Maya Gabeira enjoys a challenge, whether it’s a wave towering above her or a complex conservation problem lying deep below the ocean’s surface. The professional big wave surfer joined Oceana’s Board of Directors a year ago, and her unique life experiences have made her a valuable ally in the fight for a more abundant ocean. Most recently, she supported Oceana’s successful plastic campaign in Brazil, which resulted in iFood, the country’s leading food delivery company, taking bold action to tackle single-use plastic waste. Born and raised in Brazil, Gabeira now lives in Nazaré, a Portuguese fishing village that is known to surfers as the big wave capital of the world. It is where Gabeira successfully scaled a 73.5-foot wave (22.4 meters) and broke the world record for largest wave ever surfed by a woman. In a recent interview with Oceana Magazine, Gabeira shared her take on tackling waves, plastic pollution, and the fear of failure.
What are some of your earliest memories of the ocean?
MG: My earliest memories of the ocean are holidays with my parents in a place called Angra dos Reis, near Rio de Janeiro. We used to go there and ride around on a schooner — one of those big tourist boats. My dad was learning to swim at the time, so my sister Tami and I were actually swimming better than he was [laughs]. We lived in Ipanema, which is a beach town, but I come from an intellectual family that wasn’t really into the beach scene. We mostly visited on holidays.
So how did you discover surfing?
MG: At 13 or 14 I changed schools and befriended a group of boys, and one of them became my boyfriend. They were all surfers, and their passion impacted me a lot. Our weekends were always spent on the beach, and at some point I realized I didn’t want to be left in the sand. I went out on my own and joined a surf school because obviously the boys didn’t want to cater to a girl who was a complete beginner.
What was your first time on a surfboard like?
MG: It was so hard to learn at that age because I wasn’t a child anymore. Everything is so instinctive when you’re a kid, but I had to work on feeling comfortable with the sea and I had to learn how to read the ocean. Still, I remember the first time I caught a wave and went sideways, which is when you’re on the face of a wave. That was at Arpoador Beach in Rio and I fell in love with it right away.
When did you realize the oceans were under threat?
MG: My dad was one of the founders of Brazil’s Green Party, so I always understood the climate crisis and global warming because we talked about it at home. But if I’m being honest, it wasn’t until the last five years or so that I started to really understand the impact on our oceans. It’s not that I didn’t see the plastic trash. That has always been a visual problem for those of us who have spent the last 15 years in the ocean or on the beach. We see the effects of single-use plastic more and more, and that’s undeniable. But it’s a little more challenging to see that fish are not as abundant or as big as they once were, and to realize that certain changes are happening underneath us. It’s a huge ocean, and we’re always on our surfboards looking up. It takes studying and connecting and educating ourselves to understand what is happening beneath the surface that we don’t see with our eyes.
Which ocean issue resonates with you most?
MG: I wish there was just one. I wish we could say, ‘Let’s just fight offshore drilling’ or ‘Let’s just fight single-use plastic.’ That would be a luxury in this day and age. I am very concerned about multiple issues, whether it’s single-use plastic, offshore drilling, overfishing, or destruction of habitat. All those things are on Oceana’s agenda, and I think they’re equally important. They’re all connected to the destruction of nature, which affects our ability to live in harmony and have enough resources to thrive in the future.
What do you like most about being on Oceana’s Board of Directors?
MG: As a new board member, I feel extremely privileged to attend board meetings. I feel like I’m in one of the best schools in the world, and I’m learning from the very best teachers how to save the oceans. To be a part of those discussions is enlightening. It not only inspires me, but also gives me the knowledge and tools to go out and spread the message. It makes me feel like it’s possible to accomplish all the tasks that are necessary for a healthier world and healthier ocean.
You recently supported Oceana’s plastic campaign in Brazil, which succeeded in convincing iFood to eliminate 1.5 billion single-use plastic items per year. What does this victory mean for Brazil and for the oceans?
MG: I’m extremely proud of the Brazilian team because it was a very well-structured campaign. It took a lot of strategy to pull that off. The company, iFood, accounts for most of the food deliveries in Brazil, and with the pandemic, we saw a huge rise in those numbers. A lot of deliveries were made, and they were using an immense amount of single-use plastic. We fought hard through a petition and learned that consumers were in favor of having a plastic-free option. Understanding that, and proving that to iFood, was why the campaign succeeded.
You’ve spoken openly about fear, especially after suffering a near-fatal surfing accident in 2013. While “climate anxiety” is a different kind of fear altogether, do you have advice for those grappling with global problems that may feel scary or insurmountable?
MG: For me, the fear of failure was something I had to overcome. It was very challenging if I’m being honest. After I fell on that huge wave I attempted years ago and almost drowned, I was afraid to try again and fail — not only because it could cost my life, but also because of other people’s opinions. I had to accept failing as a possibility and not let that get to me. I think the only thing we can do is understand the problem and work daily towards what we feel is right. Having anxiety is normal, but there is no solution to a problem you don’t face. Fear creates a sense of urgency, forcing us to act quickly and make changes that are necessary. Maybe fear and anxiety are the emotions we need to finally break through and create the change we need if we want to survive on a planet that is healthy. Fear can be a great teacher.
This story appears in the Climate Issue (Spring 2022) of Oceana Magazine. Read it online here.