12/09/1991 at 01:00 AM EST
THE WATERS OF HUMBOLDT BAY IN Northern California are lovely, dark and deep—and often topped with crisp, powerful waves. Despite frequent fog and bone-chilling water temperatures, those waves made the area a hit with surfers—until something began to go wrong in the mid-1960s. For starters, the translucent combers took on the color of burned coffee. Soon after, surfers noticed a sludgy undercurrent just below the surface. Many of them came away from Humboldt Bay with burning eyes, skin rashes, sore throats and sinus infections.
In 1988 word of the spot's continuing desecration reached Mark Massara, 30, a San Franciso lawyer and dedicated surfer. Intrigued, he headed up to Humboldt Bay armed with a surfboard and yellow legal pad. "You could taste the pollution and see it," he says. "There's a pungent chemical smell. There's a black foam, stringy black stuff. I remember thinking this was the most egregious case of water pollution I had ever seen."
To Massara, the culprits were obvious—two lumber-pulp mills that were allegedly dumping waste into the bay. He sued in federal court on behalf of the Surfrider Foundation, an association of 17,000 surfers formed in 1984 to protect good wave sites. "People think of a surfer organization as a self-canceling phrase," says Rob Caughlan, 48, a Menlo Park, Calif., advertising executive who is the foundation's president. "I think I was asked to be president because I have white hair and a couple of neckties."
In September, after two years of litigation, the companies, Simpson Paper and Louisiana-Pacific, while denying liability, agreed in an out-of-court settlement to pay fines of $2.9 million each and to install treatment plants. "There are a lot of surfers saying, 'Cowabunga, dude!' " says Caughlan.
Massara and Caughlan and their legion of surfer conservationists are looking ahead to other battles, including a protest over fees for California's public beaches. "Part of me wants to quit while I'm ahead," says Caughlan. "But I want to ride the wave a little longer."