Surfer Mike Parsons drops into a huge wave, estimated at 70 ft, at Cortes Bank off the coast of San Clemente, California in 2008. Photo: Robert Brown/Billabong

…Dawn’s early light revealed a shimmering plume of spray. A Himalayan peak rose to life far off the bow. It was shaped like a great, volcanic cone– 43 million pounds of water, terrible and unrideable. Its foam exploding an unknowable number of feet into the air and churned the surrounding water into a 360-degree maelstrom of confusion.

— Chris Dixon (2011) Ghost Wave: the Discovery of Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth.

In the annals of big wave surfing the torch for the largest wave has been passed many times: Makaha, Waimea Bay, Jaws, Mavericks’s, Outer Log Cabins, Todos Santos, Nazaré. But one surf spot stands alone: Cortes Bank. Located 100 miles off the southern California coast, Cortes Bank is as much legend as surf spot. A wave like no other. Not a coastal break but a swell that breaks on a submarine island. A titanic wave unloading on a submerged shoal in the middle of the ocean. The wave starts and ends in water deeper than 1,000 feet. And although the record for the largest wave ever ridden may not currently belong to Cortes Bank, it has the potential to hold a monstrous swell and create the largest wave on the planet, by far. Then, of course there is the human element: someone has to have the courage to ride it. So far, and amazingly so, surfers have met that challenge.

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Cortes Bank from the air. Photo by Flame/A-Frame,

To get there you have to imagine riding in a boat for many, many hours; far offshore, past Santa Catalina, past San Clemente, another forty miles out into the open ocean, to a place where an island used to exist in the past. 10,000 years ago it was called Kinkipar by native Americans, the ancestors of the Tongva or Chumash Tribes in southern California. In the present time, due to sea level rise, it is entirely submerged, the top rising to within 3-6 feet of the surface with nearby shoals catching the largest swells on the planet from the North Pacific. Monster swells that generate waves moving at incredibly high speeds as they move from the deep ocean, over a mile deep at the base of the bank, into a series of shallow reefs made of sandstone and volcanic basalt. Because of its location, estimates are that the waves are moving 50% faster than comparable waves along Oahu’s north shore. They are arguably the largest and fastest waves on Earth. As Bill Sharp remarked after the first time it was surfed in 1990 “It was like something out of Waterworld.”

Ghost Wave BookAlthough it was likely known by native Americans, it was “discovered” to the western world by James Alden, the skipper of the steamship SS Cortes, as he observed massive eruptions of white water in the middle of the deep ocean while passing by the bank in 1853. Soundings revealed a series of stair-steps 50 to 100 feet high from periods of previous sea level rises down to 400 foot depths that descend to the abyssal plains around the bank. Since then, and likely before, Cortes Bank has been the site of a few ship sinkings and many close calls, including the grounding of the 1123 foot USS Enterprise in 1985. In an absolutely gripping book, Ghost Wave, Chris Dixon describes both the history of Cortes Bank and the quest to explore and surf waves. This history includes the deliberate sinking of the 334 foot SS Jalisco to attempt to create the nation of Abalonia and the multiple quests to ride the waves over a twenty-year period beginning in 1990.

Reading Dixon’s book I was particularly fascinated by two aspects of his story. One, I was struck by the incredible courage of those that journeyed to the bank to ride the huge but largely unknown waves. Greg Long, for example, almost died there in 2012, yet returned in 2014 to ride the place — solo. Facing challenges like that are extraordinary and illustrate an uncommon ability to face possible death with the physical preparedness that installs a unique confidence among professional surfers. Second, I was fascinated by the potential of Cortes Bank to hold the largest swell on the planet.

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NOAA Nautical chart showing the location of Cortes Bank off southern California.
Cortes Panel
Close-up of NOAA Nautical chart (left) of Cortes Bank next to (right) color-shaded map of the bank illustrating topography Source: Seafloor Mapping Lab, CSU Monterey Bay.

Cortes Bank’s location and shape both contribute to its unique ability to converge and focus wave energy from the North Pacific. Located far from shore, the bank can capture swells before they slow down in shallow water on the coast’s continental shelves. More importantly, the shape of the bank, trending from NW to SE, captures and focuses wave energy along the length of the bank’s gradual stair-steeping shoal, channeling the energy into the shallowest areas around Bishop Rock. In addition, there is a thumb-like rock shoal (the “hook”) that bends and focuses additional wave energy into the area.  As described by Chris Dixon (2011) in his book:

[There] the wave would rise higher and higher in the shallows until reaching the final big stair step. There it would trip up, careening and falling forward like an enraged giant while peeling down the shallow water line like a a line of toppling dominos.

Given the bathymetry, a 15-ft, 20-s period wave could easily grow to 4-5 times its height creating a 60-75 ft wave (Dixon, 2011). In a big swell, a perfectly shaped 100 ft wave could be generated; during a once-in-a-century El Niño-type swell, a 1,000 ft wave is possible. All the other big wave spots, such as Jaws, Maverick’s and Todos Santos, begin closing out at 50-100 ft heights into a huge, unrideable wave.

Wave convergence at Cortes Bank. As the swells approach the bank the shoal focuses the wave energy onto the shallow reef, greatly increasing the amount of energy, and size, of the wave. Source: Dixon (2011) based on an illustration from Sean Collins.

As to the question of whether a surfer could ride a wave that size, the jury is still out. It may be simply too fast and too big for someone to actually ride it. Of course, surfers have been down that road before: that’s what they said about Waimea Bay for years before anyone surfed it in 1957. The truth is that there appears to be no limits to the courage of surfers, whether they can survive a wave that size or not.


21 responses to “Cortes Bank: the Largest Wave on the Planet”

  1. Hi Brian, This was so timely. I am talking about the sea floor this week in Oceanography class. I was just talking about this yesterday. Cool stuff. I love your blog! Aloha, Donna


  2. Great suff, but Nazaré as the Largest, Biggest, Heaviest, Caotic, Madness Wave on the Planet.

    You dont see this from the air/cliff:

    Or this from the beach: (Andrew Cotton gets injured)

    Neither this from drone footage:

    Every single winter season! But you can see that in Nazaré. All this waves are from this winter season 2017/18. Nazaré stands alone in this world, even tho, i agree that Cortes Bank steps ahead Jaws, Mavericks…

    P.S. This photo from Steudtner 2015 xxl wave winner award, is also spetacular.

    • Hey Carlos,

      Thanks for your comments and excellent photos and videos. I don’t disagree with you as stated in the first part of my post. It’s the potential not so much the record for the largest:

      And although the record for the largest wave ever ridden may not currently belong to Cortes Bank, it
      has the potential to hold a monstrous swell and create the largest wave on the planet, by far.

      Keep up the great work! — Brian

      • I have two points. The canyon aiming towards the coast would channel deep oceans swells at Nazare. These swells would act as a stream that its energy would build up hence giving greater energy to the shores of Nazare.
        The depth where it breaks dosnt collapse as it does on a shallow like reef and would draw up much more volume.
        Nazaré I believe can get even bigger and i dont think Cortes has the ability to create a 100ft wave.
        I also feel it would be popular to speculate on what could be bigger because Nazaré is now the king period and we all want something bigger to please our sences. I hope I am wrong but 1000ft? If it did get 10ooft I am sure mavericks would be the same at the same time due to a catastrophic event like a meteor etc.
        thanks for yr opinion. I would love to measure swell energy from Nazarés canyon compared to swell nearby but before the shelf.

  3. Hi Brian

    Thanks for your answer. I would like to know, in your opinion, what is the limit of the Nazaré waves.

    The Nazaré Canyon starts at 16404ft deep in the ocean (5.000 meters), has 131milles (211km), and at Nazaré it has 164ft deep (50 meters), and is responsible for the amplified waves at Praia do Norte, Nazaré.

    Some specialists from European Universities claim that some waves surfed in Nazaré had arround 100ft, but World Surf League didnt recognize that. And kept the old record of McNamara, with a clearly smaller wave.

    Knowing that Nazaré already had “100ft heights rideable waves”, what do you think that is the limit of Nazaré.

    Thanks and best regards

    • Hey Carlos, I am not an oceanographer but my guess, as long as the site can hold a swell, is it limited by the size of waves generated in the Atlantic. In general, wave size is determined by fetch. So the stronger the wind and the longer it blows the bigger the waves. However, as you’ve stated, the deep water canyon can magnify the swell energy in a small area, which is also key. Plus, at Nazaré, it doubled up before it breaks. So all of these things are important but my guess is it could hold a swell larger than 100 ft. We’ll just have to wait and see!

      Thanks for the great questions, Brian

  4. The depth stepping isn’t from ocean levels rising, it’s from the island sinking. Ocean islands depress the sea floor they sit upon over time (it’s thinner, plastic crust), eventually submerging if not continually built up by volcanism or tectonic lifting. Note the complete Hawaian chain from the Big Island all the way to French Frigate Shoals (including Midway). Those were once all islands but once the volcanic action ceased they started a gradual sinking that eventually returns the to seamounts.

  5. I have never seen so much blunder written in so few words. Nothing compares to the wave of Nazaré. It is ridiculous to want to compare any other wave in the world with the wave of Nazaré. Nazaré has waves of 80 ft and a speed of 72 km / h, scientifically proven. And the other waves?

    • Hey Antonio. Thanks for your comment. I believe it’s debatable. Nazaré is clearly a monster wave and probably capable of 100 ft. waves but ultimately it is limited by the size of swells generated in the Atlanic Ocean and the amplyfing effect of the submarine canyons. Cortes Bank does not have these limitations so potentially can be bigger. The Pacific is much larger and Cortes is on a deep, offshore shoal surrounded by deep water. Right now Nazaré (rightfully) has the record size buy that could change in the future. I guess we’ll see, huh? The fun is in the race.

  6. Nazare is a freak show to be sure but Cortez being an open ocean break would most definitely be capable of producing monster size cartoon waves! How is the place monitored? Buoys?

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