Saving the Ocean


Initially inspired by the excitement surrounding a mysterious community mural, the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project (SMOP) has worked to connect people with the ocean in a way that benefits both the environment and the individual. Since 2013 the nonprofit organization has funded aquatics programs for local youth, hosted surf camps for the disabled, and founded one of the country’s largest beach runs – all while saving marine wildlife and creating an awareness for ocean conservation. We interview President Bob Nichols to learn more about the passion their team shares for helping others enjoy the waves.

Q&A with President Bob Nichols

For those not familiar with the Surfing Madonna mural, can you give us a brief history on what inspired it?
Mark Patterson created the glass mosaic, titled “Surfing Madonna,” after a vision he had in 2008. It was meant to be an anonymous fun gift that everyone could enjoy. We figured some art up on the wall would beat looking at a blank concrete wall. In 2011 Mark Patterson and I dressed as construction workers and clandestinely installed the Surfing Madonna underneath the Encinitas Blvd. train bridge on Good Friday. Unfortunately someone recognized Mark and a few months later we were outed. After the mosaic was taken down, we were fined $6,000 and the mural went back in Mark’s garage. Move forward two years and the Surfing Madonna is back up – directly across the street from its original location in an even better spot.

At-A-Glance Surfing Madonna Oceans Project

Name: Surfing Madonna Oceans Project
President: Bob Nichols
Phone: 760-846-5721

cv_madonna2What inspired the founding of the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project as an organization?
After all the controversy surrounding the removal of the Surfing Madonna and the overwhelming support from the community based on letters Mark had received, it just made sense to start a nonprofit organization. We agreed the Surfing Madonna was a gift to the city and therefore proceeds raised from the Madonna would go back into projects benefiting the community. We established SMOP officially in August of 2013 with our 501(c)3 paperwork.

What is the mission of your organization?
SMOP is dedicated to bringing the community together to “Save the Ocean” and protect our coastline. Through youth education programs, scholarships, ocean conservation grants, marine mammal rescue/recovery initiatives, and helping children with special needs – along with wounded warriors and persons with disabilities – experience the healing power of the ocean, we are helping expand this community of ocean advocates.

How else do you strive to fulfill your mission?
We fulfill the mission by taking on and completing projects that closely align with our mission statement. More importantly we fund initiatives that not only make a positive impact but also make a measurable difference in our community and the habitat that exists above and below our waters.

cv_madonna3What are some ways that the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project has evolved since its founding?
The Surfing Madonna has evolved from a basic “tree house” organization that sat around and just told stories to a fully involved, hands-on organization that is complete with more than seven talented and dedicated board members. We’ve donated over $100,000 back to the community in the last 18 months and that number continues to climb. It’s a team effort and with the way things are going we hope to double our contributions this next year.

Why do you think SMOP has resonated with so many people of the community?
I think we resonate with people because we’re transparent in everything we do. People who follow us can visibly see what we’re doing. We list where our proceeds go, how initiatives that we create and fund make a measurable difference, and finally how much money goes into each project. We consistently involve the community in projects that we’re funding so that they can be a part of the experience.

How can people get involved to help your mission?
Thank you for asking this question. We’re always looking for volunteers, and what organization isn’t looking for donors? If people want to become a part of the team and join in on one or all of these fun projects they can visit or and click the volunteer, contact, or donate buttons. We always have projects going on where we could use more volunteers or additional funding. One particular project that we have going on right now where we need more volunteers is our free surf camp for special needs children and wounded warriors; we are booked solid with a waiting list and need more volunteers in the water with us.

cv_madonna4What major fundraisers and projects does the organization put on?
We were fortunate enough, or call it lucky if you will, to have created the Surfing Madonna 5K/10K & 10 Mile Beach Run Challenge. It’s now the largest beach run/walk in the country and the only 10-mile beach run on the west coast. This event brings thousands of people in from all over the country and several from other countries. About 50 percent of our organization’s funds come from the Surfing Madonna Beach Run.

What can people expect from the 2015 Surfing Madonna 5K/10K & 10 Mile Beach Run Challenge? What are some features that the event offers?
There’s a lot going on with this year’s run. Definitely too long to list all the new features, so I’ll try to just highlight a couple. For starters we have added a 10-mile run this year, which is extremely challenging. All participants will get a big, customized Surfing Madonna medal with a sublimated “Save the Ocean” ribbon. We’ve also ordered some really cool soft cotton racing shirts for all the participants. There will be a beer garden where everyone gets a free beer, and all participants will receive a stainless steel reusable water bottle this year to show our commitment on cutting down on plastics.

How can people sign up for the run? When does registration close?
People can sign up by going to or contacting us directly by phone or email. Registration will close on race day, Oct. 24 at 11 a.m.

Why do you think the Surfing Madonna 5K/10K has become such a success?
I think the event is a success for a variety of reasons. For starters it’s a very unique course. You start at Moonlight Beach and head north along the water’s edge at low tide, and there’s plenty of fun to take in as you run. It was also named one of San Diego’s best running events. Some like the idea of competing for the $15,000 in prize money that goes out to the best runners, costumes, largest teams, and seniors divisions. Some enjoy all the sponsor gifts and raffle prizes that are given out. Some like running barefoot or the challenge of pushing a stroller down the beach – these people are brave and I love them for it. I hope we have some stroller moms and dads in the 10-mile run – that deserves an extra medal in itself.

There’s a lot of value for a very inexpensive entry fee and the proceeds go to some great projects. In short, this is a fun all-day event where thousands participate for a variety of reasons.

“Thank you to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors for approving our grant application upon the recommendation of Supervisor Dave Roberts.”  » Surfing Madonna Oceans Project

Where do the proceeds from fundraisers and donations go?
We purchased a marine mammal rescue cage for seals and sea lions that has made over 140 rescues in the last year. We’ve also purchased two floating beach wheel chairs for Moonlight Beach with a third on order. The chairs allow people with disabilities to not only roam about on the sand freely but now they can get in the water, float in the chair, and feel the refreshing effects of the ocean. I swim with a couple of friends who wouldn’t be able to get in the water without these chairs so this was important to me. We also just purchased a Mobi-Mat (a mobility mat) that will run from the lifeguard tower to the hard pack sand at the request of Encinitas lifeguards for egress and ingress operations. The Mobi-Mat will also allow for people with disabilities and the elderly to have access to the water’s edge throughout the year. This is huge leap forward in beach accessibility.


We’ve also donated $22,000 in scholarships to local high school students who have a passion for marine biology and oceanography. One of my favorite projects is the Surfing Madonna Surf School that we fully fund for special needs youth and wounded warriors throughout the year. The program takes places twice a month at Moonlight Beach and directly impacts more than 200 families. We also support campus-wide recycling initiatives, YMCA special needs and aquatic programs, and State Park and City of Encinitas youth education programs, with an emphasis on ocean and marine life education and sustainability. We will also be putting up marine mammal interpretive signs in strategic location along our North County coastline. The list goes on; if you’d like see the rest of our projects you can visit

Tell us about your scholarship program. How can students qualify, and who should they contact for more information?
Each year SMOP gives out thousands of dollars in scholarships to kids who share a passion for saving our ocean through marine biology, oceanography, and technology. In just over a year we’ve given out $22,000 in scholarships to students who demonstrate their commitment to cleaning up our oceans. If students or parents are interested in this opportunity please contact us via our website for more details.

If you could grant SMOP or the Encinitas community one wish, what would it be?
Without hesitation I’d wish for more local ocean and marine habitat education programs for everyone.

At-A-Glance President Bob Nichols

Name: Bob Nichols
Community: Encinitas
Education: University of Oregon and PLNU
Family: Mom, dad, brother, and a sister
Hobbies: Swimming, free-diving, surfing, SUPing, running, playing tennis, traveling, and flying


What’s one of your most memorable experiences working with Surfing Madonna?
We recently received a letter from a wounded warrior telling us that our free surf camp saved their life. The veteran went on to explain that he had become bored with life, depressed, and was ready to call it quits. He went on to say, “An old teammate of mine invited me to one of your Surfing Madonna surf camps. I found something in life that day that makes me want to get up in the morning. I’ve since bought a board and surf every morning. I’m addicted to the pure rush and excitement that the ocean is bringing me. Thank you to everyone at the Surfing Madonna, Surfin Fire, and all the volunteers who saved me.” I’d have to say the day I read that letter has been my most memorable experience with the Surfing Madonna so far.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Stand up and stand tall for what you believe in. I’d like to share a quote from Hunter S. Thompson that has stuck with me and I think more of us should live by it: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a ride!’”

Past and Present Projects

Marine Mammal Rescue Rescued more than 140 seals and sea lions with help from lifeguards and a marine mammal rescue cage
High School Scholarships Yearly scholarships for kids who have a passion for marine biology and oceanography
Beach and Ocean Access Purchased San Diego’s first mobility mat and floating beach wheelchairs for Moonlight Beach
YMCA Aquatics Workshops Donate and collaborate with the YMCA for programs that teach disadvantaged and special needs youth to swim
Special Needs Surf Camp/Wounded Warrior Project Provide programs that teach more than 200 families how to surf throughout the year, with a big impact on both participants and volunteers
Campus Recycling Initiatives Help schools make recycling more efficient and accessible on campuses
Student Grants For students who come up with creative and feasible ideas on how to reduce, reuse, recycle, and refuse plastic
Community Support Collaborate and provide funding for several projects for California State Parks, Encinitas Parks and Rec, and Encinitas lifeguards