Surfer Nikita Scott’s on a mission to clean up the world’s sea
Nikita Scott’s passion for surfing took her far from her Scottish home and into direct confrontation with the president of the United States. She talks to Victoria Allan
WHEN Nikita Scott was working her way around the globe in search of that perfect wave, she saw a few things that shocked her. One was the Great Barrier Reef where, while scuba-diving, she witnessed how sections were white and dead, yet tourists visiting with largescale operators continued to damage the fragile coral by standing on it or knocking it. “That was very hard for me to see,” she says, “because I loved the ocean and I could see the damage being done.”
The other was the plastic pollution in Bali. “That was a huge eye-opener. There are waves of plastic in the ocean. It made me realise the impact that humans have.”
We meet on the sands at Portobello, Edinburgh’s town beach. Since as a child, she visited and played on east coast beaches like these, Scott, who grew up in Tillicoultry, has been on countless other beaches around the world. Portobello is a long way from her current local sands, Rockaway, in New York City but, she observes, these oceans are all connected. Many of the environmental issues are the same globally.
It just happens that the coast Scott is defending right now is a strip of shore in the United States. And she is protecting it with gusto. As chair of the New York City chapter of Surfrider, an organisation with a mission to protect the sea, she has fought off a liquefied natural gas terminal and battled offshore drilling, as well as organising regular beach clean-ups of plastic rubbish. She is a Scot who is taking on the Donald Trump regime and fossil fuel companies and making a difference.
“I’ve always been adventurous by nature,” says 31-year-old Scott, as we sit in a beach cafe. “I was a water baby from when I was tiny. The ocean had always meant something to me, but when I discovered surfing, I feel like it shaped my life. I think it’s taken me on a different path.”
That path took her across the world, to Australia, Fiji, California, Bali, Portugal. It led her to join Surfrider, an organisation of so-called “coastal defenders” with surfing at its heart. It made her into a dogged activist – one with a drive to grow community and create change.
Her favourite surf beach in Scotland is, she says, Machrihanish. “I remember,” she says, “when we first started surfing they didn’t have reliable websites for wave reports and the only way we could work out whether there were waves was by calling the surf shop, which would be shut if there was because they were
out surfing. But there were a few times where we would drive three hours and get there and there would be nothing.”
Her stories about surfing say a lot about her philosophy and nature – and also give a clue to why a persistent surfer might also make a driven activist. She talks, for instance, of some of the “pummellings” she has had by the waves. “There is something called a two-wave hold down,” she says. “You’ll wipe out and you’ll go underneath the water and you’ll feel the wave crushing you and if you don’t get up, if the waves are coming one after the other, you sometimes don’t get a chance to breathe before the next one will come.”
Much of surfing, she says, is psychological. “You’re putting yourself in a position that doesn’t always feel natural. But it’s like learning to be comfortable with your instincts. You need to push yourself but not put yourself in a silly position. I think surfing teaches you a lot about life in general in that you have to keep on going for it and you’re not going to get every wave, but you still want to go back and try again. It also will humble you, because you feel like, ‘I have no control over what’s happening, but I just have to go with it.’”
It wasn’t till she was at university that she first discovered the sport. She was in her third year at the University of Glasgow studying psychology and had an idea that she wanted to try something new. Looking through the list of student clubs and organisations, she came across a surf group. At her first meeting, she found there was already a trip booked to Tiree but someone had dropped out. She stuck her hand up and that was it – surfing had her hooked.
“The first time I ever surfed was in the Atlantic sea,” she says. “From then on I was hooked. I wasn’t the best surfer. I
don’t remember actually getting up and surfing a wave. It took me a long time. I think people who actually stick with surfing are the ones that are hooked.”
One of the things that she loved, she says, was “just being in touch with the ocean”. She says: “Being out there you see dolphins, or you end up having conversations with other surfers, or you have moments when you’re on your own sitting in complete silence when there’s a beautiful wave comes by. There’s a connection to nature that I don’t really get in any other situation.”
It was while she was on her world travels eight years ago that she really learned to surf. In Australia, she worked at a camp and got free classes. In Portugal she caught her best wave. In Fiji, she turned up just to look at the giant breakers, because she wasn’t riding any of them since they are just “insane”. Her memories of the places she travelled to, she says, are mostly of looking at the coast from the ocean. “They’re being on my surf board looking at the land,” she says.
At some point in her travels, she pitched up in New York, got a job bar-tending, and loved it – so much, she returned later and got a job for the Hospitality Alliance, working in advocacy for restaurants and bars. Mostly she loved that life but two years in to her stay she was flagging and she had a significant phone conversation with her mother. “My mum said, ‘When was the last time you went surfing? Because I feel like I can always tell when you haven’t been surfing. I really think that if you’re going to stay in New York you need to find a way to surf.’”
That was when Scott found Surfrider – a network of grassroots organisations whose mission is to “protect and preserve the world’s oceans, waves and beaches”.
She liked the idea of this social and like-minded group and it didn’t take long for her to get involved. Within a few meetings, she learned that they were looking for someone to lead the chapter and, as is her nature, she stuck her hand up.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into,” she says. For it turned out that as head of the chapter she was also asked to lead an important campaign, protesting against a liquefied
I have traits that lean towards being a campaigner. I think that being Scottish helps a lot. I think that Scottish people are naturally very passionate. We’re so used to sticking up for what we believe in
natural gas port called Port Ambrose, planned for 20 miles off the coast of Long Island.
“I was way in the deep end,” she recalls. “I didn’t know how to fight a massive company. My first stopping point to find people doing a similar thing.” Fortunately that existed. The antifracking movement was vibrant in New York and, not long after she approached them, they had a major victory in getting fracking banned in New York State. “All these organisations were ready and looking for something. We said, ‘Can you come over here and help us? Let’s do this victory as well.’”
The campaign took over her life for over two years. Throughout all of it, she was battling away in her spare time, while doing a full-time job. “It was such an incredible thing to be part of,” she says of the campaign.
What she believes was key to its success, was “consistent pressure”. At one point they turned up at the staging of the Broadway musical, Hamilton, because they knew that Governor Cuomo was going to be there. They arrived with playbills that mimicked those for the show, but with information switched in about Port Ambrose. “When Cuomo came into the theatre,” she recalls, “it was the first time he ever stopped and made a comment about Port Ambrose. He said that although he hadn’t spoken about it, it was something on his desk and he acknowledged there were concerns.”
A lot of her leadership, she says, has been around keeping a positive vibe to the movement and building community. “The question is how can you keep people around? And how can you compete with other life situations that come up? So it’s really about trying to create a community so that people come and bring their friends and feel comfortable bringing their family.”
There’s also something thrilling about the whole image of Surfrider – the idea of a band of surf-warriors. “I think,” she says, “there’s a stereotype of what an activist is, and we come along and smash that.” This has helped, she believes, in terms of getting “media hits”.
“We come at it from a different angle – this ocean conservation angle and then we tie it into the broader picture of climate change.”
Where did her activism come from? Though the family Scott grew up in
– her mother works in schools with special needs children and her father is a whisky industry professional – wasn’t particularly environmentallyaware it harboured a strong streak of volunteerism. “I have traits that do lean towards being a campaigner,” she says. “I also honestly do think that being Scottish helps a lot. I think that Scottish people are naturally very passionate. We’re strong in our convictions. We’re so used to sticking up for what we believe in.”
Now and again, she says, someone will ask her what she’s doing in the United States, campaigning in a country that is not her own. Her answer is, she says, that we are all on the same planet. “I think we should all be doing whatever we can, wherever we live.”
She recalls her disbelief when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. “The really unfortunate thing is that the environment has had a hammering since Trump has been president. Every morning I feel like I wake up and there’s something about Trump and the environment. It feels like it’s attacking something very close to my heart.”
Nevertheless, Scott believes that the environmental movement is strong in the United States. “Trump has just has empowered us to say, you know what, we’re going to dig our heels in and we’re going to fight harder and we’re going to take him on.”
Her passion for the ocean is something she constantly returns to. “I didn’t go to school and study environmental studies,” she observes. “I came to this because I love the ocean and I love to surf, and I happened to be at a meeting one time and put my hand up.”
The love is there in many of her tales. She is, she says, always trying to help fellow activists find the memories that will keep them going when they lose energy – what she calls their “moment”.
“I’m talking about that moment,” she says, “that will always pick you up no matter where you are.
One of these, for me, is a time in the ocean, when me and my friend were surfing and it started to rain. Normally when it starts to rain when you’re in the ocean, we always have this thing like, ‘Oh, we should get out because the sharks are going to come.’ I don’t know if that’s even true that the sharks come. But this time it was so beautiful because the rain was landing on the ocean and it looked like diamonds. And I have such a vivid memory of that, the diamonds off the water.”
Most people, she believes, can find a moment like that – which “can make you realise you’ve got a bit more to give.”
Above all, Scott, who also now works for Catchafire, an organisation that matches professionally-skilled volunteers with nonprofits, is keen that people realise the impact their small gestures can have.
“So many people think that their individual actions don’t really matter,” she says. “They’re like, what’s one more signature?
‘‘But they don’t understand that if everyone had that opinion our 500 victories as a Surfrider organisation wouldn’t have happened, because they all happened from grassroots people who care about the ocean enough to do small actions that when they come together are massive.”
I came to this because I love the ocean and I love to surf
Nikita Scott at Portobello beach, where she played as a child
Nikita Scott (left) is fighting Donald Trump (above) over offshore drilling on America’s east coast
Surfers on the coast off New York have launched an environmental campaign