The last Sunday of September in this Basque town on the Spanish coast wallows in an idyllic, late-summer quiet. Fitness-happy old men take their sagging bellies for a walk in the mirror-like sea. "Twenty times back and forth, then I'll be done," one of them says, while his wife, having planted a parasol in the sand, attends to the lives of the rich and famous in her magazine.
Mudaka, Spain, about forty kilometers northeast of Bilbao, isn't known as a haven for senior citizens. It's a famous surf Mecca, featuring Europe's best left-breaking wave. Surfers used to gather here every autumn for a professional contest -- until three years ago, when the wave simply disappeared, leaving Mundaka and its beaches to the retirees.
But now the wave is back, and so is the contest. The world-class "Billabong Pro Mundaka" runs this year from October 3-14, bringing flocks of surfers and tourists to the former fishing village.
The wave disappeared in the winter of 2003, after a local shipyard company called Murueta S.A. dredged the Guernica estuary at the mouth of the Oka River, ruining what turned out to be a very important sandbar. The dredging changed the flow of the river so drastically that the coastal seawater just blubbered and swayed where it used to rear up into a speeding curl. It was a catastrophe, not just for surfers but also for tourism in Mundaka -- not to mention the local hip clothing shops that had thrived in the area's bustling surf culture.
Millions of euros' worth of surf paraphernalia
Surfing these days isn't just a booming business in its core countries such as America and Australia, but also in Europe. Hundreds of brands compete to dress the average surfer in sinfully expensive boardshorts and hoodies. Billabong, the Australian brand that sponsors the Mundaka contest, sold €120 million worth of surf paraphernalia last year alone -- 20 percent more than the previous year.
Since 1999, when the ASP first put Mundaka on its tour, 47 of the world's best surfers descended on the town every October to compete, a phenomenon that landed Mundaka on the pages of most international surf magazines. The swell, which broke in front of an elemental Basque village landscape, earned a reputation as a tough spot to surf. When it disappeared after the 2003 competition, the contest had to move to the neighboring village of Bakio in 2004. It was canceled completely in 2005.
Locals and surfers looked for help from the regional government, which offered €100,000 for a year of research by the geological institute at the nearby University of the Basque Country. Experts studied wave and current patterns in 2005 and suggested ways to fix the problem. After another ten months of measuring currents and sand movements, the geologists predicted that enough sand would return to revive the wave by autumn of 2006. And sure enough -- with the first storm conditions of the year -- it's back.
Now, instead of retirees, there are surfers in the water. "The wave's better than ever," says Mike Dobos, a 39-year-old surfer from Florida, who first came to Mundaka ten years ago to live near the wave. Dobos says the government now understands the risk with any future work in the Guernica estuary. "The environmental ministry assured us the delta will only be dredged out again according to strict guidelines," he says.