Good Trouble

The continuing education of Dave Rastovich.

Light / Dark

A fast southern front raced in this morning and opened up hard over the Cape. Dave Rastovich’s plot, eight acres of former cow paddock in transition back to native coastal rainforest, is taking the brunt. 

We can’t talk for the pounding rain on tin. Rastovich scrambles to the top of a shed-sized water tank and clears a mass of sodden debris from a clogged intake screen, which is sending a cascade of precious fresh water down the tank side. It’s been an unprecedented dry summer for the Byron Shire, and every drop counts.

He returns, dripping, to the veranda where we’re parked on the lounge and resumes our chat. He’s barefoot and shirtless, wearing only his yard-work boardies. 

In another time and another place, Rasta’s father would have viewed an assemblage like this through an entirely different lens. By the time of his passing, however, the senior Rastovich had made peace with his past. South Australia, 2017. Photo by SA Rips.
A shockingly adept and anatomically gifted surfer, Rastovich’s Coolangatta provenance infused him with that point-rich region’s lessons. When it comes to the stylish, long-lined approach of the headland surfer, he remains a beacon of clean, deep surfing. Photo by Nathan Oldfield.

The subject is the Bentley Blockade of 2014, a grassroots uprising that saw an unlikely alliance of Aboriginal activists, farmers, greenies, rural retirees, artists, dancers, musicians, cattlemen, and even the odd surfer or two, laying siege against Metgasco, a Sydney-based oil and gas exploration firm hunting for potential coal-seam gas reserves in the bucolic hinterlands behind Lismore, about 40 miles southwest of Byron Bay. 

“We were joking,” he says, “straight after we put out the word that it had all escalated, if you can get surfers to walk up and be part of a blockade then you know it’s a huge movement.” 

In May of that year, Metagasco brought in drilling rigs to begin fracking, but the convoy was stopped on Bentley Road by over 2,000 nonviolent, yet highly vocal protestors that included Rastovich and several other surfers. At one point, the New South Wales authorities planned to deploy up to 800 riot police to break up the blockade by force, but Metgasco, seeing a public relations nightmare unfolding, blinked first. 

Within a year, drilling plans were suspended and finally scrapped.

“I went with [musician and surfer] Xavier Rudd and a young local grommet and we walked around the blockade and spoke to the organizer, Drew Hutton, and we basically rallied the surf community to be part of the blockade. We had beat-up old surfboards up on the scaffolding painted with slogans. I saw heaps of surfers there every day. Every day,” he says.


It’s been nearly fifteen years since Jack McCoy’s Blue Horizon posited young Billabong stars Dave Rastovich and Andy Irons as the yin and yang of pro surfing. Andy as the raw competitive animal who coupled his show-stopping flair with a rock-star party ethic, versus “Rasta” as a barefoot, surfing Caine, walking the earth and communing with dolphins. 

The reality for both was more complex—and darker—and came down somewhere closer to the middle. The narrative of Irons defending his first world championship ginned up sufficient connective tissue of behind-the-scenes Tour drama, while allowing Rastovich to maintain an existential backbeat, tickling the inside of candy-colored tubes in postcard locales. 

Shot on HD, and woven with McCoy’s stunning 16mm cinematography, the top third of the film features a segment of Rastovich visiting his father, Dennis, in New Zealand, north of Auckland, close to where Dave was born in the last days of 1979. Dennis’ cabin, sited on Maori tribal land, is an eclectic Middle Earth shelter bristling with wind chimes, waterwheels, Tibetan prayer flags, and a surfeit of Buddhas tucked in hand-carved, wooden alcoves. 

“My dad was one of the main guys, one of the nutters you knew wouldn’t mind being in a riot. Strange to think, but my dad was up for that.” 

As Dave exits the rental car, you sense a forced smile and a certain degree of dread, as if not knowing what to expect from the old man. Dennis springs into frame like a happy terrier with a natty, white beard, slim physique, and a shell necklace. He has a bright, almost manic edge to his delivery—Gandalf on helium and caffeine. He reads as a slightly smaller, older, but far more animated version of Dave. 

He’s delighted to see his only son and, with cheery nonstop chatter, proceeds to hijack the camera with a detailed explanation of the Rastovich family crest, which is hanging as a large petroglyph at the entrance. 

 “This means, ‘Man of men…leaders,’” he says as he presents and details the crest. “Broad shoulders…the ocean…strength…right and wrong…all the moral standards of what a man lives for. And Dave’s got the mark on his arm as my father and grandfather did. Dave is who he is today because he’s been given this incredible genetic thing. He’s an Ottoman…a Byzantine from Persia who were just great watermen.”  

In the next cut you can see Dave noticeably blush.

From there, the film segues to the Rastovich family moving to the Gold Coast in the mid 80s, then Dave becoming a winning competitive lifesaver in his early teens. What’s neatly edited out, however, is Dennis’ violent past as a frontline New Zealand riot cop, and the trauma it inflicted on him and his family. 

In the winter of 1981, sleepy New Zealand exploded in an escalating series of protests and riots, sparked by the touring South African Springbok rugby team. At issue were the policies of South Africa’s brutally racist apartheid government. A large, growing faction of mostly younger Kiwis, hoping to fight injustice on the world stage, had pledged to protest and disrupt the Springbok tour. 

This proved a generational lightning rod, dividing the rugby-mad nation of New Zealand. Despite repeated calls to ban South Africa from sporting events, New Zealand’s right-leaning, populist prime minister, Robert Muldoon, allowed the games to go forward with his blessing.

The response was predictable, with the government forming special riot units to quash any attempts to hinder the games. Dennis, then age 29, volunteered to be part of the infamous Red Squad, renowned for breaking heads and other body parts with newly issued “long batons.”

“The Red Squad was basically all the roughest cops in New Zealand,” Rastovich recalls over the rainfall. “My dad was one of the main guys, one of the nutters you knew wouldn’t mind being in a riot. Strange to think, but my dad was up for that.” 

On July 25, Dennis was assigned to control an estimated 5,000 anti-tour protestors at the Waikato Rugby Union versus Springbok game in Hamilton. Before the match started, a small number of protesters broke through a picket fence and occupied the field.

The long delay fueled anger amongst the rowdy, beer-drinking fans. With rumors of a stolen plane being flown to Hamilton to drop smoke bombs on the game, the police cancelled it. As the protesters were being escorted off the field, they were pelted with beer cans by enraged fans, who then began fighting with the police to get to the protestors. Dennis was badly beaten, slammed into a door edgewise, and hammered with thrown bricks. A fence picket was driven through his face, causing profound neurological damage.

The resulting injuries put him in critical care and out of the police force. He also suffered physical and emotional trauma that would plague him for the rest of his life.

“I’m trying to feel my way into how I can contribute [to my sponsor]. The love of wild spaces—camping, being a bit feral, a bit rogue—translates.”

“There was nerve damage in his neck and he was always in and out of hospital getting things fixed up,” says Dave. “If he looked up and to the left he would pass out and have a seizure. He had psychological issues, huge swings from great highs to deep lows, all those classic, manic-depressive traits.”

In the wake of his injuries, Dennis and his wife, Yvonne Rastovich, retreated to a small farm near Piha, north of Auckland, with Dave and his older sisters, Kris and Tonchi. According to Dave, it was a self-sufficient and bucolic existence, although Dennis was a harsh disciplinarian and his deepening battle with PTSD bled over into his family. 

When Dave was five, the Rastovichs immigrated to Australia, relocating near Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast. After country life in New Zealand, Dave had trouble adjusting to the concrete glitz and traffic. He also felt misplaced within the brash Aussie culture. 

“My earliest memories are of being wild and free on our property and eating from our gardens,” he says. “After we moved, what kept me happy on the Goldy was the ocean.” 

By age 15, he was considered the competitive peer of a new generation of “Cooly Kids,” a group that included Joel Parkinson, Mick Fanning, and Dean Morrison. He joined the North End Boardriders Club at Main Beach, but soon gravitated eight miles south to Burleigh Heads.

If velocity, length-of-ride, and explosive punctuation count for anything, Rastovich is probably on your short list. Shown near his home near the Northern Rivers of NSW, March 2017. Photo by Nathan Oldfield.

Burleigh’s long, roping point waves, generally thinner and more forgiving than the often punishing sand-dredgers at Kirra, fostered an elegant, swooping style personified by renowned Burleigh locals like Tony “Doris” Eltherington, Richard Harvey, and Dick Van Straalen. As a lanky teen, Rastovich readily adopted the classic, slope-shouldered aesthetic of surfers twice his age.

Dennis and Yvonne divorced during this era, leaving Dave shuttling between two houses on a weekly basis. Yvonne moved to Burleigh with the girls, which allowed Dave to surf mornings and after school at will. Even when staying with Dennis up in Surfers Paradise, he would ride his bike both ways to Burleigh, often completely surfed out and battling miles of stiff afternoon headwinds.

Dennis, meanwhile, had profoundly transformed his life. As a way to deal with his ongoing pain without the disorienting side effects of synthetic meds, he sought out alternative therapy based on Chinese medicine. After successful treatment and training, he became an avid practitioner, and was instrumental in teaching his teenage son several meditative and breathing exercises.

“It was amazing,” recalls Dave. “Dennis went from being a hard bastard with a flattop and singlets and looking like Robocop, to being this healer. He got into tai chi and Buddhism and natural medicine, like acupuncture. I watched him proper heal people, like kids with cerebral palsy and leg braces. Dad would always say he spent the first part of his life breaking people, and the rest trying to put them back together.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, his decidedly metaphysical approach to surf contests, Rastovich was sent to the 1995 World Grommet Champs in Bali where he handily won the Under-16 division. The same year, he won the Billabong Junior Series to huge acclaim at Burleigh, beating future world champ Joel Parkinson in the finals. In short order, he was signed to Billabong’s junior squad and began going on photo trips with their “A-Team” riders, such as Mark Occhilupo and Michael “Munga” Barry.

After graduation, a group of Billabong execs mapped out the fastest route to a Top 44 berth and he was sent on his debut WQS campaign. Rastovich was happy to surf contests if it meant free travel and not having to work a real job, but he lacked the killer instinct of his Gold Coast peers, Parkinson and Fanning. 

“The whole thing was more of a side note for me,” he says. “I was only really doing it because, at the time, it was the only way to get sponsorship. Margo [Brenden Margieson] and Frankie Oberholzer were the only two sponsored surfers on the planet who hadn’t competed and won a world championship and then gone on to be free surfers.” 

In the afterglow of making the quarterfinals of the 1999 Mundaka WCT event as an 18-year-old wildcard entry, Rastovich was having a celebratory beer on the rocks overlooking the jetty with Parkinson and seasoned tour pro/future Billabong honcho Luke Egan. Egan recognized that both surfers were potential world-class talents, and was giving them the CliffsNotes to pro-surfing success.

“He said, ‘Look, you guys need to get on the QS, and it may take you a couple years, but if you work really hard you’ll be on the WCT and have a great career if you want that.’ And I remember thinking: ‘You know what, fuck that,’” Rastovich recalls.

Taking a page from older Billabong stable mate Margieson, plus lessons and equipment he’d adopted from Burleigh shaping mystic Van Straalen, Rastovich sheepishly approached the Billabong brass and asked if he could simply experiment with new designs and surf off-the-map locales. The backup plan was to travel, surf, and tend bar. To his surprise, Billabong gave him a one-year trial. 

“After that,” he says, “I just said yes to everything.”

Rastovich’s upbeat travel mode, his natural wave charisma, and eclectic equipment quickly made him a darling with the international surf media. The editorial and screen time stacked up, and Billabong extended his deal indefinitely. He still competed occasionally as a wildcard entry in select WCT events, which created a strong mainstream-media presence, especially in Australia.

Increasingly though, freed from the demands of a contest pro, Rastovich was able to devote time and his growing celebrity to various surfing-related causes. Early on, he was enlisted by Van Straalen and his friend Denis Callahan to lend support to S.A.N.D., a grassroots group dedicated to social and environmental stewardship on behalf of the Gold Coast community. 

That led to him being part of a suicide prevention outreach, and Surf Aid’s “Wave Of Compassion” campaign, where he and a small crew of professionals were some of the first surfers to witness firsthand the health issues afflicting Mentawai Islanders. Eventually, after getting sick surfing polluted breaks in California and Japan, Rastovich shifted into ocean environmentalism. 

“It blew me out that there were places in the world where you couldn’t surf after it had been raining and that animals were dying because of the water quality. I just figured if we’re going to be traveling to these places, and we have photographers and writers, then we might as well get the word out about these issues.”

This path would take the better part of a decade, crisscrossing the Pacific Rim, patrolling the Galapagos with eco-pirates, following Australian humpback whale migrations by sailing canoe, protesting at the International Whaling Commission in Alaska, running large-scale media events, and going undercover to expose illegal whale-meat sales in California. 

Perhaps the most well-documented of these endeavors came in 2007, when Rastovich learned—through his friend Howie Cooke, an expat Kiwi, artist, bodyboarder, and hardcore environmental activist—of the annual slaughter of thousands of dolphins and small whales in a cove in Japan near the coastal village of Taiji.

The “harvest” was supposedly a traditional ritual, performed to provide meat and income to the local fishermen. Due to the high levels of mercury and other toxins found in the dolphin meat, however, most of the catch was often declared unfit for human consumption by the Japanese government. In actuality, the drives were and remain a front to capture and transport live, healthy dolphins to be sold on the black market and to sea life amusement parks throughout the world, netting as much as $150,000 per specimen.

At one point, alternating between laughter and sorrow, one of the local groms proposed that a surfer of Dave’s ability could ride anything, even a coffin. 

The shadowy business was run by the Yakuza with the tacit approval of the all-powerful Japanese Fisheries Agency. Yet, average Japanese citizens, surfers included, remained in the dark about the killings due to a virtual blackout by the Japanese media. 

After watching footage that contained hundreds of shrieking and terrified dolphins bleeding out in the cove, Rastovich was in turn horrified, saddened, and then infuriated. His first response was to cofound an organization called Surfers for Cetaceans. 

“I felt like the surfing community has a deep bond with whales and dolphins that is just like kin,” he says. “We’re an interspecies family united by surfing, and by the warm blood in our bodies, and that we treat the ocean as our home and playground. So my response was I needed to protect my family members if they were being threatened.”  

Soon after launching the organization, Rastovich met Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. A lifelong ocean activist who patrols the seas in a fleet of aging ships, Watson’s mission was direct confrontational intervention—seeking out and disrupting environmental wrongs like Taiji. He was Dirty Harry to Greenpeace’s politically correct approach of celebrity fundraisers and mass mailings stuffed with seal-pup stamps. 

Sea Shepherd was infamous for ramming Japanese whalers in Antarctic waters or otherwise causing havoc, using homemade prop foulers and stinkbombs tossed from a small armada of speedy inflatables. Rastovich pledged to Watson he was willing to do whatever it took to stop or disrupt the slaughter in Taiji.

“Paul recognized the power of celebrity and that the surfing community was really attractive in the media’s eyes,” says Rastovich. “Also, the Japanese are an ancient coastal seafaring people, with a rich tradition of ocean myths and sea lore. Surfers are revered in Japan and that popularity could be used get through to the Japanese youth, and to shine a spotlight on the atrocity.”

On October 28, 2007, shortly after dawn, Rastovich and five others—his then-wife Hannah Fraser, writer Peter Heller, pro surfer Karina Petroni, and actresses Hayden Panettiere and Isabel Lucas—snuck past barricades in the Taiji cove and paddled out to a series of makeshift pens where the fishermen had rounded up and begun slaughtering a pod of 25 pilot whales. 

A dozen professional cameramen from the Ocean Preservation Society were cached around the cove in camouflage blinds to record the action from multiple angles, using everything from covert “rock-cams” to a grinning, whale-shaped camera-dirigible. Additionally, a pair of champion freedivers had surreptitiously swum out the night before and placed remote-controlled underwater cameras and audio mics in the cove.

The possibility of arrest and significant jail time for “restraining trade” was high as the “Taiji Six” joined hands to hold a traditional surfer’s memorial circle. The water, Rastovich recalls, had turned red and reeked of minerals. 

The fishermen, infuriated by the intrusion and by the cameras on the beach, roared past in boats and began screaming at the surfers to leave immediately, jabbing at them with boat poles and, at times, backing down on them with whirling propellers. Eventually Rastovich and the others retreated to shore and sped off in a getaway van. They then stopped at a nearby beach, where Rastovich broke down and wept. 

At a hotel in Osaka that night, they received a tip that the police were coming to arrest them. Rastovich and Fraser fled on the midnight bullet train to Tokyo. With a borrowed wheelchair and a bit of stagecraft, they arrived at the airport and were able to convince the airline to change his flight due to a “medical emergency.”

Photo by SA Rips.

By the time Rastovich was halfway over the Pacific, news of the Taiji paddle-out had broken worldwide via Sky TV and the Australian media. Upon landing, Rastovich, along with Fraser, Panettiere, and Lucas, appeared on Australian morning television. Awareness and outrage spiked, donations poured in to Sea Shepherd and other ocean activist groups, and one of the resulting films, The Cove, won the Oscar for best-documentary in 2010.

Blowback was inevitable, however. Besides the arrest warrant, several surf shops owners throughout Japan were visited by representatives of the “fishing industry,” and politely ordered to remove all posters and films of Rastovich—or face the consequences. Japan’s Billabong reps were given the word as well.

Despite worldwide condemnation, the Taiji fishermen have remained defiant in the years since. The overall numbers are down slightly, and seem to be more tightly regulated than in the past, but in the 2017 season, a total of 1,282 dolphins from five species were driven into the Taiji cove. Six hundred and two were slaughtered, 448 were released, and 232 taken alive. 

“There are definitely captures still happening because the captivity trade is still lucrative,” admits Rastovich. “So, as far as impact, there wasn’t an end point, but there was a period there where the Taiji issue certainly shifted in the minds of people in Japan and around the world. Still, it may take a generation for the shift to manifest wholly.”

It wasn’t long afterward that Dennis’ physical and mental state began unraveling. He’d moved back to New Zealand, but his sheer physical agony required a daily cocktail of painkillers, and he spiraled downward into depression. Rastovich was increasingly flying over last minute to prevent Dennis from harming himself. Then in late November, 2010, following a leg amputation, Dennis took his life. 

“Heavy shit,” says Rastovich. “But to me that’s a sign of how much he wanted to get out of here. I kind of knew my dad wasn’t going to be here for a long time because you know those bright sparks that burn brief. He had such a big spirit, and people perhaps saw that in Blue Horizon. But there was always tension in that his body couldn’t keep up with what his spirit wanted. So in a way, when he left that body, I felt this relief for his spirit. ”

Rastovich and his sisters flew to New Zealand to settle their father’s affairs and arrange his service. “He was already put into one of those funeral homes…makeup and fake flowers in the corner and music playing with hidden speakers. We walked outside and were all a bit of a mess. Then the Maori family that lived next to Dennis asked us if it would you be okay if they took him home.” 

Rastovich helped Dennis’ neighbors muscle his dad’s coffin into the back of a battered pickup. They strapped it down and drove back to Dennis’ house where they installed him in the front room.

“Then the next three days,” says Rastovich, “the whole community would come and hang and tell us the stories of him, and what he was like, and what he did for them, and how all the kids loved him, and thought he was the best old dude in the area. He’d made this huge wizard statue at the front of the property out of a tree that was hit by lightning and was always so enchanting and a crazy storyteller. He’d dress up as a wizard for kids’ birthday parties and teach them about the elements and the natural world. The family sang a traditional Maori song that was so haunting, you know, and we were shaking and just singing to him back in the house. It was completely flooring.”

At one point, alternating between laughter and sorrow, one of the local groms proposed that a surfer of Dave’s ability could ride anything, even a coffin. Within the hour, in full view of Dennis’ friends and family, as well as a beach filled with Auckland city folk, Rastovich paddled out on his dad’s coffin lid.

“I takeoff on a wave and go down the face and nosedive and eat shit,” recounts Rastovich. “I pop up and I’m like oh, my God, I’ve destroyed my dad’s coffin lid. But it surfaces next to me and I try again, and then I actually got a wave. And Den’s mob on the beach is yelling, which was a great laugh for Dad because he was a real shit stirrer. I reckon I got that from him. Make good trouble. Be sincere, but definitely not serious.”


On the cattle gate to Rasta’s place is a now-familiar yellow triangle for the “Lock The Gate Alliance.” Under New South Wales state law, a landowner can refuse surface access to a mining company, even if that company has mineral rights for the land underneath. It’s been highly effective and a heartening example of citizen action working as intended.

Ten years on from Taiji, and eight from burying his father, Rastovich has continued to successfully juggle his penchant for good trouble. In fact, his recent switch from 20-year sponsor Billabong to Patagonia shows a significant ratio shift from surfer-activist to activist-surfer. 

At the 2017 Byron Bay Surf Festival, Rastovich chaired a panel titled “The Activist’s Toolkit.” He was on another named “Re-Imagining The Surf Industry.”

He quietly made the transition to his new sponsor more than a year ago but, by agreement with his bosses, has intentionally remained off the radar to allow him the space to find his feet, learning from Patagonia’s other activists and developing a long-term role that is uniquely Australian. 

“My job right now is far more about me familiarizing myself with how they’ve been successful over the years in different ways,” he says. “Not just financially, but as a movement and agent of change. I’m trying to feel my way into how I can contribute meaningfully to what they’re doing. In Oz, Patagonia is a new company but their ethics, and what they’re into, really lines up with core Australian values. The love of wild spaces, camping, being a bit feral, a bit rogue, a bit fuck you to the establishment, translates.”

When cashing checks from one’s sponsor, a surfer should ask themself, “What value do I bring to the arrangement?” Rastovich will find no difficulty maintaining cred in the deep shade of a cavern for the obligatory action shoot. The challenge—and one he certainly seems up to—will be pushing for systemic change in the surf sphere. South Australia, 2017. Photo by Al Mackinnon.

For Rastovich, that comes with taking a hard look at his role within the surf industry, an apparatus that’s found marketing value by paying lip service to environmental ideals and social justice but which, in reality, can be as polluting and rapacious as any industry left to unregulated growth and cost-cutting shortcuts spurred by shareholder demands. 

“Now more than ever we can access the story of our stuff,” says Rastovich. “So what’s that story look like? It’s uplifting to realize that our negative impact on the planet is caused by a system that we’ve created, and that system is only in place because we’ve agreed to live that way. That system can be changed, and it can be changed on a personal level with the decisions we make.”

One story Rastovich tells is of a moment in the Galapagos in July of 2007, as he was preparing for the Taiji campaign. He was aboard the Sea Shepherd’s Farley Mowat, a former Norwegian fisheries vessel flying under a modified Jolly Roger. The 50-year-old Farley, 172 feet of black painted rust, was wallowing along at five knots, searching for illegal longlines set by fish poachers within the marine reserve. 

At daybreak, they literally ran across the lines they were looking for and, after chasing off the poachers in high-speed inflatables, the crew set to pulling in over nine miles of monofilament and baited hooks. At one point, the Farley’s forward propeller fouled in a mass of fishing line and Rastovich, easily the best swimmer and free-diver aboard, volunteered to dive under the ship and cut away the snarl.

“I remember,” he says, “turning around and seeing the lines just disappearing into the blue. And dangling, lifeless on the hooks, were all these rays and fish and turtles. Every ten to 20 feet an animal was wrapped up in plastic line, suspended in this beautiful blue water, these sad, still bodies. And the lines were just like these threads of our humans fuck ups and our decisions running through into the deep. That’s when I decided on a path of action. One of the ultimate things about surfing is that you learn how timing works. Patience is required, but also courage when situations come to a peak.”

[Feature image: Photo by Todd Glaser.]