An epic paddle for the ocean

Tom Jones is paddling from the Oregon border down the length of the California coast to Mexico to bring awareness about plastics polluting the world's ocean. He arrived in Malibu Saturday. Photos by Dana Fineman

Tom Jones is paddling 1,250 miles to bring awareness to the problem of plastics pollution of the ocean.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

There are many in Malibu who would go far to preserve the beauty of the California coast from widespread degradation, whether through the ban of pesticides that flow down watersheds, the rescue of sick marine mammals or preventing the ocean’s plastic pollution that multiplies, literally, every day.

Tom Jones would go far. Twelve hundred and fifty miles, to be exact. On a 14-foot paddleboard. Solo.

In a campaign to raise public awareness of the sheer tonnage of plastic polluting the world’s oceans, Jones is paddling from the Oregon border down the length of the California coast to Mexico. He stopped in Malibu last Saturday, paddling up to Surfrider Beach’s shore.

“I might not be able to write the check to fix this problem,” Jones said at a press conference Saturday. “But I can bring awareness. Maybe I’ll be the guy responsible for knocking over that first domino and things will start to change.”

An extreme athlete and former world-ranked lightweight and welterweight boxer (51 wins, three losses), Jones is no stranger to endurance challenges. In the year 2000, he ran 120 consecutive marathons.

“And the next day, I ran the New York Marathon,” he said.

Such self-punishment was all in the name of raising money for underprivileged children, as well as spectacular media exposure for corporate sponsors.

But after Jones turned to surfing “for relaxation,” he became aware of what lay under the surface of those waves.

“I found IV bags,” he said. “Five gallon buckets, bottles, plastic shopping bags, nets. Animals trapped in nets. I couldn’t believe how much junk was out there.”

In fact, a 2005 United Nations environmental report estimates that there are more than 5.76 million tons of plastic in our oceans, according to Jones’ Web site, That’s enough to wrap two thirds of California in one giant plastic bag. At the rate it’s going, per a review by the American Plastic Council, there will be enough plastic in the ocean to cover every landmass on earth by 2042.

This is unacceptable to Jones, who decided to become the first person in history to paddle the coast of California perched on a 14-foot paddleboard.

“If everyone takes a little responsibility-governments and corporations and people-we will change that statistic,” he said.

Even flanked with a tag-team of support volunteers on jet skis to monitor his daily progress, the three-month odyssey has demanded every ounce of muscle, resolve and luck that Jones could muster.

“You want to talk about real faith?” Jones asked. “Throw yourself into the ocean in Northern California when the weather can change in an eye blink and you go from glassy water to 12-foot swells. You can see a weather front behind you half a mile away and you better paddle fast to stay ahead of it.”

Then there are the sharks.

“They were out from the beginning,” Jones said. “The orcas are the scariest, because when they dive, it’s because they’re coming for you. I’m quite sure I almost died at least six times this trip.”

But when things get hairy, you don’t just paddle into shore.

“On the northern coast?” he asks incredulously. “One-hundred-foot-high sheer cliffs and waves that pound you into the rocks? No, you keep going.

“There were times when Mother Nature just gave me a hall pass,” Jones continued. “I would say, ‘Hey, Mom. I’m doing this one for you. Please don’t eat me!’ It’s a good thing I had no idea what I was getting into with this thing, because, otherwise, I never would have done it.”

However, once Jones committed, he set in motion an organization that plans every logistical step of the journey.

“It’s 24/7,” Larry Westfall, his project manager, said. “He starts at seven a.m., pulls out of the ocean at two and you have to load jet skis, do your nautical positioning, plot your GPS. No one thought he’d get as far as he has.”

Jones’ journey has attracted the support of elite athletes like Laird Hamilton, Rob Machado and Mickey Mu-oz, as well as sponsors like Ex Drinks, Malibu Divers and Lonely Planet.

He actively courts media and engages a YouTube generation in his quest to focus personal and legislative responsibility on the ocean’s plight.

“It’s about self preservation,” he said. “Every species that has ever gone extinct in our history did so because of environmental change. Humans are supposed to be the species that can reason.”

Despite the high profile character of Jones’ voyage and the energy he inspires in fans, there have been discouraging moments.

“I fell off my board for the first time when I came into Zuma,” Jones said. “The next day I was sick with a sinus infection.”

Indeed, when he paddled up to Surfrider Beach on Saturday, signs were posted warning of a beach closure, due to a breach in the lagoon. Sprinkled across the sand were small, dead fish and octopi. One thing absent from the beach was recycling bins and, in about five minutes, Team Jones assembled a pile of discarded plastic items two feet high.

And, while there were enthusiastic supporters ready to escort Jones triumphantly to The Malibu Inn for a post-paddle lunch and raffle, there was a distinct paucity of any official welcome.

Malibu resident Vanessa Mitchell-Clyde was outraged. “Why isn’t there someone here from the City Council?” she demanded. “Where’s Heal the Bay? Where are the (Santa Monica) Baykeepers? We can’t even welcome a hero to our shores?”