'Eco-Warrior' faces rough waters

Last year was the best of times and the worst of times for surfer James Pribram.

He lost one of his best friends to an overdose; was declared Athlete of the Year in the Laguna Beach Patriot's Day Parade; was hailed as a hero for rescuing a woman from drowning; and lost an important sponsor.

By November, Pribram was all but ready to trash his global Eco-Warrior Project.

He announced on his Facebook page that O'Neill wetsuits had dropped him as a sponsor — a final blow for the project and the six-year odyssey that had taken him from Chicago, to Chile and Japan, to the South Atlantic and points in between, seeking to right environmental wrongs and stand up for surfing.

When he got the email from O'Neill, an iconic firm founded 60 years ago by inventor of the wetsuit Jack O'Neill, it was the final blow.

"The email said, 'We love you and your work but can't pick up a deal for next year,'" Pribram said. "I was one of the last cuts they made."

It's been a rough few years, with key sponsors like XS Energy Drinks dropping him in 2008 due to the economic meltdown.

After the O'Neill announcement, "I had to take a knee," Pribram said. "I had to retreat and get out of the spotlight."

But despite the lows, the Eco-Warrior Project lives on.

Pribram, who grew up on Laguna's beaches and until recently wrote a column for the Coastline Pilot, credits surfing with saving him from a fate that some of his classmates suffered — overdoses and prison time.

He said he feels destined for a life of battling for environmental justice. But he'd be just as happy staying local.

He said an early surfing sponsor, Ocean Pacific, came up with the global eco-warrior idea.

In 2005, because of his political activism following a bout with a life-threatening skin disease picked up in the ocean, combined with his competitive surfing, he was picked as a global ambassador for surfing and clean water. A radio disc jockey dubbed him "the Eco-Warrior."

"They laid out a plan for me to go around the world and seek out endangered waters," Pribram said.

The project has never been a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and cannot accept donations. The companies that sponsor him foot the bill for the trips and in return generate publicity and goodwill for their brands.

"People have asked to donate, but they can't," he said.

The Eco-Warrior Project became a runaway success and took on a life of its own, and when OP dropped out, other companies came in. They all wanted him to go around the world battling environmental hazards, which he did — and does.

Pribram has faced down whale hunters in Japan — almost getting arrested in the process — and stood up at Chicago City Hall to support lifting a ban on surfing in Lake Michigan. Along the way, he became a bit of a celebrity in his own right and has had to learn the tricks of the celebrity game.

"When I speak, everything has to be so perfect," he said. "Being an Eco-Warrior is a heavy burden."

His most dangerous feat so far was to join a perilous journey from Brazil to South Africa in search of the elusive South Atlantic Gyre, or waste stream. Like Odysseus, he was strapped to the outside of the pitching vessel and endured 18-foot seas in the dead of night, keeping watch for the gyre. He was nearly swept overboard; the ill-fated journey also cost him a valued relationship.