Emi Koch is rarely without an ocean view. On the phone with her, you can hear faint sounds of the sea breeze, and it's easy to imagine the waves she describes rolling into shore.
If her life was a movie, these waves would be the soundtrack.
The California native grew up swimming in San Diego, was an accomplished surfer by the time she was a teenager, and now travels the world using her nonprofit, Beyond the Surface International, to empower local communities.
She has a dizzying workload and lofty ambitions, but Koch is surprisingly zen. Her chipper voice is only dampened by the faintness of the phone signal. Later, she sends me a picture of the small, square enclosure—wooden and jutting out of the sand on four wooden beams—that she crouched inside of during our phone call to escape the ocean wind. It’s the only structure visible on the beach—flanked by palm trees and overlooking a bright, blue ocean.
It’s rare for Koch to be able to talk on the phone at all.
“There’s no Wi-Fi on the island, but there’s phone signal in the village I’ve been living in,” she says. Once a week she treks in to check her emails and briefly reconnect to the world.
In mid-February, she was about halfway through her six-month stay on Morotai in Indonesia. The island is in the northernmost part of the country’s range, and it’s incredibly small, measuring only about 659 square miles.
Koch, however, is no stranger to adventurous travel. With her nonprofit, she’s worked in South America, Africa, and southeast Asia helping local coastal communities take on social initiatives, but she’s quick to emphasize that she doesn’t see herself as a savior. That would defy the very purpose of her mission.
To be one of National Geographic’s 2018 Adventurers of the Year, Koch was nominated by boat captain Liz Clark. Koch and Clark met in India in 2013, and Clark was impressed by how much Koch was using Beyond the Surface International to enact change in coastal communities.
“I've always been someone who wanted to help serve underprivileged youth and animals and there she was doing it, with hardly any financial support, and making a hugely positive impact on so many lives,” says Clark.
Beyond the Surface International is all about local empowerment. By teaching young kids how to surf, Koch helps them build self-confidence. For most kids, it’s the first time they’ve been on a surf board, and for many, it’s the first time they’ve ever swum.
When Koch takes a kid into the water for the first time, she says she always watches them intently because when they inevitably master a wave or manage not to fall off, they always look back at their teacher with pride.
“I’ve never seen a kid not look back,” she says. And she’s made it a point to always meet their gaze.
Conservation through Storytelling
In Morotai, her organization is putting into practice another iteration of their mission: Coast to Coast. In addition to empowering youth through surfing, Coast to Coast seeks to empower coastal communities as a whole through photo and video workshops.
“We use photography. We’re doing small videos about beach clean ups, and we’re also working with six or so people to make their own documentaries,” says Koch.
She hopes that by helping people in communities threatened by overfishing or coastal damage amplify their voices through storytelling, they’ll be able to have their voices heard by the larger, decision-making bodies that have previously overlooked them.
In Morotai, for example, many once pristine beaches are littered with plastic.
“I think it hit home for me when I was walking along the beach, and I found the toothpaste I had brought from California,” a natural, American brand she had just thrown out.
The island has no large-scale trash collection system, and when it’s not burned, much of the trash is thrown on the beach.
In her own life, Koch says surfing made her feel responsible for protecting the ocean from pollution, and she hopes spreading that love will inspire others to become ocean stewards.
The Power of the Ocean
Since she could walk, Koch has felt a connection to the ocean in some form or fashion. Her dad, a San Diego lifeguard, introduced her to the ocean when she was very young.
In adolescence, surfing became a source of confidence.
“I wasn’t a very good student. I have dyslexia, and teachers diagnosed me with ADHD,” she says. “I wasn’t good in a classroom environment where I felt like the slow student, but I was praised for being in the water and how good I was at paddling quickly or being alert. I thought ‘why would I put more energy into school?’ I just wanted to be a surfer. I didn’t think I wanted to go to college.”
When she did go to college at George Washington University in Washington D.C., Koch says it was a massive culture shock, so much so that she left and went back to San Diego.
“Suddenly I was looking at the whole world in its entirety, and I didn’t see where I fit in.”
Finding Her Way to Philanthropy
For a year, she worked at a coffee shop while she contemplated where to take her life. Invited by a friend, she went to teach kids at a Buddhist monastery in Nepal.
It was there that she learned about an organization using skateboarding to empower young girls in Afghanistan. A lightbulb clicked, and Koch realized she could put surfing toward the same good.
She was so energized by the prospect that she bought the book The Basics of Forming a Nonprofit for Dummies. “I read the first few pages and got too excited.”
Eventually she returned to D.C. to finish her undergraduate degree in psychology at Georgetown University and graduated in 2012. It was during this time that Beyond the Surface began to take shape.
“I thought it would be a project I had in university, but 10 years later I’m still doing it. I haven’t wanted to stop,” she says.
Soon, however, she will have to take a break.
What Comes Next
Koch is currently waiting to hear back from graduate programs where she hopes to get a master’s degree to learn how to further her humanitarian efforts. After all her travels, hard work, and adventures, she’s ready to process everything’s she learned.
“I’ve taken so many pictures, and I need to stop to download them,” she says. “I think I need this pause.”
Hearing her talk about her work with Beyond the Surface International, her passion for surfing, and her pure love of the ocean, it’s hard to imagine Koch pausing for long.
"I feel a great sense of responsibility to the planet and humanity. I think it has to do what I've learned working with and living in remote or marginalized communities," she says, emphasizing that her experiences helped her learn where she fit in the world. "The only really concrete, positive changes we can make in the world is to be that positive change ourselves."