Brazilian big wave surfer and seven-time Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Award winner, Maya Gabeira is on a colossal mission. Her objectives are so ambitious, they might just be bigger than the 73-foot Portuguese wave that earned her a Guinness Record in 2020— breaking her original 2018 record for the biggest wave ever surfed by a woman.
As an ocean advocate and conservationist, the Oceana Board Member and UNESCO Champion of The Ocean and Youth is on a mission to save the oceans in much the same way that they saved her, as an asthmatic child who took up surfing at the age of 13.
“Growing up, I was afraid of the ocean, but also drawn to it,” she recalls. “It’s funny, my family wasn’t really into the beach scene, despite living in Ipanema, a coastal town in Brazil…
When I was around 13, I changed schools and befriended a bunch of boys. They were all surfers and their love for the sport found its way into my heart. Our weekends were always spent at the beach, and at some point, I realized I didn’t want to just sit and watch them from the sand.”
This was beginning of Gabeira’s story as a surfer girl among the boys.
In surf school, Gabeira would devote long hours to “feeling comfortable on a board” and learning “how to read the sea,” and vividly recalls the exact moment in which her curiosity for the sport turned into love, on the waves of Arpoador Beach in Rio de Janeiro.
Shy but highly ambitious, the strength of the ocean would inspire her to develop the mental fortitude to carve out her place in a profession that was fraught with bias. She would begin competing by the age of 15—just two years after she started— and by 17 she would turn pro, holding her own in the male dominated sport.
“I had to, and still have to, be very strong to stand up for myself and fight for waves— sometimes against 40 to 50 guys,” she says emphatically.
In 2013, Gabeira suffered a near-fatal fall on what she refers to as “the biggest wave I’d ever seen”— a 25-foot “beast” that emerged off the cost of Portugal, in the same location where she would break the world record years later. Despite a long recovery that consisted of multiple surgeries and emotional trauma, the surf icon would maintain that the oceans saved her.
“The way I think of it, I owe my life to the oceans,” she says. “They’ve taught me an important lesson about resilience. The oceans face countless threats every day, but they are resilient. “With the right precautions, the oceans bounce back when things go wrong. They don’t give up and neither did I. I fought, I recovered, and I lived to surf another day. For that reason, I will advocate for the oceans as much and as long as I can.”
Just one year after her near-death experience, the ESPY Best Female Action Sports Athlete would star in a PSA for Oceana, advocating for marine habitat protection, and she would develop a line of wooden, limited edition “Maya Boards” with a portion of all proceeds being donated to the ocean conservation organization.
Gabeira’s resilience enabled her to continue pursuing the causes that were dear to her, despite struggling with the trauma of her near-death experience with the enormous wave.
“I had this feeling that I was going to die. After that, I was afraid to get out there again. Afraid that it would happen again. Afraid that I wasn’t good enough. But fear is a great motivator. Fear creates a sense of urgency and forces us to act quickly and make changes that are necessary.”
In 2015, Gabeira would relocate to Nazaré Portugal, home to the same Praia do Norte break that nearly took her life. She would go on to break the two world records three and five years later.
In 2020, when Gabeira rode the 73-foot wave that earned her a second Guinness record, it was also the first time in history that a woman would hold the title of biggest wave surfed for the year. The Atlantic responded with an article, confronting bias within the sport. It read: “This Woman Surfed the Biggest Wave of the Year. Here’s why you probably haven’t heard about it.”
By now Gabeira had become proficient at overcoming challenges. She continued to stay true to her love for surfing and being a role model to the youth and girls who looked up to her. Her passion for ocean conservation had become stronger than ever.
As a professional surfer for going on two decades, and as one of the most influential surfers of all time, Gabeira observed first-hand the damage caused by marine pollution and the destruction of marine biodiversity— and has spent years using her platform to advocate for change.
“Whales do not sing because they have an answer. They sing because they have a message,” she posted to Instagram in April 2023, months after accepting an ambassadorship as UNESCO Champion of The Ocean and Youth, and releasing her autobiographical children’s book, Maya and the Beast.
“The ocean for me is a source of endless energy. There’s nothing like jumping in the ocean and washing everything away. That’s why I go back every day: I want to be surrounded by the life of our oceans. We must respect the oceans– it would be crazy not to. And the best way we can show respect is by using our voices to help protect and restore the world’s oceans,” she said in 2021, as she joined Oceana’s Board of Directors.
That year, Gabeira would collaborate with the ocean conservation organization in her home country Brazil, to successfully convince the nation’s largest home-food delivery service, iFood, to cut its use of single-use plastics. iFood has since committed itself to eliminating 2.7 billion single-use plastic items by 2025.
“Working with Oceana and UNESCO means I can make real change,” says Gabeira of her commitment to ocean issues, from marine pollution to biodiversity loss. “I love meeting with other dedicated ocean advocates to set goals for Oceana’s important campaigns to restore ocean abundance and biodiversity at our board meetings.”
Gabeira continues to use her platform to advocate for global marine conservation efforts such as the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, and the “30×30” target of the Global Biodiversity Framework adopted at COP 15, to bring 30% of the world’s land and sea under effective protection and management by 2030.
“Our oceans cover more than 70% of the planet, yet only about 8% of them are currently protected,” she laments, referring to the status of ocean protection as “scary,” given that oceans are home to most of the earth’s biodiversity, having helped to protect humanity from the worst impacts of climate change, and serving as a critical source of food and jobs for billions of people around the world.
“Last December, I was excited to hear that world leaders committed to the global goal of protecting 30% of ocean habitat by 2030,” she says. “It’s a great goal. But now it’s time to hold those same leaders accountable. We know that when our oceans are well protected, they thrive. And science tells us that we must protect 30% of the ocean by 2030 to help ensure an equitable and healthy future for future generations.”
Just as the urgent need to move past her fears helped her to overcome anxiety following her 2013 accident, Gabeira is a believer that the only way to move past the existential threat posed by climate change and marine degradation is to act.
“There is no time to lose,” she affirms. “We need governments to take action now.”
Despite the challenges, Gabeira is optimistic about the progress that she has seen around the world, such as habitat protections in the United States, Peru, Spain and Canada, and is encouraged by Chile’s protection of 40% of its waters over the past 17 years.
Gabeira is also confident in the potential of the youth to create change and has become an avid proponent of youth advocacy in her role with UNESCO.
Blue Aya, Gabeira’s organic sun protection brand, launched in 2022 “to protect the body and take care of the sea” offers an optimistic devotion to the ocean and to those like her who are prepared to rise against the odds to make a change.
Its manifesto reads:
We were born for those who like to take a stand. For those who assume their role in transforming the world. For those committed to change and active in building our future.
“I want our youth to know that they need to get involved as soon as possible if they want to enjoy the same beautiful and abundant ocean that their parents and grandparents did,” she implores.
As an advocate for girls, youth, and the oceans, Maya Gabeira is living proof that with mental fortitude there is nothing that cannot be achieved— no matter how great the beast.
“Our oceans face big threats like over-fishing, plastic pollution, and climate change,” says Gabeira. “But anyone, no matter how young, can help turn the tide.”
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