Saving the waves in the Basque village of Mundaka

Last year, heavy industry caused the legendary break at Mundaka in Spain to disappear. Thanks to Mother Nature, it bounced back. But the battle to protect other great surf spots is just beginning, says Alex Wade

Gary Elkerton, three times a runner-up in the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Championship Tour and, latterly, three times a World Surfing Masters champion, can't praise the rivermouth wave that breaks at the Basque village of Mundaka enough.

"I love this place, it's got a magical quality that draws surfers from everywhere," says Elkerton, now retired at 42 but dubbed "Kong" during his professional career on account of the sheer force with which he surfed. "It's a perfect break, with a steep take-off and a very shallow sand bottom, which gives tube rides of up to 300 metres.

"The whole atmosphere here - the location, the locals, the wave - adds up to a unique surfing experience, definitely one of the absolute best in the world."

The elegant village overlooks the tidal estuary at the heart of the Urdaibal Biosphere Reserve, an exquisite setting for arguably Europe's best wave. Lush hillssweep down to the estuary, a major migratory stopover for aquatic birds such as spoonbills as well as home year-round to sandpipers, ospreys, terns, kingfishers and herons.

About a mile offshore, smack in the impact zone of the huge swells that dominate this part of the Bay of Biscay, is the tiny island of Izaro, used by Sir Francis Drake in the 16th century both as a base from which to attack passing vessels and as a hiding place for stolen treasure.

"I'm really passionate about Mundaka," says Elkerton, in charge of water safety for the Mundaka Billabong Pro 2006, the 10th event on this year's ASP Tour. "I first visited in 1980 and used to dream about a contest being held here. I was so stoked when Billabong announced in 1999 that they would host a leg of the ASP Tour here."

And yet last year the wave at Mundaka disappeared. One of the world's best left-handers - a wave that breaks from left to right, as you look at it from the shore - simply didn't show. Mundaka's vanishing act made headline news in the surfing world and meant that the Billabong Pro 2005 was cancelled. This, in turn, meant a loss in revenue for locals, many of whom surf themselves and were deprived of their home break for an entire season.

A glance inland gives a clue as to why Mundaka provides such a perfect wave - and a hint as to the reason for its no-show in 2005. To the south are high mountains, the source of the Ria de Mundaka, a river whose turbulent course to the Mundaka estuary ensures that all manner of particles are picked up along the way. These lose their energy as the river hits the sea, causing the suspended particles to be dumped in the rivermouth.

As Chris Nelson and Demi Taylor, the authors of Surfing the World, put it: "Once deposited, this sand and sediment is shaped and sculpted by the tide and swell to produce sandbanks. When a big north-westerly swell comes out of the Bay of Biscay, this curved bank of sand produces a wave that mirrors the contours of the seabed lying a few feet below, a continuous sweeping barrel. This is why it is one of the most perfect waves in the world."

But Mundaka's perfection as a surfing wave is not the only source of local income. Not far upriver is a shipbuilding yard, which produces one ship every five years. In 2005, the famed rivermouth had to be dredged to allow the most recently completed ship could make its way to the ocean. This is what ruined the sandbanks and caused the wave's disappearance. Thankfully, a year later the wave returned; Charlie may not surf but Mother Nature clearly does.

"Shipbuilding provides plenty of employment for the locals," concedes Elkerton. "They're building another ship now, but hopefully next time they'll consult with surfers so that the banks don't get destroyed again."

Mundaka's unfortunate fate in 2005 could be shared by other surf spots. In South Africa, the legendary point-break right-handers of Jeffreys Bay are under threat. The breaks at what surfers call simply "J-Bay" - long, tubing rides at spots such as Boneyards, Supertubes and Impossibles - could be seriously compromised if plans to build a 15-storey complex on the point are accepted; the building would affect the depositing of wind-blown sand which, in turn, would alter the shape of the waves.

The international surfing community is locked in a battle to halt the disruption of J-Bay, but closer to home British surf spots could come under pressure for what many regard as the right reasons. Areas such as the West Country and West Coast of Scotland offer a tremendous source of clean, safe and renewable energy in the form of wave power. This could be harnessed by a variety of wave-energy devices, but the most advanced plans are those for a "wave hub" off the north coast of Cornwall.

This concept entails building an electrical grid connection point 12 miles offshore, into which wave-energy devices would be connected. The wave hub would lie on the seabed, imposing obstacles on incoming swell where previously there were none. Fortunately, consultation with local surfers is under way, and the pressure group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), along with the British Surfing Association, have been modelling the effects of a wave hub.

SAS say that so far the prognosis is far from gloomy: "The overall effect on surf quality is predicted to be extremely slight at most," is their verdict to date.

Back in Basque country, local legend Guillermo Lekunberri hopes the Spanish government will listen the voice of its surfers. "We must do everything that we can to protect this wave," he says. "It is too beautiful too lose."

On the day Elkerton provides a tour of the break on his jetski the ocean is calm, but it is easy to see how the perfect left-breaking barrels of Mundaka will reel 300 yards, thanks to the regeneration of the sandbanks. On the island of Izaro stand two flags, fluttering in the gentle breeze next to a ruined monastery. Elkerton explains that monks used to row out to the island for its solitude. Now Mundaka and its two neighbouring villages hold annual rowing races to Izaro. The winner gets to plant its flags and "own" the island for a year.

Days after my jetski ride with Elkerton, the Billabong Pro event is won by the American surfer Bobby Martinez. Meanwhile, visitors to Mundaka ponder whether an aged local fisherman named Indalexio Tribisarrope really was the inspiration for Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. True or not, what is beyond doubt is that Mundaka is one of the most magical places on earth.

THE COMPACT GUIDE: HOW TO GET THERE

Flights from London Heathrow to Bilbao with British Airways start from £95. Details: ba.com. Mundaka is a 45-minute drive from the airport. A week's rental with Nova Car Hire starts from around £100. More information: 0800 018 6682; novacarhire.com

FURTHER INFORMATION More details of the Association of Surfing Professionals World Tour, including the Mundaka Billabong Pro: aspworldtour.com

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