For anyone growing up in Southern California, as I did, the name was synonymous with fun in the sun. Like most peers of my generation and geography, I enjoyed surfing through the summers of my youth. In my case, those flings never matured into marriage. Yet, even for me, Surfer magazine occupied a position of reverence.
It died this week at age 60.
“Surfer magazine, which helped legitimize wave-riding as a global sport through its lush photography and California-cool stories,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “printed its final edition and suspended operations this month, to the dismay of the legions of baby boomers who once lingered at newsstands waiting for the latest issue.”
The magazine’s editor attributed the death to COVID-19; specifically to what he called the “Covid economy.” And for me that sad announcement unleashed a flood of emotions fueled, yes, by a baby boomer’s dismay, but compounded by a more recent connection. It’s a story I’ve told often both in print and in person; how a sleepy little island off Mindanao’s northeastern coast got thrust into international prominence by its whirlwind romance with global tourism. And how, just as suddenly, the gilded expectation of that courtship got cruelly jilted at the altar by its suitor. The island’s name is Siargao and, for me, its chief claim to fame is as the place where my dear wife was born.
It’s also a gorgeous gem-like land mass that has soothed the eyes of visitors for generations. Until 50 years ago, those eyes belonged mostly to Filipinos. Then, in the early 1980s, a not-so-subtle shift occurred; golden-haired youngsters from America and Australia discovered what many considered the most outstanding surf breaks in the world.
One of those early explorers was legendary American surfer Mike Boyum, who spent the last year of his life holed up on the island. Later a friend of his, famous surf photographer John Callahan, led an expedition to Siargao including several well-known wave riders from Southern California. In 1992 they chronicled their adventure in a spread for, you guessed it, Surfer magazine and—Voila!—a new destination was born.
One of the more enthusiastic consumers of that magazine spread was a young Australian surfer named Gerry Dugan who, 27 years later, sat down with me at the rustic resort he opened—one of the island’s first—to reminisce about what had transpired. “I read about this magical, mystical place,” Dugan recalled, “so I came here and it was fantastic! The surf was great, there weren’t too many surfers, and we had to almost cut our way through the jungle to get to the beach.”
Eventually Dugan, now 55, helped create the Siargao International Surfing Cup, an annual tournament that he directs. Now in its 27th year, the event put Siargao on every surfer’s map. But it took what some have described as a “perfect storm” to bestow the world-class status that the island, until recently, enjoyed. First, a hit romantic comedy set there opened in Manila on Christmas Day, 2017. Then Conde’ Nast Traveler magazine named Siargao the best island destination in Asia, following up a year later by declaring it the best in the world. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered Boracay, the country’s then-reigning tourist mecca, closed for six months to deal with environmental concerns.
The results were immediate and astounding; nearly 200,000 foreign and domestic tourists—many diverted from Boracay—visited Siargao in 2018, a 50.7% increase from the year before. Then along came Covid to knock it all down. Where once busloads of tourists arrived hourly, now reigned an ear-shattering silence. Crystalline rock pools, until recently inhabited by scads of half-naked sun-screened bodies, now feature pixy-like reflections of water dancing merrily on stone. And miles of previously teeming restaurants and resorts today stand abandoned and closed.
Like virtually everything else that’s fun in the world, Siargao’s annual international surfing tournament—usually set for this month—has been indefinitely postponed. No one knows precisely when—or if—it will return. And, frankly, there are those who expect the island’s wilted tourist industry to follow its printed predecessor into that gilded tomb. As is true of so many things in these days of uncertainty, however, the outcome is not yet known. So let’s just hope for the best. And honor the fallen tome.
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(David Haldane authored the award-winning memoir, “Nazis & Nudists.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an American journalist, essayist, and broadcaster whose radio work received a Golden Mike from the Radio & Television News Association of Southern California. He currently lives in Surigao City with his Filipino wife and their two children. http:///felixr28.sg-host.com)
Originally Published in Mindanao Gold Star Daily