The Reef Beneath
While surfing I have always been torn between watching waves or looking at the reef and critters beneath me. As a terrestrial mammal, I tend to focus on surface manifestations and less on the aquatic. In this series of posts, I focus on the narrow interface between the ocean’s surface, the propagation of waves, the reefs they encounter, and the sea life below; a happy merger of my interests as a surfer and marine biologist. Anyone who has taken a tour of the seafloor beneath their favorite surf spot cannot help but appreciate the reef, and how it influences the waves and marine life alike. Here is their story….
I remember one day Pat Curren and I were looking out at perfect waves at Banzai, which it was called then, and he said, ‘Maybe in 2,000 years that’ll be surfed.’ It was so beautiful . . . so radical. We thought if we could move the place out 300 yards it’d be perfect, because it looked to us like an impossible shorebreak.Fred Van Dyke, 1957/58
PIPELINE. Just the name shoots fear through my heart. Insanely hollow tubes breaking over a super-shallow reef. The steep drop, crazy speed, and all the while the fear of the dark reef gliding below, always reminding you of what happens if you fall. Conquering that fear is the ultimate challenge. And for many years it prevented anyone from riding it. It still does today.
I surfed it once, on my way to Bali with my brother, and experienced a traditional newbie christening. After a few days surfing various spots on the north shore to gather our courage, my brother Craig and I paddled out at Backdoor on a small day. Of course I, as I goofy foot, had to try the legend. Paddled over. Only two others in the lineup. Small, sloppy, seemed tame. But as is common in Hawaii things changed rapidly and a big set rolled in. I couldn’t believe the speed, the way the swells jacked up fast on the reef. Then, Gerry Lopez paddled by. Shit!
Pipeline from the air showing the reef beneath. Source: Reddit, Mailbulivin.
With a lump in my throat I pushed deeper into the lineup as the crowd swelled and the swell grew. I paddled into a mound of glass as it hit the reef. Stood up on what quickly became an 6 foot wave. Looked straight into the vertical maw and down at the thin veil of swirling water over the dark, jagged reef. I hesitated and was pitched out into space and thrashed. As I scraped the reef the warning was clear — you are not ready! I swam through the strong rip currents and collapsed on the beach; humbled but feeling good that I had faced my fear. And 40 years later I still remember the power of that place and the lesson it taught me. Pipeline!
Deadliest Wave on Earth
Pipeline is definitely the most dangerous spot on Earth. I’ve seen a lot of guys die there. That’s what makes it such a proving groundKalani Robb, Momentum Generation
Surf spots have their legends, and a few have big legends. Some, like Waimea Bay and Mavericks, had a high bar separating the waves from us mere mortals. But once men summoned the courage to breach that wall — the line draw by the Gods of the sea — the floodgates opened and the masses, ready or not, poured forth to ride them; the myths and legends no longer a barrier to men’s courage. But Pipeline has always been different. It’s personal, not cultural.
At Pipeline, each person that stands on that beach has to face their individual fear before entering the water. Each one has to imagine their fate, summon their courage, and paddle out. Many never try. For the break occurs close to shore in very shallow water — a ten-foot wave will break in six feet of water — and much of that water gets sucks up into the wave as it cascades over the reef. Very shallow indeed. And the fear, the possibility– of hitting the flat but uneven black-coral reef is high. I’ve felt it and it ain’t pretty. Indeed, over the years it has killed an average of one surfer every other year plus may broken shoulders, ribs, and other nasty encounters with the reef.
As you enter the right of way on the beach to pipeline there is a plaque engraved with a list of fallen heroes and it is almost as long as the list of Pipe Master champions. And for every life lost there are tens of near-death accidents. There is a reason Pipeline is final spot in the Triple Crown of Surfing — it is the ultimate proving ground for surfers.
Although Phil Edwards was the first to officially ride Pipeline in Bruce Brown’s 1961 film Hollow Days, it was Butch Van Artsdalen that made Pipeline a household name. In Matt Warshaw’s epic book, The History of Surfing (online), back in the mid 1960s, when it was first surfed on a regular basis, Pipeline was synonymous with tube-riding. At the time it was much more stylish to hang ten or make smooth sweeping turns across the wave as tube-riding on a large board was a short-lived, difficult affair that often amounted to a short head dip or wipeout. Van Artsdalen perfected the art of tubriding and became known as “Mr. Pipeline” and was featured in multiple surf flicks (including Endless Summer) that brought the break into a cult-like media fascination.
The short-board revolution changed all that because it allowed a maneuverability that significantly increased the chances of successfully navigating the tube. Soon a succession of great surfers conquered the hollow waves, such as Jock Sutherland and Tom Stone, until the the king of pipeline arrived in 1969, Gerry Lopez.
Lopez was a master at calmly dropping into a wave, hands at his side, then disappearing quietly into a massive tube only to be spit out in a explosion as the wave demolished itself on the reef. According to Warshaw, he “raised the art of a tube-ride from a mere surfing maneuver to an advanced Zen practice.” His application of yoga and meditation to surfing led him to transcendental beliefs about surfing that ultimately became a movement in the 1970s: “Surfing is a meditation exercise.” he said, and “I started to see there was something much deeper about surfing than I’d originally thought.”
The first thing that got my attention was how the noise of the crashing wave suddenly went silent. … Another interesting aspect was how everything seemed to slow down. This slow motion sensation, combined with the silence, had me wondering whether I had entered a different world from the one outside the tube. The most distinct impression I experienced inside the tube was a feeling of complete awe.Gerry Lopez on Tube Riding in The Inertia
Because of Lopez’s dominance at Pipeline, tube-riding developed into the quest among surfers and soon became the ultimate experience that everyone strived for. It certainly was for me throughout my early years in the 1970s, which led me to buy a Lightning Bolt surfboards, seek the tube at Pipeline, then on to the shallow, razor sharp reefs at Uluwatu. I fondly remember seeing Rick Griffin’s comic books in surf shops and its psychedelic, almost space-like quality sent me out every day seeking tubes up and down the coast. Pipeline started all of that.
It picks you up and just slams you down and that reef is so hard. It feels like your hitting a sharp sidewalk.Taylor Know, Momentum Generation
Offshore of north shore O’ahu beaches, the submerged shelf is shaped by a distinct stair-step bathymetry sculpted from ancient reef limestones created by past sea-level changes (Fletcher et al., 2008). This feature has several consequences for the reef at Pipeline. First, it creates a series of reefs of successively deeper depths known as First Reef (200 feet offshore, 10-15 ft. waves; 2-8 ft deep), which is the main break, Second Reef (400 ft. offshore, 15-18 ft. waves; 15-20 ft. deep), and Third Reef (1000 ft. offshore, 25+ ft. waves; 30-40 ft. deep). The reef, based on studies at nearby Sunset Beach and Pūpūkea (Shark’s Cove), is composed of a thin veneer of small living coral colonies resting on an ancient Pleistocene limestone foundation 10,000-20,000 years old (Grigg, 1998).
Lidar technology reveals the reef beneath, which extends over 1,000 feet offshore and has a strong effect on the waves at Pipeline. Despite popular misconceptions that the reef at Pipeline is black lava, it is not. Instead the main break is a highly eroded flat, carbonate rock with a dark-brown algal turf mat covering the surface (Grigg, 1998; Friedlander et al., 2010). It’s just like a nice fuzzy carpet — over concrete. Closer to shore in very shallow water, there are sharp, black basaltic rocks, which adds to the fun of the pounding shore-break.
Streams and Currents
This flat solid pavement has been cut by freshwater streams (mostly in the past) and also by underground springs, both of which killed coral and created channels and holes on the reef filled with sand. Without this influence Pipeline would not be the surf break it is today but instead just a crashing shorebreak.
The channels cut through the reef, the most significant one being the Ehukai channel, were created by freshwater runoff from Pākūlena Stream. The stream historically exited where the Ehukai channel is today but the stream flow has been interrupted and redirected by access roads, and water now flows down the roadway on its way to the ocean where it exits further southwest (Karau, 2012). In addition, longshore currents generated from waves piling water along the coast converge on Ekuhai Beach and move through Pipeline’s deeper channel (Sean Collins, Surfline) further enhancing the reef break, and moving sediment and broken reef fragments offshore and onto second and third reef. In the summer, sand can pile up on the reef, creating close-out waves, but conditions can quickly change when large west swells blast sand off the reef in the fall and winter.
This dynamic geology creates many options for damage and death including slamming into the hard reef, hitting the sharp edges, or getting struck underneath one of the ledges or in a hole. As the waves jack up, the reef appears very close, like sinister dark Swiss chess with intense swirls and bubbles from air trapped beneath the ledges. It has variously been described as “a sharp sidewalk” (Taylor Knox), or according to Bruce Brown in Endless Summer, the reef is studded with coral heads that “stick up like big overgrown railroad spikes.” The ride is short but intense, often lasting only seven seconds, but then you are spit out of the gaping maw unto a smaller shoulder in the gentlier shore break.
The waves are also enhanced by the offshore geomorphology created by the ancient limestone reefs. Large swells hitting the curve of the reef past Outer Log Cabins (60+ ft. depths), are refracted into Pipeline increasing wave height. This condition is especially true with large, long-period swells (>15 s) which have deeper swell energy and are more affected by the deep offshore reefs. On certain swells the waves refracted by the reef at Outer Log Cabins converge with the original swell lines to create doubled-up, crossed up peaks (Surfline).
When the waves move into the 15 ft. range they began to jack up on second reef, which offers an easy drop and long walls before it spills onto the hollow perfection of the main break. On giant swells, Third reef, which is another 1000 ft. from shore, can jack up, feather in the wind, and either back down or it can break and turn into huge mass of boiling white water that rolls through second and third break to the beach. As Sean Collins wrote “when the waves begin breaking out there, all hell breaks loose.”
In 1943 Woody Brown and Dickie Cross paddled out at big Sunset and were caught in a stair-step swell that likely forced them to paddled outside waves breaking on third reef and outer log cabins. They eventually arrived at their destination, Waimea Bay, in darkness, where Cross drowned in the giant surf. On giant swells the outer reefs come alive and few can survive their onslaught.
With its pounding surf and low coral cover the reef isn’t a hotspot for marine life. However, the abundant turf algae and refuges on the reef do attract a small number of fish and an occasional turtle. Based on observations and a species list from nearby Pūpūkea (Sharks’ Cove) (Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources data) the most common critters are (in photos from bottom left going clockwise) Green sea turtles, surgeonfish (brown, convicts, Kole, whitebar, orangeband, bluelined), damselfish (oval and blackfin chromis, Pacific Gregory, brighteye), wrasses (saddle, pearl, belted), and goatfish (yellowstripe, sidespot, manybar) which forage in the sand channels. There is also an occasional butterflyfish (bluestripe, fourspot, multiband). The reef itself, is studded by a few live coral colonies, mostly cauliflower coral, and is covered with patches of coralline algae.
The challenge remains
The future of Pipeline is now in the hands of a new generation of surfers. Under the intense competition of today’s talented professionals (including many women) and the glaring lights of global social media, surfers are being driven into the water in increasing frequency. On good days it’s not uncommon to see 50 people in the water, most of which probably don’t belong there. The fear barrier is still there but now many are facing their on their first vertical drop rather then contemplating the risks from shore.
Like the challenge to ride the big waves at Waimea and Mavericks, and now Nazaré, Pipeline was considered unrideable for many years. It was just too shallow and too fast for someone to survive. But like many mythical spots, once the barrier was broken many surfers tested their courage in the hollow tubes above the dark swirling reef. The truth is there is no limit to the courage of surfers, whether they survive riding the tubes at Pipeline or not. The future is unwritten as surfers continue to push the limits of tube riding at the Banzai Pipeline.
Others in the Series:
- What Lies Beneath: the Waves, Reef and Marine Life of Maverick’s
- Cortes Bank: the Largest Wave on the Planet
- Caught Inside: Surfing Nightmares and the Legend of Dickie Cross
- DAR (Division of Aquatic Resources). 2008. Annual Fish surveys. Unpublished Data. DAR, Honolulu, HI.
- Friedlander, A.M., L.M. Wedding, E. Brown, M.E. Monaco. 2010. Monitoring Hawaii’s Marine Protected Areas: Examining Spatial and Temporal Trends Using a Seascape Approach. NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS NCCOS 117. Silver Spring, MD. 130 pp.
- Grigg, R. 1998. Holocene coral reef accretion in Hawaii: a function of wave exposure and sea level history. Coral reefs 17: 263-272.
- Karau, G. 2012. Growing Value Organically: Sustainable Real Estate Development and Long Term Value Creation in Rural Communities on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. MS Thesis, MIT. 108 pp.
- Surfline. Mechanics of Pipeline and Backdoor. Accessed in 2019.
- Warshaw, Matt. 2010. The History of Surfing.