Warming oceans create golden age for big-wave surfing, leaving surfers conflicted
HO'OKIPA, Hawaii — A handful of days every year, Jaws bares its teeth. It thunders toward the shoreline, growing to the size of a downtown building. Its power, energy and sheer size have made it one of the most famous big-wave surf breaks in the world, annually luring daredevils, risk-takers and thrill-seekers alike to Maui to tempt fate and tangle with a giant.
Kai Lenny lives less than nine miles down the road on the island's northern shore and spends much of the year just waiting for Jaws to stir to life. He's part of a small tribe of surfers who eagerly chase the biggest waves on the planet. They monitor weather forecasts and buoys on both sides of the equator, tracking it all close enough to understand that the ocean is changing around them.
Climate change has warmed the ocean and is transforming wave conditions. The coming years and decades could provide big-wave surfers with some of the biggest rides of their lives.
"I feel like our eyes are starting to open up to all these new frontiers of what we can do," Lenny says.
Much of the research is ongoing, but here's what most scientists agree on: Sea levels are rising, and surf breaks in some areas will change. Storms are projected to get bigger and more frequent, which can create waves that are more powerful and, in many places, bigger.
The surfers are on the front lines of these changes, their lives intimately tied to the ocean, humbled by its power and in sync with its rhythms. Surfers such as Lenny live every day in a series of postcards - pristine beaches, sparkling oceans, towering palm trees, majestic rainbows - but can see ominous clouds on the horizon. They don't pretend to know exactly how the future will unfold in the water, but they're experiencing the shifts in real time and are plenty conflicted about what lies ahead.
Lenny finds the prospects both exciting and terrifying. The 26-year-old Maui native can tick off the dangers climate change poses to the ocean he loves: "Bleaching of reefs; the damage of the shoreline from stronger storms; the changing of wind patterns so that a particular wave might not be as good anymore; the shifting of currents, which could destroy a particular break along a coastline. . . . What was once paradise could just be a pool of polluted water."
But then, he pauses.
"But I got to tell you, if there's a silver lining, as a big-wave surfer, bigger storms create bigger waves," he says, "meaning I'll have the opportunity to ride the biggest waves of my life."
Lenny was all of 13 years old when he rode Jaws for the first time. Laird Hamilton, the big-wave surfing pioneer, towed him from a Jet Ski onto his first set of giants, and he's been chasing bigger and bigger waves ever since.
Last November, Lenny was entered in a big-wave contest at Pe'ahi, home of the famous Jaws surf break, but the day's competition was postponed because the waves were too big and too strong. Conditions were dangerous - like tossing a feather into a washing machine - but Lenny went out anyway. With all eyes - and cameras - focused on him, he tamed the menacing monsters, carving his way through walls of water, dropping at one point 20 feet on a wave that appeared to be about eight stories high. From afar, he was a mouse tangling with a giant elephant. But up close, he treated the wave as his dance partner, churning through the water with ease, his movements as fluid as the ocean.
The ensuing video clips went viral, further cementing Lenny's standing as one of the sport's premier daredevil artists. Just a few months later, his only lament is that the waves weren't even bigger.
"It's not the biggest that I'll do in my life," he says of Jaws' enormity. "I'll probably do a way bigger one."
One of the sport's brightest young stars, Lenny is both laid-back and ambitious, a product of surf culture but also a business-minded entrepreneur - a full-on corporation with sponsors, revenue streams and a dedicated media arm. It's like he was born for this sport at this time. His name, Kai, after all, means "ocean" in Hawaiian. And his middle name is Waterman.
"People don't believe that's his real name," says his mother, Paula, "but it really is."
He was all of seven days old when his parents put him in the ocean for the first time, a baptism of sorts at Maui's Lahaina Baby Beach.
"Just a very normal thing to do in Hawaii," explains his father, Martin.
Hawaii has long been a mecca for surfing. Because the islands are isolated in the Pacific Ocean, swells can travel for thousands of miles uninterrupted and descend on them from all sides, offering rideable waves year-round. But for those who grow up here, the water provides more than weekend recreation.
"It's a way for us to reconnect with nature, it's a way for us to stay healthy, and it's also a great equalizer," said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, a recreational surfer himself. "Nobody knows if you're a doctor or a lawyer or unemployed or a student or even a U.S. senator in the water. There's something really important about how the ocean humbles everybody."
Since he got his feet wet as a week-old infant, it's all Lenny has ever known. He caught his first wave at 4 years old. Surfed in Fiji at 8. Secured his first windsurfing sponsor at 9. Latched on with Red Bull at 13. His popularity now can be traced to the broad range of his skill set. He's among the top big-wave riders in the world but also an elite windsurfer, kitesurfer and foil-board rider. He wants to be at the forefront of anything that involves strong winds and big waves.
When he's in town, Lenny lives with his parents in Pā'ia, along the island's northern shore. He has a garage there that stores about 80 surfboards, lined up against the walls like library books. He is constantly tweaking the designs and shapes, each wrinkle aimed at optimizing aerodynamics and moving his board one step closer to a high-performance Formula One car.
On any given day, Lenny can walk barefoot around a corner from his parents' house and find himself staring at the ocean. It's like having a basketball hoop in the front yard but with better sunsets.
"It's, like, a place that's always there. It's free. No one's telling me what I can and can't do when I'm out there," he says of the water. "It's the one place where I feel like I can breathe deeply."
And that's why the changing ocean both excites and scares him.
"As the R.E.M. song goes, this is 'the end of the world as we know it' - well, at least we can go out surfing," Lenny says with a slight chuckle. "Hopefully it all ends while I'm in the barrel of a 60-foot wave."
"I hope that never happens, of course, because I'd love for the next generation to be able to experience the world that I've been able to grow up in, underneath and above with the ocean, because it's all so beautiful and powerful."
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A wave that crashes on Maui's northern shore typically originates more than 2,000 miles away in the north Pacific, near the Aleutian Islands. Storms there swirl, and the wind energy is transferred to the ocean surface. A swell ripples across the ocean, often traveling at 30 mph or more and arriving three to five days later at the Hawaiian Islands, where surfers bob in the water waiting for the perfect ride.
As it nears the shore, the swell experiences friction along the sea floor, which John Marra, the Honolulu-based regional climate services director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, likens to tripping. "They're hitting the reef or a knob of rocks and just turning over," he said.
Scientists have been studying each of these delicate, interconnected parts to understand the impact climate change will have on waves. The warming ocean affects wind patterns. The wind drives swells. The reef trips the swell and creates the waves that make surfers pop up onto their boards.
The historical data is somewhat limited, and because the ocean is vast, complex and varying, there isn't a consensus on the changes that are afoot. Nothing will be universal across the globe, and while some areas might see smaller waves, others - particularly those at high latitudes - could see more pronounced effects. A study published this year from University of California Santa Cruz researchers spelled it out simply, saying the warming ocean is "changing the global wave climate, making waves stronger."
The study noted that wave power - the transfer of energy from wind to sea - increased by an average of 0.47% per year from 1948 to 2008 and has risen by 2.3% annually since 1994. The researchers further estimated that global wave power could increase anywhere from 32% to 122% this century, which could produce wave heights that grow 16% to 48%.
A 2014 study by Canadian scientists projected increases in wave heights for about 50% of the Earth's oceans and found that the one-in-10-year extreme wave heights could double or triple in frequency this century.
"From a big-wave surfer's perspective, we are entering sort of a golden age," explained Mark Sponsler, the respected surf forecaster who founded the site stormsurf.com, "in the fact that the warmer the oceans are, the more evaporation there is. The more evaporation there is, the more energy gets sent into the atmosphere. The more energy in the atmosphere - specifically, in the jet stream - the stronger storms are, and storms are what govern the whole big-wave thing."
Australian researchers published a study last month that examined satellite and buoy data from 1985 through 2018 and found increases in wind speed and, to a lesser degree, wave heights across the globe. The changes were more pronounced in the Southern Hemisphere. In the Antarctic Ocean, for example, they found that extreme winds have increased by 8% over the past three decades and extreme waves by 5% - about a foot - though the study did not attempt to explore a causal relationship with climate change.
"Climate modeling does point to some long-term changes in wave conditions, particularly in the [Antarctic] Ocean. However, more work is still required to be certain the changes we observe are caused by climate change," said Ian Young, a researcher at the University of Melbourne who led the study.
At the same time, oceanographers warn that dying reefs will have an impact on how waves break, and rising sea levels could mean other swells roll right over reliable breaking points without ever "tripping," leaving the swells flat and surfers without waves. Erosion could also spoil beaches, and shifting wind conditions could not only alter the way water moves toward shores but also change sediment transport patterns, which could relocate or eliminate sandbars that trip waves.
"The ocean feels a little sick right now," is how Hamilton, the surf legend, explains it.
"We know there's change. We know it's affecting us," he says. "We know it'll create bigger surf than we've ever had, but it could also create longer periods of no surf, make waves come from weird directions that don't hit reefs the same way. Overall, I don't think it's great - not great for mankind and not great for surfers either."
By virtue of their chosen pursuit, the world's best wave chasers are some of the most studied weather watchers. They use a variety of websites and smartphone apps that rely on algorithms, satellite readings and projection models. They're peering into the future, studying the middle of the ocean to determine what waves will look like three or four days later when they reach the shore.
Because they're all reliant on the wind and the water, surfers notice the most subtle of changes. They know that El Nino years create better surf, that some popular breaks can feel dormant at times and other surf spots are just now coming to life.
The Portuguese city Nazare was just a fishing village a decade ago, but now big-wave surfers flock there in droves to ride the giants rising out of the Atlantic. Last year, Maya Gabeira rode a 68-foot wave there, the largest ever for a female surfer, and fellow Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa set the men's record, surfing an 80-footer. That record stood for all of seven months before Tom Butler caught a wave at Nazare, estimated at 100 or so feet. It's not yet verified by the sport's powers that be, but every year, surfers are challenging the sport's boundaries.
When a storm's brewing, most people go to great lengths to remain far from danger. The adrenaline-fueled big-wave enthusiasts race toward it. Big storms have always been both celebrated and feared.
"There's going to be parts of the world where people are getting absolutely destroyed - homes lost, people dying," Lenny says, "and then on the other side, that same storm that just destroyed all of Japan is sending us perfect, big waves. And I love riding big waves." The best big-wave riders are spontaneous and drop everything when conditions line up. Lenny recalls surfing on Maui's southern shore in knee-high waves last May. The swell heading toward Fiji kept improving, and within three hours he had packed his bag, loaded up his boards and gotten on an airplane. He missed a connection in Los Angeles, but by the time he landed in Fiji the next day, 40-footers were still rolling in.
For decades, these fearless surfers chased water near the shoreline or were perhaps towed out a bit via Jet Ski. Lenny's dream looks different. He wants to ride a wave in from the open ocean, getting dropped from a helicopter onto the edge of a storm.
"There's an undiscovered world out there in the middle of the ocean," he says.
Lenny wants to meet a swell at its infancy, where wind first meets water, and ride it for hundreds of miles back to shore. He would most likely use a foil board - a surfboard with a hydrofoil extending from the bottom. The hydrofoil acts similarly to an airplane wing, and the power from the swell creates movement and lift. The surfboard appears to float two or so feet above the water, and as long as the swell moves forward, the surfer flies along, using the wave as a mode of transportation across the sea.
"Who knows, maybe you could ride in the eye of the storm," Lenny says.
The future will be big and burly, and so Lenny spends every day on the water preparing. He'll often go out three times a day, alternating between surfboard, kiteboard, foil board, windsurf board and any other watercraft he can get his hands on. In April alone, he surfed in Australia, Hawaii and France, always looking for the taller wave and bigger thrill. Part of what makes Lenny extraordinary is that he aims to ride the giants like the much smaller waves that roll onto the beach not far from his front yard.
"The goal of big waves traditionally was a very masculine thing. It was like David and Goliath — like man vs. nature," he says. "It was to take off on a giant wave, ride it and make it and come in and be celebrated as a warrior. Now with modern advancements and technology, it's more about performance vs. survival."
One recent afternoon, Lenny slipped between the railing at Ho'okipa Beach and past the sign that reads, "Warning, Strong Current," walking down the steep rocks with his surfboard under one arm, coolly navigating his way toward Maui's northern shore.
"Hey Kai-guy, did you see the sea turtles down there?" asked Doug Silva, his affable coach, trailing a few feet behind.
Lenny waved a hand and kept moving toward the water. "I see them every day," he said.
The break is called Pavilions, and while the waves were only shoulder-high, a solid training session awaited. And beyond that a business meeting, an afternoon back on the water, a trip abroad a few days later, then the World Surf League's Big Wave Awards in California, where he'd win the year's Biggest Wave Award and be honored for the best men's overall performance, and then another big-wave season starting in the fall.
He briefly scanned the horizon, getting ready to leap into the water and paddle out.
"Dude, looks good out there," he said.
This article was written by Rick Maese, a reporter for The Washington Post.