Close Encounters of the Oceanic Kind Inspired Laguna Beach Paddleboarder’s Activism

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A 2015 orca encounter caught on video by paddleboarder Rich German went viral and inspired him to form a worldwide network of communities committed to environmental protection and nonprofit that safeguards the ocean. Photo by Barbara McMurray

By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Independent

What started as a hobby became a life’s purpose and an accidental passage to international renown for paddleboarder Rich German. Starting in 2010, he set out every morning from north Laguna for a bit of exercise on his 14-foot board. Looking beneath the water’s surface, he quickly realized he was not alone. He began recording his encounters with ocean wildlife on a GoPro camera affixed to his hat.

“There’s a ridge that runs about two miles offshore called the 100 Fathom Curve where the ocean floor drops to 600 feet, hence the name,” German said. “Another quarter mile out, it drops to 1,500 feet. Lots of action right there.”

Paddling above this busy ocean freeway, he routinely saw multiple species of dolphins, gray, humpback, fin, and minke whales, and even the earth’s biggest animal, 100-foot-long blue whales.

Then, from the blue, came the orcas.

On a crisp January morning in 2015, German was enjoying a solitary voyage when a friendly pod of four black-and-white behemoths surfaced as they were feeding on fish. They circled his board as if in greeting, coming within a few feet, blowing and swimming directly beneath him. At one point, German dropped to his knees to keep from capsizing and can be heard exclaiming under his breath, “Oh, baby, don’t hit me!”

German captured the encounter with his GoPro and posted it on YouTube. The video has garnered more than 1.1 million views. The pod was an orca family known as CA51 – matriarch Star, appropriately named, and her three offspring, daughter Comet and sons Orion and Bumper.

CA51 inspired German to turn his passion into a vocation. He formulated the Blue City Network, a data-driven certification program that recognizes cities and counties that demonstrate their commitment to healthy waterways and oceans. Certified cities join a coalition of what German anticipates will be a worldwide network that shares access to resources from top environmental nonprofits, cities, and government agencies. Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach, and Imperial Beach have so far made the grade.

German hopes Laguna Beach will join communities willing to implement and collaborate on sustainability programs for waste minimization, climate protection, healthy ecosystems, and drinking water quality. 

Additionally, German masterminded a new nonprofit, Project O, which includes Our Epic Ocean, a project whose free “7-day Epic Ocean Challenge” on Facebook offers specific, daily ways to reduce one’s negative impact on the earth. His “Our Epic Ocean” podcast highlights people working to protect the ocean and planet. A glossy, 128-page photo book, Blue Laguna, is a collection of eye-popping photos taken from atop German’s paddleboard.

Project O has aligned with and fundraises for Plastic Bank, a Canadian social enterprise that views castoff plastics as a resource. Plastic Bank creates jobs by hiring workers to collect and sort plastic that is sold to companies for manufacturing new products. This keeps plastic out of the ecosystem while reducing the need for freshly made plastic and dependence on the oil and gas industry.

German figures he’s spent 9,000 hours on the ocean and covered about 25,000 miles —more than the circumference of the planet. And he’s done it in the picturesque Laguna Beach State Marine Reserve and Laguna Beach State Marine Conservation Area, two adjoining marine protected areas that cover a total of 9.71 square miles where taking any living marine resource is prohibited.

“Turning our coastline into a protected marine sanctuary is a beautiful example of what happens when we just leave the environment alone to heal itself,” he asserted. “It also serves as a wonderful model for the rest of the world to follow.”

The public is invited to register at ourepicocean.com for the free seven-day Epic Ocean Challenge starting March 6.

“We need to take action,” German stated. “And we need to do it together.”

Barbara is a writer and marketing consultant. Find her at mcmurraymarketing.com.

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