Science Communication

The Ask // creatively communicate aspects of a chosen topic from a scientific standpoint

The Work (in following order) // Wave Formation, Surf Culture and Wave Energy

The Ask // Creatively communicate aspects of a chosen topic from a scientific standpoint

The Work (in following order) // Wave Formation, Surf Culture and Wave Energy

[Animation Video // Wave Formation]


[Opinion Editorial Piece // Surf Culture]

 “Supreme or Psycho: How Artificial Waves Will Change Surfing Forever”

Surfing has always been a radical sport. Even back in 18th century Tahiti where expeditionary William Anderson first witnessed a native man canoe surfing and “[concluded] that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while his was driven so fast and smoothly by the sea.” This same “supreme pleasure” of riding waves hasn’t died since, but instead grown quickly, especially as technology for boards and clothing has matched this same sweeping evolution. While most fans and enthusiasts remain stoked on searching and riding at global locations such as Hawai’i and Australia, a recent technological marvel has taken the surf world by storm.            

Before I go any further, there is an important part of surfing culture to take note of. There is no such thing as a “perfect” wave, which is okay! The soul of surfing exists in understanding the movements of the ocean and learning how each surf spot acts differently. How someone would approach surfing “Pipeline” in Oahu, Hawai’i greatly differs from riding Portugal’s “Nazaré”. Essentially, the path to becoming a surfer lies in the moments of having to adapt yourself to differences discovered in a wave. So now that we’ve established that flawless slabs can’t be created, let’s uncover how ingenuity and precision engineering argued otherwise.

In 2015, 11-time surfing world champion and ocean sport pioneer Kelly Slater surprise released a video of a cold, mysterious rectangular lake with an other-worldly structure splitting the water in half. As the clip plays, black-water barrels begin to appear out of nowhere, seamlessly crashing in beautiful succession. The perfect wave. Slater’s reveal video, titled “Kelly’s Wave”, would later set precedence in the surf community as the ultimate wave machine. Some see it as the complete marriage of science and stoke. To say Kelly Slater is a great surfer is an understatement. But as an engineer? He would need help on that front. So in order to create such an epic locale, Slater consulted the University of California’s Viterbi School of Engineering to help develop a beastly machine that could pump out endless sets of waves with the push of a button. Their final product would end up becoming a 700 by 100-yard rectangular, land-locked pool divided by a 100-ton moving railway. 

The two integral parts of Slater’s creation that drive the speed and shape of the pool’s waves are “The Vehicle” and the shape of the pool’s floor. “The Vehicle” is a train-like rail system that carries and pushes a giant hydrofoil. If you can imagine the shape of a sword blade that got bent out of line or an airplane wing, that’s what a hydrofoil basically is. In order to make the waves, “The Vehicle” pushes the submerged hydrofoil and collects water in a direction that corresponds with the reef-like pool floor. These two pieces of the puzzle fit together to create the 45-second long perfect waves that make up what is now known as Kelly’s Surf Ranch, located among the dairy farms of Lemoore, California. 

Slater’s collaborative innovation undoubtedly excites participants and lovers of surfing from all over the world. Why wouldn’t it? The ability to produce barreling waves on repeat is an opportunity no surfer could pass up. So then, how could this new horizon for surfing possibly go wrong? Well where there are benefits, consequences are sure to arise and follow. The soul of surfing, as mentioned previously, is born from a surfer’s ability to adapt and change with the conditions of the ocean. Slater’s Surf Ranch, in comparison to natural waves, takes away that variability. In a video I watched that covered the Surf Ranch’s history, there was a hypothetical moment shared that I believe explains this whole mysterious circumstance. If you had a “grom” train in an artificial wave pool, they would know exactly how to ride its waves. They would know when to paddle, where to place themselves on the wave, and how to execute maneuvers perfectly. All of this training done, specifically, for that artificial wave. But once you flip the script and introduce this young surfer to a natural break in Bali or Mexico, they would be eaten alive by the sea. And probably die.

That may seem like a gross exaggeration, but it truly isn’t. No wave in the ocean will ever be as clean or predictable like one made by a machine and a gigantic pool. It makes sense that if someone were to train their entire life in a place with perfect conditions, how could they possibly begin to face a wave that can become imperfect within seconds.  

Slater’s Surf Ranch has taken the sport to whole new realm. There is no questioning that. And the hype swelling around the idea of immediate waves and fun, an undoubtable emotion amongst the ones in the know. It is among this excitement that I believe that most of us might begin to forget the repercussions that accompany this revolution. Surfing has and forever will be an activity that belongs to the sea. From its origins to its current spike in professional commercialism, saltwater and wind swells consistently serve as the life blood of our shore faring citizens. It is the notion of indisputable danger that bubbles up from the negative effects of artificial waves that prompts us to step back and think for a second.

Perfect barrels are what almost every wave rider dreams of. It is what we as people of the ocean spend our lives searching for. However, if the fun, safety, and lives of future ocean athletes begins to be doubted, maybe it’s best to stop ourselves from building a Surf Ranch in every open space possible. Think about it. Is the feeling of “supreme pleasure” really worth risking a life? It’s not.    

[Graphic Set // Wave Energy]