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Exploring the Turtle Islands off Sierra Leone

Turtle Islands © John Callahan



Surf Travel

surfEXPLORE document the remote Turtle Islands in Sierra Leone

Surfersvillage Global Surf News, 21 June, 2014 - International travel collective surfEXPLORE (John Callahan, Erwan Simon, Emi Cataldi and Sam Bleakley) specialize in researching, riding and documenting unridden waves. Their latest project was to the remote Turtle Islands in the south of Sierra Leone, supported by travel medical insurance company battleface. Sierra Leone suffered a bitter civil war between 1991 and 2002.

The country has recovered from that conflict and adventure tourism is a wonderful opportunity to support. This now vibrant and welcoming country is merely a medium-haul flight from Europe with year-around 27 degrees Celsius water temperatures, and 250 miles of Atlantic coastline with consistent surf breaking from May to October. 

Surfing started in Sierra Leone in the 1980s, but the development of a local scene suffered from the civil war. Now that has ended, surf travel and local surfing is growing slowly. One of the most exciting developments is the Bureh Beach Surf Club in front of a racy, consistent left beachbreak. “Di waves dem go mak u feel fine” is the club motto.


The club was started with the help of an Irish surfer Shane O’Connor, a donation of boards and equipment from surf-report website Magic Seaweed, and funding from German NGO, Welt Hunger Helfe. There is a clubhouse, kitchen café and camp pitch. Surf lessons are in place, and soon there will be accommodation.

This is a very impressive model of surf club development, putting environmental sensibilities at the forefront. Bureh is really well suited for the development of surf lessons and a lifeguard culture, and every weekend Sierra Leoneans travel to the coast for beach parties, dancing on the sand late into the night. Liberia, Ghana and Sierra Leone are likely to attract increasing numbers of surf travellers over the coming years, and develop proud local surf cultures. The International Surfing Association (ISA) are ambitious to support this development with interclub and international surf events.

From travelling to areas of post-conflict Africa, surfEXPLORE have learned never to type places through the frames of their wars, or limit expectations or understandings according to media representations. As nations reflect on the scar tissue from wars, these images can offer misrepresentations of future possibilities, often immobilizing creative change, inviting instead forms of piety and aid to places that demand instead ecological education – how to learn sustainability and self-sufficiency. surfEXPLORE intend to use surfing to get under the skin of a coastline and showcase her potential.


Of course, water, electricity and available work are front-line issues for Sierra Leone, but this country is ambitious and on the rise. The popular President Ernest Bai Koroma is investing heavily in mining, agriculture and tourism. 

surfEXPLORE’s goal was to make it to the Turtle Islands, nine small islands spread across 60 kilometres populated by approximately 1,000 people living in self-sufficient fishing communities, specializing in net-fishing, mat-making and weaving. With no cars or roads, transportation is by boat or on foot. The islands are entirely sand, there are no rocks or reefs of any kind, anywhere. Tourism and the Turtle Islands are not yet bedmates (and there rests the allure for surfEXPLORE).

There are a series of wooden dugout canoes along the shore of every island, with towering palms and clusters of mud-and-wood thatched huts. Each island has a couple of football teams, a mosque (Sierra Leone is a predominantly Muslim country), mangrove and a freshwater lake (inhabited by crocodiles as the islands were once connected to the mainland). The marine and bird life considerably outnumbers the human.


Henri Pelissier runs a small eco-lodge and campsite called Turtle Dream on the Turtle Island of Bakie. Henri has gained privileged access to the local community – he adopted and raised the island chief’s son Abu when his mother died during childbirth. Abu is now in his early twenties and works with Henri and a cast of other Bakie locals to cater for a potential new wave of adventure tourists.

Turtle Dream is positive eco-tourism in action because the place is growing slowly and humbly with the local community at the helm. The locals are proud of their archipelago, but equally passionate about their football team. A great way to engage with the local crew is ask what team they follow. Poker faced replies ensue, showing the gravity of allegiances: Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona are the favourites. 

surfEXPLORE found excellent sand-bottom waves on the swell exposed south side of Yele, with long neat rights spinning off. There are numerous rideable waves, including a break behind the camp on Bakie, but sandbars will shift considerably with seasons and swell. On the the peaking swell, overhead rights beat the sandbar at Yele like the drummers, air pockets swelling the whitewater and showering saltspray. Every surfer knows this song line: chorus, solo, chorus and coda, with good drumming at its heart and grace in the glide. Sierra Leone is already a bright flame of West African tourism, but it needs more oxygen to keep the fire alight. Go explore.



For medical travel insurance for Sierra Leone and other surf adventure destinations, go to For accommodation at Turtle Dream, contact Henri Pelissier or Martin Brehm martin @ Check out Bureh Beach Surf Club at Follow surfEXPLORE at

Sam Bleakley

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