Cleaning Up the Beach with ECO-Warrior James Pribram

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Some people go to church, but James Pribram goes to the ocean.

Being raised on the sandy shores of Pearl Street Beach instilled in him a great appreciation and respect for the ocean; it’s his sanctuary. What started as a childhood love of surfing epic waves, grew into a full time career as a professional surfer traveling the world. Throughout his travels to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, however, Pribram saw a common thread of paradises littered with trash.

Inspired to not just sit back, surf, and let it happen, he sought to do something about it. 5 years ago Pribram founded the ECO-Warrior Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to preserving our oceans and beaches through education, activation, and motivation. Surfing professionally provided Pribram a platform to speak on and he’s since become an avid environmentalist and spokesperson for the ocean — so trust him when he says the ocean needs some serious help.

He’s protested factory mills in Chile for dumping chlorinated water into the sea, sailed across the 5 Gyres, swam with sharks, rescued countless people from rogue waves (and also, sadly enough, lost a few in his arms). If you’ve ever seen The Cove, a documentary film about the killing of thousands of dolphins and small whales in Taiji, Japan, then you may have caught a glimpse of Pribram risking his life to paddle out into the “Killing Cove” to be a voice for marine mammals. The man has done and seen a lot.

“I was doing all this activism work and then one day I got an email that said: ‘This is amazing work you’re doing all around the world, but what about your own backyard?’” shares Pribram.

So he thought to himself — what’s the one thing we can do that doesn’t cost money and brings people together… something people can do every single day, no matter where they are? The answer was as simple as picking up litter.

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“It’s not anything fancy, it’s not rocket science. I’m just a glorified trash man,” laughs the change-maker.

To date, Pribram’s ECO-Warrior Foundation has hosted over 45 beach cleanups and collected over 17,000 pounds of litter throughout California. All are welcome to join in on the fun (and are usually supplied with lunch afterwards).

Never one to shy away from hardship, Pribram has experienced his share of hurdles in life, from an intense kidney infection as a child to surviving skin cancer to developing MRSA, a life-threatening waterborne staph infection that seeped into his body after a seemingly regular surf session at Doheny State Beach. (“It changed my way of thinking about the ocean because the ocean was my first love. I had this weird sense of almost betrayal. But then I realized it wasn’t the ocean’s fault… it was our fault.”) Pribram hasn’t let anything stop him from his mission to keep our beloved beaches clean, both near and far.

“I always believe in giving back to what’s given you so much. The ocean has always given me a sense of caring,” Pribram expresses passionately. “It’s been the place I can go and really think about life and what I’m going through.”

Recently, the Eco-Warrior Foundation partnered as a pro-bono client with Davis Elen (one of the largest independently-owned advertising agencies on the west coast) to help amplify the organization’s message. The campaign will focus on efforts to encourage every Californian to live litter-free.

“We'll always be about the work first -- just picking up litter; I’m right there with people picking up trash. We’ll do corporate events and I don’t care where you are on the ladder, you’re picking up litter with us and you’re getting your hands dirty,” he says with a smile.

Pribram is not in this work for fame or glory, he’s in it for his love of the sea. So the next time you’re strolling along the beach and see a piece of trash, you know what to do… pick it up and become an ECO-Warrior!

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Mari Verdugo is a fourth generation Laguna Beach native, photographer, writer, and someone who can’t walk past a piece of litter without picking it up. Find Mari at @marielenaphoto or on her website.

Photos by: Grant Puckett.