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Maritime Forum

Meet a Blue Expert #9: Maya Gabeira

This meet a Blue Expert was held on 8 April in Barcelona in the frame of the Ocean Literacy Dialogues during the Ocean Decade Conference 2024. It was organized in partnership with IOC UNESCO and was facilitated by Valentina Lovat.

Tell us about your story.

I'm a big wave surfer. I was born in Brazil, I fell in love with surfing for the first time. I had my first time surfing when I was 13 at a beach close to Rio de Janeiro and when I held that surfboard, I tried to go to the sea and stand up and surf, obviously I did not conquer this that day. If you have tried to surf you understand, it's a very hard sport. But just holding that surfboard, being salty, being on the beach, it just made me feel something that I had never felt before, as a young girl especially. And I became obsessed with the sport and obsessed with the idea of learning how to surf and that continued and really got in the way of my studies.

Maya Gabeira by Câmera Livre

I was very hyperactive, I had difficulties sitting in classrooms and all I wanted to do was go to the beach and surf. So, I had trouble at home, with my mom especially, but I did go and my dad, who backed up my idea of finding something I love being dedicated to, took a risk and it did work out well in the end.

When I was 15, I begged him to send me to Australia. That was my first international experience. I went to not only surf perfect waves and be surrounded by a different culture, but I also wanted to go to a school that had surf in the curriculum, and they had it. And that was the first class that I never failed to be on time, and I really wanted to be the best at that class and it gave me a different perspective on learning and on schools overall. When I went back home, back into the traditional setup, I had difficulties and I rushed my studies and finished when I was 17 and went to Hawaii. And there, I really fell in love with big waves. I started to dream about being a big wave surfer, but not necessarily a professional big wave surfer because that career didn’t exist for women at that time.

But I wanted to surf big waves. I really fell in love with that for multiple reasons. The challenge, the power of the ocean, the energy, the difficulty level, everything really spoke to me and I pioneered that I was the first woman to become a professional big wave surfer. I traveled the world. I used to spend a good part of my time in Hawaii, then in Indonesia, then in Australia, South Africa, Tahiti, Mexico, Fiji, North America...

Maya Gabeira by Edu Monteiro

When I was around 20, I decided that I was a professional surfer. I'd just been a professional and I decided I wanted to actually study again and I applied with my own will to do college online, because I didn't really have time or I was never in one place, and I took on oceanography. And I loved it and I was really good at it, which surprised me a lot because I grew up thinking that I was terrible in school and then when I took oceanography, I discovered that I've learned so much of that through surfing and through traveling. I understood so much of what they're saying, They really spoke my language. And I had excellent praise and I really enjoyed it and it made me think I had an opportunity in school to do something that was a little bit more linked to what I loved and something that was a little bit more connected to what I was actually going to use in life.

And so years went by. This new wave was discovered in my sport, which is called Nazare in Portugal, and that became established as the biggest wave in the world. I first saw it around 2010, when Gareth McNamara discovered it and broke a world record and I saw those images flying around the world and I thought that is not something I could ever do.

Because it looks so scary and so big and so different and so out of reach for a woman. I was the best in my profession at the time, but I still thought that was a different level. So I put that idea aside.

Two years passed and that wave is kept on popping and it kept on, you know, being very real that that was the next frontier in our sport. And I said, well, I'm not going to stop doing my sport. I have to push myself to go and explore this place and see if it's possible. So, with my team, I planned an exploring trip to Nazarene in 2013 we got there in October and spent a whole month.

The geography of the place is really unique, there's a Canyon right in front of the cliffs and it's deeper than five kilometers. The power of the Atlantic Ocean, which has severe winter weather, comes into Portugal. And right next to this extremely deep Canyon is a very shallow beach break and a cliff. The beach break makes the waves travel towards depths and hit the shelves that angles in a way that creates this unique wave.

What is also very unique about Nazare is the Cliff right in front of the wave, it is the only giant oceanic wave that has a high point, so close to it that gives you perfect angle for pictures, photos and radio communication.

Nazaré cliff by Hans Pohl

But the spot is really dangerous, the cliff and the beach break gives you a disadvantage, you can actually surf into the cliffs and the beach break is extremely dangerous because different from all other big wave spots in the world, it's not shallow where it breaks and deep because you're far out in sea, you're actually going to the shore: there is no safe zone after you start riding the wave. And that was something we didn't have in our sport and it demanded some new protocols and safety that we were just discovering at the time.

So on October 28th, after months of training and seeing and analysing we tried to surf this gigantic storm with the protocol we had. And I almost died that day. I had a new near drowning experience. I was resuscitated on the beach.

I fell of the biggest wave of my life until that point, probably around 21 meters, and I couldn't be rescued because we didn't have everything set up the way that should have been.

And I paid a high price, for the next 4 years I had three spine surgeries. I was told often that I should retire, that my body was done, that that was not a place for woman. That was way above and beyond what we would expect from woman.

So I was heavily criticised and pushed to the side in a way that really showed me that we were still in a moment where courage was undervalued for women and overvalued for man. Courage could really signify something for women that would put her in a place where she failed, of being inadequate, being out of her place and all those things. And it was hard for me to give myself the opportunity to gather courage to try again, because trying again meant possibly failing again.

And I had no room for failure at that point because people had just ripped that possibility out of in front of me, and I just had to work with the conception that I cannot fail. I have to figure out my body and I have to figure out my traumas in my mind and but at the same time I didn't want to give up something that I had started when I was 13 and nobody outside of myself really knew everything I had gone through and everything I had given up: family, friends, country, everyday life to be in that position.

So, I kept on working and in 2018 I surfed the biggest wave of my life in Nazare. I moved there in 2015 to really learn everything I needed and put together all the knowledge I needed to feel confident to surf again.

I broke the record, but it was not officialised because there was no women's record at the time. So, A big weight got lifted off my shoulder when I surfed that wave because I felt like “OK, now I can fail again.”

So I just felt like, I can do my thing, I can surf, and it was a huge relief. But I wanted the record to be recognised so eight months and to being ignored and having hurdles with the World Surf League and the Guinness Book, I eventually had to petition against them to make it public and I got a lot of public support. An finaly in October, they awarded me the first women's world record and measured the wave at 68 feet, which was fantastic.

With that recognition and also a little bit of a burnout, I started thinking about, you know, what can I do? What else? You know what would fill me? And I think ocean conservation was always on the back of my mind just by seeing everything I saw from all the years I was travelling. And I could tell by first-hand experience the habitat destruction corals, the plastic pollution was getting crazy and very remote places I used to travel to.

So I felt like, I should get involved and now I feel like I can get out of this bubble I'm in, which oftentimes we are because we're striving for something, we're fully dedicated in our careers and in our lives and a lot of times it's kind of like we're surviving. I mean, it's so hard to survive, so hard to have a career, to make money, to pay your bills. It's like every day sometimes consumes you in a way that it's hard to find time and what to do to make a better world. And with I was already involved with an NGO called Oceana, just as an ambassador and in 2018, I thought I'm gonna give more of the one thing I believe is the most valuable thing I have, which is time.

I am not a philanthropist. I don't have money to give away. I work to pay my bills, but I do think I have the ability to give out time to educate myself, educate others, share my platform with the issues I believe in so that's how I then jumped on the board of directors for Ocean and got really involved more and more with the cause and in 2020 I did one event with UNESCO and started getting closer to them. In 2022, I accepted the champion of the ocean and youth title.

Then I started writing, so I wrote my first picture book and that was an inspiring tale about my story and the connection with the ocean. And then I wrote my second picture book, which is coming in in August, which is really a message about ocean conservation through the same character and actually through encounters that I had in the ocean that were extremely powerful and inspiring to me and and taught me so much of the values and the things I didn't get to learn in university because I was only there one year.

So it was kind of a natural thing to be attracted to the Ocean Literacy Department and the work of IOC UNESCO. I truly believe that kids and schools should have access to ocean literacy and it is extremely necessary for us to innovate and renew what we're teaching in school, what we are teaching our kids. We need to cultivate the real values and the real necessities and the needs of change that we have to do for us and the next generations to survive in this planet.

Do you have any advice for young people, that are acting for the protection of the ocean but sometimes gets discouraged by all it’s needed to be done ?

I think you know often our actions speak louder than words. If you're not gonna give up, then I'm sure you're gonna inspire somebody else not to give up. And that worked for me a lot during my rehab. You know, those were four years where oftentimes I was laying in bed because of those three spine surgeries and I was the one that didn't give up and now I get to inspire others. But you know, it was like a daily thing and there was a real possibility that no outcome was going to come out of it. You know, I wasn't like, “I'm going to do this because we're sure, in 2018 'm gonna get a world record. I mean, you do it because you don't know other way of habitating this planet. You know, you gotta do what you gotta do and it's difficult to come up with all you shall do that because then people listen to you like you have to be true to yourselves. You have to improve yourself! I mean, we're imperfect, and the more we work in ourselves, the more I think we can resonate with others and we can inspire others .

It is true that in the end of the day, people will forget what you said, what you did, but they will not forget how you made them feel. And I think it's through your actions, with empathy and compassion that you’ll have an impact on others.

Is there any learning or something you can share in relation to how to break that gender bias in the governing or conservation of oceanic resources from your experience?

Well, from my experience it has been extremely important to have men that mentored me. Of course, when I jumped on to my sport and tried to become professional, there was no women leaders that could take me under their wing and showed me the road and the path, so I had to rely on men to teach me.

And that collaboration is essential to break the gender barrier and the gender bias because until you establish more women in leadership roles, men have to be willing to collaborate with women and women have to be willing to collaborate with men, with respect and with a real belief that they bring different aspects to things and they really add to one another. I have never had a partnership that it wasn't interesting for the men too, even though they were much better surfers and stronger athletes than me. I brought things that a man could not have because I'm a woman. I had different abilities and intelligence and ways of enriching that team. If you look today in my sport, there's only one team that has three world records and it is me and Sebastian. I have two and he has one. And that was the secret I came with all the expertise and the talent that a woman can have on the top of the game and he came with all of that on the male side and together we were able to get three world records between the two of the two of us.

How to inspire and motivate people from the landlock countries to take actions. Because people don't care about the ocean when they don't see it, they don't really get the sense that we need to protect or do something?

Do you have any ideas or suggestions how we could reach these people and inspire them to start taking small actions because as we know, everybody is really connected with the ocean?

Content is a great way to connect people that are landlocked to the ocean through its beauty, through its storytelling. The footage, the image, the content there is incredible. Of course, you can't really care and change habits if you don't know something and even if you know you have to really love it to make any change that will interfere with your habits or life choices so. We got to try and take the ocean to them because obviously we can't take every landlocked kid or person to the ocean. But we have to create more and more content that's available to them to first introduce them to the ocean. Second, make them fall in love and then teach them and make them understand the trouble that we're in and how it directly affects them, even though they're in land, they're not going to breath, they're not going to eat certain types of protein soon. But to make that connection you have to start by inspiring. It's a challenge but nothing good comes easy.

How could the water sport community be more involved in ocean protection?

The ocean community could do a lot more than what we do. But it's hard to change people values and the way they work and they operate from outside inwards.

It's really a personal transformation, so I don't have an answer for that because you would think that if you love the ocean and if you know through science or you see that it's getting completely destroyed, you would do something about it. But human beings don't work that way, it’s difficult to change and breaking habits. That might be the hardest thing for people to do, transform themselves from inside out so I don't think we can expect because people love ocean sports, they're going to put time into protecting the ocean but then also you shouldn't expect that somebody landlocked wouldn't completely fall in love of the ocean and do much more than that person that goes surfing or wind surfing. So, I Itry to see the positive in this.