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

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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

Pho­to­graph by Ste­wart Attwood

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

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