, and after a few minutes I look at the pencil sketch on the envelope of an endangered Masafuera Rayadito bird that lives only here on Selkirk. I wonder why we’ve gone so fast in our world, why we’re no longer handwriting letters and fighting for what really matters: love and nature.
In the end, surfing big waves wasn’t the treasure we were meant to find. We were meant to discover that a community can change its own destiny by getting together and protecting what’s most precious to its wellness and sustainability.”