Riders of the lost waves: Surfing, and saving, Brazil’s pororocas


  • Surfers and volunteers are mapping out tidal bores — spectacular waves that travel dozens of kilometers upriver from Brazil’s Atlantic coast — in an effort to preserve the phenomenon and build a tourism industry around it.
  • The best-known pororocas in Brazil are in the states of Amapá, Maranhão and Pará, and once included the Araguari River, site of the 2006 world record for the longest distance surfed (nearly 12 kilometers, or 7.5 miles).
  • But the Araguari pororoca disappeared in 2014 when the river’s mouth silted over, the result of development upriver that included livestock ranching and dam building.
  • Enthusiasts of the phenomenon now want to develop a Pororoca Park that they say will boost tourism on the Amazon coast, providing income for the Indigenous and traditional communities where many of the remaining pororoca sites are found.

Surf enthusiasts and volunteers are mapping out hotspots of a spectacular form of surfing on Brazil’s northern coast, in a bid to both preserve the practice and help boost tourism in coastal communities.

For years, surfers would descend on the mouth of the Araguari River in Brazil’s Amapá state. Their goal: to ride the pororoca, the wave generated when the Atlantic tide pushes back against the river current. Known as a tidal bore, the wave can travel dozens of kilometers upriver.

But the Araguari’s pororoca disappeared in 2014, as development upriver, including the construction of three hydropower dams, resulted in the river’s mouth silting up. That triggered a hunt for similar waves in the region.

Surfers, stand-up paddlers and other watersport enthusiasts, in addition to fishers and volunteers, have since mapped out more than 10 pororocas. Many are located in conservation units and Indigenous lands. The search is funded by their own resources and government support.

“We want to organize the information and create a Pororoca Park, in partnership with the private sector and public authorities,” says Jim Davis, chair of the Amapá Sailing Association (AVAP). “We want accessible tourism for everyone.”

Marrying tourism development with the natural phenomenon of the pororoca — from the Indigenous Tupi word for “bang,” in reference to the roar and destructive power of the wave — has already proved successful in some places. In northeastern Pará state, a pororoca festival has been held since 1997 on the Guamá River. It has been credited with helping boost the economy and infrastructure of the municipality of São Domingos do Capim.

Surfing the pororoca on the Guamá River, in São Domingos do Capim municipality, Amapá state. Image by Maycon Nunes/Agência Pará.

Pororocas in Amapá can still be found on rivers such as the Cassiporé in Cabo Orange National Park; the Flechal, Amapá Grande and Macari in the municipality of Amapá; the Uaçá in the Indigenous territory of the same name; the Cunani and Calçoene in Calçoene municipality; and in rivers in the Maracá-Jipioca Ecological Station and the Piratuba Lake Biological Reserve.

But the best pororocas in Brazil today are in Maranhão state, says Serginho Laus. Originally from the southern state of Paraná, where he surfed since childhood, Laus set a Guinness World Record in 2006 by surfing nonstop for almost 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) upriver on the Araguari. The legendary wave used to reach up to 6 meters (20 feet) in height, travel at speeds of up to 30 km/h (18.6 mph), and go 50 km (31 mi) upriver — numbers that the best waves around today struggle to match, Laus says.

“I surfed almost every wave in the Amazon. Many are in very remote places, which are difficult to reach,” he says. “The best one today is on the Mearim River [in Maranhão]. It is like a ‘miniature of the pororoca on the Araguari,’ which used to have the best waves.” Running 930 km (580 mi), the Mearim is the longest river in Maranhão.

The proposal for establishing a Pororoca Park must be submitted to state and municipal governments in Amapá within two years. The volunteers are also hoping to get outside support, such as from Save The Waves, a global coalition that works to preserve surfing areas with exceptional waves around the world. In Brazil, only the area of Guarda do Embaú, in Santa Catarina state, is currently listed by STW.

“We are paving the way to start a great journey,” says Davis from AVAP, adding that there’s great potential for tourism on the Amazon coast. “Today, many people want to leave the coastal area due to the lack of sustainable economic options. Weak tourism boosts fishing as well as trade in fish and swim bladders by companies. Everyone takes advantage of it, except the people of Amapá.”

Tourism in Amapá is currently focused on attractions such as the mouth of the Amazon River, waterfalls and rivers in Laranjal do Jari municipality, the Equator Line in Macapá, the state capital, and the protected areas in Oiapoque municipality, the northernmost point in Brazil. Developing a new tourism industry around pororoca sites could boost the sector overall, says Sandro Borges, planning director at the state tourism department.

“Listing new spots with waves and the Pororoca Park project are super positive,” he says. “That will allow us to observe and surf pororocas throughout the year, resume national and international visits, and boost revenues for the state capital, several municipalities, and the tourism sector as a whole.”

The death of the great pororoca

Eldo Santos, a researcher in tropical biodiversity at the Federal University of Amapá (UNIFAP), has been studying pororocas since 2010. He says livestock farming is one of the main reasons for the death of the pororoca in the Araguari River. Collapsed banks and ditches opened by more than 200,000 buffalo contributed to the river silting up. Its mouth eventually closed up, and the weakened Araguari diverted to the Amazon River through the Urucurituba Canal.

“In 2000, the beginning of the canal could already be seen. In 2013, it was virtually open and up to 40 meters [130 ft] deep. Floods in the following years consolidated its connection with the Amazon River,” Santos says. “Today, from the canal to the mouth of the Araguari, it’s all dry land with vegetation. There is no way to reverse the silting anymore.”

The satellite image on the left shows how the Araguari River, at the top, emptied out into the Atlantic Ocean in 1999. At the bottom is the mouth of the Amazon River. By 2017, right, the Araguari’s mouth had been completely silted up, with the river now flowing into the Amazon via the Uricurituba Canal. Images by Fassoni-Andrade et al. (2021).

Studies show that the Araguari also lost strength as a result of the dams built along the river for three hydroelectric plants: Coaracy Nunes, which went online in 1975, Ferreira Gomes (2014), and Cachoeira Caldeirão (2016). These dams severely restricted the flow of water and increased the concentration of sediment flowing downriver. Amazonian rivers are the largest global source of sediment into the Atlantic.

“Part of that sedimentation is natural, but in the case of the Araguari, there was an association of factors in a region where the soil’s shape is easily altered,” Santos says. “Breaking the connection with the sea changed the river’s biodiversity and harmed populations, increasing salination of water courses in the region.”

The Bailique Archipelago, at the mouth of the Amazon, suffers from an accumulation of saltwater. Its 13,000 residents make a living harvesting açaí berries and catching fish. But both of these have grown scarce along with the supply of freshwater for drinking and cooking. The problem is thought to be a combination of rising sea levels, climate change, and the collapse of the Araguari River, which reduced the flow of freshwater into the area.

The silted mouth of the Araguari River. Image from Google Earth.

Global bangs

Guga Arruda, from the southern state of Santa Catarina, was the first person to surf the Araguari’s pororoca, in 1997. Two years later, Serginho Laus followed the same path. “The wave was wonderful, perfect and long. It changed my life,” Laus says. Twenty-three years on, Laus is still surfing the pororocas of Brazil and other countries that experience the same phenomenon.

On his journey, he has already surfed pororocas in places like China, Indonesia, Alaska, India, Malaysia, Canada, Papua New Guinea and the U.K. — considered the birthplace of tidal bore surfing.

“My project is to be the first Brazilian to surf all the global pororocas,” Laus says. “Few are in areas as preserved as the Brazilian ones.”

The pororoca at the mouth of the Amazon River, taken during the Corais da Amazônia expedition in 2018 by Greenpeace, off the coast of Amapá. Image © Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.

 
Citations:

Silva dos Santos, E., Pinheiro Lopes, P. P., Da Silva Pereira, H. H., De Oliveira Nascimento, O., Rennie, C. D., Da Silveira Lobo O’Reilly Sternberg, L., & Cavalcanti da Cunha, A. (2018). The impact of channel capture on estuarine hydro-morphodynamics and water quality in the Amazon delta. Science of The Total Environment624, 887-899. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.12.211

Fassoni‐Andrade, A. C., Fleischmann, A. S., Papa, F., Paiva, R. C., Wongchuig, S., Melack, J. M., … Pellet, V. (2021). Amazon hydrology from space: Scientific advances and future challenges. Reviews of Geophysics59(4). doi:10.1029/2020rg000728

 
Banner image of pororoca surfers on the Flexão River, in the municipality of Amapá, Amapá state. Image by Bruno Gonzales/Setur AP.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on April 19, 2022.





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