In Baja, Surfers Battle Over The Perfect Wave

By Jill Replogle
March 09, 2012

Epic Wave Causes Land Battle in Baja California

For decades, Southern California surfers have enjoyed the relatively uncrowded waves of Baja California, Mexico. But, just as they've seen happen on their home turf, the paths to some of the best waves have been blocked in recent years by high-rise condos and private housing developments. From our Fronteras Desk, Jill Replogle and KPBS video journalist Katie Euphrat bring us to the perfect break causing an ongoing land battle.

Baja After The Boom

Read more about development & conservation in Baja California.

SAN JUANICO, MX - Nearly 900-miles down the Baja California peninsula on Highway 1, there is an epic wave.

“As far as I’m concerned,” mused a 73-year old surfer who goes by the name Lee of the Sea, “when it’s on, it’s as good a wave as there is in the world.”

He’s talking about the wave at San Juanico, or Scorpion Bay, as it’s more popularly known in the surf community. The place is remote: if you want to take the direct route — still about 650 miles — you have to brave a long stretch of mud and salt flats. One Scorpion Bay website warns surfers to “think twice” before taking this route. If you break through the brittle mud surface, “maybe no one will be along for days,” it says.

Despite the long, rough ride, in the summertime hundreds of American surfers make the journey in four-wheel drives and makeshift campers. They spend their days riding waves that can last up to a minute and a half. That’s a long ride.

Most spend their nights in the campground that occupies the rocky, cactus-studded point directly above the wave. This prime piece of land has caused a nasty legal battle.

It demonstrates the passion — and sense of possession — surfers feel for their favorite spots.

“We’re very selfish with our waves,” James Adkins, an Imperial Valley native, said matter-of-factly. Adkins, who now works as a real estate agent and developer in San Juanico, represents one side of the battle.

Photo by Jose Luis Jiménez
The waves at San Juanico, also known as Scorpion Bay.

“I mean, we don’t want to have more people,” he said.

The conflict pits Adkins and another Southern California surfer turned would-be developer against each other. At stake may be the most sensitive issue in the surf community — access.

“Whoever ends up with that property has kind of a public responsibility to deal with it in a way that, I think, respects the traditional uses there,” said Ruben Andrews, the other side of the battle.

Andrews leases the campground land from the local ejido, which are communal agricultural groups that have been granted large tracts of land by the Mexican government.

Both Adkins and Andrews accuse each other of trying to block off the land. In the meantime, the ejido just wants to turn a profit from its coveted beachfront property.

“What good would it do me to have all these beautiful places if I don’t have the capital to develop them?” said José Jesús Meza, the ejido president.

Andrews and Adkins once ran the campground together, but Andrews eventually bought Adkins out. By then Adkins had moved on to a more lucrative business — negotiating land sales between American investors and the same ejido.

Photo by Katie Euphrat
The sparse campground at Scorpion Bay.

Adkins didn’t necessarily want to see his semi-secret surf spot developed, he said, but "I couldn’t keep putting on the brakes when the ejido wants to sell their property."

"It was either someone else was going to take my position, or I had to step up to the plate,” he said.

Eventually, Adkins and a group of Southern California investors offered $3 million to buy up the campground land and build a cluster of beachfront homes at that perfect wave. The ejido sold it, with Andrews’ campground lease still in effect.

That’s when the war began.

Adkins said his group tried to buy Andrews out from the start, but he didn’t want to sell. (Andrews denies they made him an offer.)

“So as in all negotiations, we tried to figure out a way to force him to sell out,” Adkins said.

Photo by Katie Euphrat
Surfer Lee of the Sea, 73, has seen access to many of his favorite Baja California surf spots restricted by development.

For the past five years, Andrews, Adkins and the ejido have been filing suits, counter-suits and appeals against each other in Mexican courts. They’ve each spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers.

On a recent morning, the grizzled surfer, Lee of the Sea, played catch with his German Shepard, Sandy, outside of his well lived-in motor home. He had a cup of coffee in his hand and a rattlesnake skin tied around his forehead, holding back his blonde-gray, wispy hair.

His dog had killed the snake a few years back, he explained. So he skinned it and ate the meat.

Lee, who once lived in San Diego, has been camping and surfing in Baja California for decades. He has lost access to many of his favorite surfing spots between Tijuana and Ensenada.

“I mean, access has just about been completely cut off in a lot of those places,” Lee said.

Though he’d like young surfers to have what he had, he said that may not be possible these days.

Photo by Jose Luis Jiménez
Surf themed stickers mark the road sign to San Juanico, which some say gets vandalized to discourage new visitors.

“It’s changing, everything changes,” Lee philosophized. “Like I’ve said, if you don’t change with it, you get buried.”

Adkins denies his group has plans to limit access to the wave for visiting surfers. But he thinks a more upscale, and restricted, use of the land along this prime surf spot is inevitable.

“In any project all over the world, when the property gets to be a certain value, there’s no way you’re going to stop developers from buying that property and changing it from camping,” Adkins said.

The lawsuits are ongoing, but it looks like surf bums will have at least a few years left to camp at Scorpion Bay.