James Pribram Saves the Ocean One Wave at a Time

The ECO-Warrior Foundation Founder is Fighting to End Environmental Waste

Written By: Robyn Wyman-Dill James Pribram
Photographed By: Nick Isabella

James Pribram, Founder of the ECO-Warrior Foundation

Growing up in the 70’s, ECO-Warrior Founder James Pribram knew Laguna Beach to be “just a down to earth, blue collar town.” The vast expanse of the Pacific was just outside Pribram’s window and it beckoned every part of his soul to love the sea unconditionally. The smitten Pribram, in turn, took to aquatic activities quite naturally, developing some powerful chops in the sea—like fish to water.

“I remember being mesmerized by the ocean as a boy. It’s always spoke to me in different ways, ” says Pribram. “To this day, I can sit there and stare at it for hours. The ocean runs in my veins.”

The ocean’s majestic beauty and vibrant shades of blue never got old for Pribram. His surfing skills rapidly advanced him to pro-surfer status with companies like Billabong and O’Neill as major sponsors.

On the pro-surfing circuit, Pribram traveled around the world to compete over two decades, developing an even greater understanding of waves, tides, safety and surfing etiquette. Everywhere he went on his surfing circuit, he brought that cultivated environmental awareness.

“I grew up in a collective community and we were taught at a very early age to give back, ” he says. “And because Laguna had a lot of well-known activists like James Dilley and the march for the Laguna Canyon road, there were a lot of unique people here so it was just part of our culture to pick up a piece of trash if you saw it on the sand.”

In all his travels and noble gestures, nothing had prepared Pribram for the life changer he experienced in 1993, however, when he encountered a pileup of trash debris on the side of Tahiti while filming a part of the “Hot Summer Nights” series for ESPN.

“I couldn’t believe the collection of trash in what I had believed were the world’s most pristine waters. It had collected because of the wind and surf coming together there and this is actually what creates gyres around the world. There are five massive gyres building now because of the currents and winds in those areas.”

Ocean trash is indeed a modern-day sea monster. Disposable plastics—packaging, cosmetics, drinking straws, cigarette butts, and fishing nets—many designed to be used only once—are discarded as litter, filtering into streams and gullies that feed into our oceans, rivers and lakes, where it destroys aquatic habitats.

When Pribram shifted gears, dipping into the waters of ocean preservation, he did it with conviction. And, as an environmental ambassador in troubled water spots around the world, he was not afraid to look danger in the eye.

As part of a research team, he set sail on a perilous journey through treacherous waters from Brazil to Cape Town to study the South Atlantic Gyre, or waste stream. He endured a 5-day, roughly 110-nautical mile stand up paddle board trek from Pearl Street in Laguna Beach to Mission Beach in San Diego. He has served on Laguna Beach’s Water Quality and Environmental Committees. Pribram also co-founded an organization called They Will Surf Again, which raised money to help those who have suffered ocean-related spinal injuries. He won the John Kelly Environmental Award and received the 2011 Laguna Beach Patriots Day Athlete of the Year Award. That same year, he was hailed a hero for rescuing a woman from drowning.

The extent of plastic’s impact is enormous. Today, plastics are found in every ocean and waterway on the planet. Particle plastics are consumed by fish, turtles and even whales and are responsible for killing more than 100, 000 marine animals a year from ingestion and entanglement.

Pribram decided to take ownership of this plastic-wrap mess after a surfing sponsor, Ocean Pacific, sparked the idea for the ECO-Warrior Foundation, which Pribram initiated in 2006. The  ECO-Warrior Foundation’s goal is to help people work together to protect and preserve our oceans and beaches. Under the ECO-Warrior banner, Pribram organized beach cleanups and helped to increase awareness, conducting educational programs to curb plastics from entering into our streams or expanding our ocean debris locally. He also established the Aloha School of Surfing to concentrate his efforts on educating the next generations to be more ecologically involved.

Despite these and loads of other accolades, the journey of Pribram’s devotion to the ocean would also be tested many times.

“I’ve had a series of setbacks starting at the age of three. My health-related issues would include having two procedures for skin cancer (but still considered pre), surfing injuries that tore the muscles in my knee and a staph infection in 1997. I remember vividly the doctor telling me that had I not come in I could have died at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point, ” Pribram shares. “That was a second awakening for me. But, I’ve always been a fighter despite all the challenges and personal tragedies. It’s about never giving up.”

Last year, his foundation hosted beach cleanups and Adopt-A-Beach programs in partnership with the California Coastal Commission’s California Coastal Cleanup Day. They finished out the year on a winning streak, with the first Upstream Cleanup Initiative—before the first rain fell on several different waterways in Laguna Niguel, picking up 551 pounds of trash. Working with a team of volunteers, the foundation removed approximately 3, 000 pounds of debris headed for the ocean in 2015.

“Since I started this journey, our foundation has prevented debris from contaminating our oceans and streams and we intend to keep that momentum going, ” he says. “We need more corporate sponsors to help us succeed in the battle to protect and preserve our most valued asset for generations to come.”

There is no time like the present to tackle the toxic waste flow. Water is one of the two essentials all life depends upon. Without it, we are doomed to exist. But, to put it in a more positive perspective, an entire ocean is affected by just one pebble so even one person making the smallest difference to reduce litter is a catalyst towards a major positive change. No experience necessary. Only action is required.

Pribram’s work never stops: “You have to create opportunities for people to participate because it’s empowering when we all work together, and I think by doing so we can create a better world for everyone, ” he says. “It’s simple. We’re not saving lives here. Anyone can pick up trash. Just walk down the beach.”

James Pribram’s Tips for Preventing Environmental Waste: Not using straws, using a water filter instead of buying bottled water and stop using single use plastics like plastic bags and recycle.

Trash Trouble: Pribram hosted a trash pickup at Doheny State Beach and within two hours his team had already picked up 641 pounds of trash. “That’s how much trouble our local environment is in, ” says Pribram.

Rough Patch: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex or gyre, is located in the central North Pacific Ocean. It is the closest garbage gyre to California and is larger than the state of Texas.

Fighting to keep the sea pristine.

About the author

Author profile

Journalist Robyn Wyman-Dill resides in Monarch Beach. She received her BS from the University of Colorado and completed her journalism studies at Saddleback College in 2010. Blessed with ample curiosity and a passion for knowledge and the arts, she loves to travel and has lived in London, Florence, and Germany.


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