Wave Wars: Surfing's Violent Subculture

Surfers have an image of being laid back and relaxed, but set foot onto their beaches or try to ride their waves uninvited and you might see that mellow, Zen-like mentality melt away in an instant. You may even become the next victim of surf rage.

Just last weekend, a celebrity photographer experienced this firsthand as he tried to capture actor Matthew McConaughey on film while he surfed at a beach in Malibu, Calif. Within minutes, more than a dozen surfers surrounded the photographer and began screaming at him and his fellow paparazzi to leave the beach.

"Nobody wants you here," a surfer was heard screaming at the cameraman on a videotape recording, just moments before the encounter escalated into a full-fledged brawl.

The fight, which continued off and on throughout the weekend, resulted in several photogs getting punched in the face, and one even showed off his bloody face to the camera.

Photographers and surfers alike are now arguing back and forth online, some even suggesting the two sides meet this Saturday for a beach rumble.

But, despite the threats, the Malibu police department told ABCNEWS.com that no additional enforcement -- other than the beach patrol that is always present -- will be deployed.

Though the video and subsequent cyber-threats were jarring to watch, the incident was not altogether uncommon. At the best surf beaches, the limited number of waves and occasional pack mentality of local surfers, who feel entitled to the territory, can mean bad news for newcomers.

There have been several recent examples of surfers taking violent exception to the intrusion of outsiders.

Last spring, a surfer was beaten and killed by what some considered a "surfer gang" in La Jolla, Calif., and earlier this year, a local Hawaiian surfer was killed during an early morning fight, according to local reports.

Documentaries, such as Russell Crowe's 2007 "Bra Boys," which boasted a tagline that read "blood is thicker than water," and the 2005 film "Lords of Dogtown," both illustrated how violent surfer life can get. In "Dogtown," for example, one surfer, who feels threatened by intruders, goes so far as to drop another's carburetor into the ocean.

'They Wanted Me Out of Their Sandbox'

Sam George, a Malibu-based surf guide and documentary filmmaker, said he's been dealing with "localism," the term surfers use to describe surf rage, since he began surfing more than 39 years ago.

"I was once surfing out in a break near Santa Barbara, and the surfers there wanted me and my friends to get out of the water because the sleeves on my wetsuit were blue," said George, who believes he was asked to leave because his suit didn't fit the "code of that spot."

"They started yelling," recalled George, the former editor of Surfer magazine. "They wanted us out of their waves, their break and their point.

"They wanted me out of their sandbox," George said, adding that fights sparked by territorialism usually occur in areas with the higher quality waves.

The territorialism seen among surfers is the result of the elusive nature of the sport, according to Stacy Peralta, a surfer and filmmaker, who wrote the screenplay for "Lords of Dogtown."

"You're dealing with a situation where there are limited resources," said Peralta, who declined to elaborate on his own run-ins with angry surfers, although he did confirm that he's had plenty. "There are only so many waves in a set and so many in a session, and the spots get really, really crowded.

"People who typically live near a [good surfing spot] end up claiming it as their own because of the proximity," said Peralta. "And when people come to that spot who don't live there, they're looked at as invaders.

"These people do have a personal connection to their spots -- typically, they've grown up there -- and they claim it as their own, even when it really isn't," said Peralta.

But Peralta emphasized that surf rage doesn't always turn violent -- much of the communication between surfers is usually in the water.

"They're so good [at surfing] it's hard to get [a wave]," said Peralta, who added that he wouldn't go as far as to refer to these territorial surfers as gangs. "They're a pack in the water -- they monopolize the waves and humiliate people [with their talent]. They know the system."

Surfers Are Misunderstood, Some Say

George, who was at the Malibu beach where the McConaughey fight broke out, told ABCNEWS.com that, while these types of incidents garner a lot of media attention, they still are not the norm for the surfer community.

"Surfers, by nature, are passive because what they want more than anything is to ride the waves," said George. "But in any subculture dominated by men, you're going to find guys that are aggressive, and, in some cases, violent."

Andrew Couldwell, editor and founder of surfing Web site Clubofthewaves.com, said that, while the media may want to pigeonhole surfers as territorial, there are, in reality, lots of different types of surfers.

"There are some surfers who see it as a sport and some who enjoy the riding of a wave as an escape and like the culture of it all," said Couldwell. "Some surfers are loners in that it's a personal time for them and will not speak at all in the water; others are friendly and chatty, some are forgiving, and some are aggressive.

"As long as you stick to good 'surf etiquette' -- that is, considering other people out in the water waiting for the wave -- you should have no trouble," added Couldwell. "But, like anything in life, unfortunately, there are troublemakers.

"Sometimes things can happen, verbally or physically," said Couldwell, who explained how localism is known for being especially bad on parts of the North Shore of Hawaii.

But Couldwell insists that violence isn't a regular thing and that most surfers never experience aggressive localism.

George and Peralta agreed, and added that, until artificial reefs are built to create more surf breaks and accommodate everyone, it is imperative for the more aggressive surfers to realize that everyone has a right to ride the waves.

"These waves belong to the Earth and not to us," said Peralta. "We're just lucky enough to ride them."