Idealog's Guide to Dunedin: Something in the water

It may be closer to Antarctica than the Equator, but Dunedin's surfing scene is attracting die-hards from all over the world. And with their obsession for finding the perfect wave, they're bringing a spirit of entrepreneurship that's starting to transform the region.

A cool, salt-tinged breeze stirs the choppy waters like a giant whisk in a mixing bowl. The sun playing peek-a-boo behind lazy cream-coloured cumulus clouds, the wine-dark waters of Dunedin would seem an unlikely surfing mecca, especially considering water temperatures are such that every now and then a leopard seal or a fur seal will wander up from Antarctica.  But names like St Clair, St Kilda, Murderers and The Spit are spoken with the same reverence by hard-core surfers as Pāʻia, Black Beach, Superbank and The Bubble – and unlike the latter hotspots, they aren’t teeming with hordes of young upstarts looking to prove themselves riding some of the best waves on planet Earth.

But as rewarding as it may be to ride the waves, it’s not easy to make a living solely on surfing alone, of course. Yet the laid-back surf lifestyle is – perhaps ironically – also attracting loads of creative entrepreneurs to the Deep South, thanks to the easy access to the waves, smaller population than larger cities on the North Island, ease of doing business and overall creative culture.

So, is it something in the water that’s attracting “surf-pretreneurs” to the second-largest city on the South Island? Derek Morrison thinks there could be something to that.

Morrison says the city’s work-life balance is one of the biggest reasons he’s based in one of the southernmost cities in the world with a population greater than 100,000. “I run a beach and mountain lifestyle photo blog called Box of Light,” he explains. “Every week I capture my adventures and send the best images to my subscribers every Tuesday at 10:30am. Mostly I shoot the surf around Dunedin, but also feature adventures from other parts of the country and other surf breaks I encounter in my travels.”

In its sixth year, Morrison’s blog has more than 7,000 readers every week. “I chose Dunedin because I realised that it is probably the best city in the world for quality and consistency of surf,” he says. “Basing Box of Light here means I can virtually step out my back door any morning of the week and find great surf. We have two coastlines that pick up two different swell directions and work in different wind conditions so there is rarely a day that you cannot find a world-class break. There are very few cities in the world that have this aspect and exposure to swell. Lunchtime surfs are common also as it is only a 10-minute drive from the Octagon to St Kilda or St Clair. Finally, the cold water (8 degrees Celsius in winter to 16 degrees Celsius in summer) and perception of adverse weather keeps the crowds down. Some mornings I’m just driving around trying to find people to surf or shoot photos with.”

Despite the cold temperatures, Morrison says the word is getting out about Dunedin’s surf. But that’s not completely bad, he says, since it still attracts a certain type of person. “Word is already out and steadily the concentration of surfing students who find their ‘dream’ course at the polytechnic or university is growing,” he says. “And we’re seeing more and more surfing tourists with a lot of magazines and filmmakers shooting seasonal campaigns here with their best surfers. Is it the next Hawaii? No. But as the surfing population matures and seeks to retain a true Kiwi surf lifestyle, Dunedin is an attractive option. Basing a business out of Dunedin to underpin that lifestyle is not a great leap. Business is easy here. The city is connected, the tech sector is growing and there is an undeniable charm about life on this corner of Aotearoa whether you surf or not.”

Joerg Agostini is co-owner of SWIWI, a young-ish design agency focusing on small-to-medium-sized businesses. After first living in Queenstown, he returned to his native Switzerland, but later returned to Aotearoa with SWIWI co-owner Nicole Fehlmann. “After spending 3.5 years working and living in Switzerland, it was time for a new adventure and we decided to pack our bags and move back to New Zealand,” he explains. “The initial plan was to live in Queenstown, but after a Skype conversation with a couple of mates who live in Dunedin and were absolutely frothing about the place and of course the waves. We figured, why not give Dunedin a go? Growing up in a landlocked country it was always a dream of ours to live close to the beach and for me it was a chance to get as much surfing in as possible. To be honest we didn’t know a lot about the place prior to moving here and we arrived without any preconceptions.”

The name of his company a combination of the words “Swiss” and “Kiwi,” Agostini says SWIWI’s base in Dunedin offers a quality of life he’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. “In hindsight, it was the best decision we could have made!” he proclaims. “The city is absolutely bubbling with culture, art and music and there is always something to do. People are down to earth, welcoming and very helpful. Yes, a lot of them wear black, but, hey, black is colourful enough! It’s easy to identify yourself with Dunedin – have a sense of belonging – and proudly stick one of the Dunedin stickers on your car. The surf here still amazes me, mainly because of the different beautiful beaches to explore, but also because of the other surfers, people out-back usually give you a nod or a smile and it is a pretty relaxed atmosphere in the water.”

Josh Jenkins has a similar story. “My business parter and I founded Reframed.Media, a digital content production house serving SMEs,” he says. “I didn't really choose Dunedin, it chose me. I’ve stuck around as it ticks all the boxes for me and my family – awesome surf/beaches, great education opportunities, awesome laid back community, nature and outdoors so close to CBD... want me to go on?”

He’s also positive about what the future of the “Edinburgh of the South” (as Dunedin is sometimes colloquially known, especially in rural Central Otago and down in Southland) may hold. “In terms of business, it’d be great to see the city continue embracing tech companies, and the opportunities this brings for a pretty isolated city at the bottom of the New Zealand.”

Cadbury’s recent announcement that it plans on closing its famed chocolate factory in the city centre came as a shock to many, where it was as if an occult hand had threatened to topple the tower of progress that’s been built on the backs of the blue-collar economy. It will no doubt be a blow to the local economy, potentially costing hundreds of jobs if the factory is completely shuttered and no other confectionary companies buy it (as the failed experiment in Argentina, which sought to maintain manufacturing in the country, shows, it's better to diversify the economy than fight against globalisation). Yet SWIWI’s Agostini is hopeful about the future robustness and vitality of the local economy – though he admits he wouldn’t mind if the surf remained relatively unspoiled. “For Dunedin, I do hope art, music and culture keeps growing and with it the quirkiness of the city and its people," he says. “Surfing-wise, of course I hope it doesn't get overrun with people any time soon, so you can still have a spot all to yourself.”

Morrison says that even if there are more and more people grabbing their boards and riding the waves, they’ll be bringing positive energy with them that can only serve to strengthen the city’s resolve. “The surf lifestylers outnumber the hardcore locals already and the next generation of groms are already surf-obsessed, so I think in five to ten years the line-ups will be busier, but that positive energy will be stronger,” he says. “Surf lifestylers are mostly successful people. They’re here for life, respectful and considered. It’s easy to be all those things when you live and work in one of the great surfing cities of the world.”