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Sea Change: What Is the Future of Surfer-Powered Ocean Conservation When the Best Waves Come On-Demand?

We spoke with surfing sage Steve Hawk about how the new breed of artificial wave pools may reshape the soul of the sport.
Kelly Slater slashes the lip at the Kelly Slater Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California, on May 5th, 2018.

Kelly Slater slashes the lip at the Kelly Slater Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California, on May 5th, 2018.

Out in the dusty, dry San Joaquin Valley, somewhere amid the endless rows of almond and pistachio trees, lies the future of wave riding. The city of Lemoore is about 120 miles from the nearest beach. It's here where the greatest surfer of all time has perfected an artificial replica of a singular experience: that euphoric—even transcendent—state achieved in the act of gliding along a wall of water, perfectly aligned with the rhythm of the ocean. It's ephemeral, and it's absolute magic.

Kelly Slater spent well over a decade working on the design of his artificial wave pool, Surf Ranch, operating under a cloud of secrecy (save a trail of patent battles he left in his wake). When the facility finally opened to the public earlier this year, it was greeted with awe, acclaim, and, among some, hesitation. Surfing is, after all, a dance between human beings and nature. Wave pools are a feat of engineering, a facsimile of a sublime moment produced by nature, but completely devoid of it. If we can have perfect waves in a chlorinated pool, who cares about saving the reefs?

It's a point of contention that's only going to become more prevalent in the surfing community: In a few years, these types of next-generation wave pools will dot the global landscape. To whit, two wave pools recently opened in Texas, and more are sure to follow. But Slater's pool remains a gold standard—a playground for pro surfers, celebrities, and the very well heeled. A full day of flawless waves can run up to $5,000 per surfer.

With today being International Surfing Day—the non-profit Surfrider Foundation's annual celebration of both the sport of surfing and the sustainability of ocean resources—we spoke with Steve Hawk, a former top editor at both Surfer and Sierra magazines for his impression of the impact of wave pools. We caught Hawk at the perfect time: Just last week he'd surfed Slater's wave for the first time.


Can you describe the mechanics of the wave pool?

It's a big contraption. As it starts up, there's this horn that sounds and a voice that comes on and says, "30 seconds!" There's a cable with wheels on either end, and one wheel starts to spin and it pulls this big keel that creates the wave.

The water goes from flat to a two-foot bump, and then a six-foot bump, and it grows as it's coming toward you; it's overhead by the time it gets to you. That all happens in 50 yards, and it's big and it starts to break. You just put your head down and go. At that moment you might as well be at Ocean Beach.

It's a real wave—a legit, powerful barrel with some multi-ton moving keel creating all this energy sculpted into the perfect surfing wave. You fly full-speed down the line for almost 50 seconds and when you kick out and look back, you can't believe how far you surfed. It's almost seven football fields. It's this kind of madness, like an amusement park ride.

Were you ambivalent at all about the idea of a mechanically created perfect wave?

I was pumped. Obviously, the Sierra Magazine editor inside me winces a bit, but I'd rather have thousands of those around the world than thousands of F-17s. One wishes that the world were a place where we were building dozens and dozens of these instead of the fighter jets that were flying overhead. [Editor's Note: Lemoore Naval Airbase is near the Surf Ranch.]

Do you think there's a risk of the proliferation of this technology distancing the surfer from the ocean?

This is just an add-on [to the natural experience]. But I had that same concern the first time I saw the wave pool.

Why were you concerned?

It's a yin-yang thing at first glance. I thought, "Good lord, I want to ride that wave." On the other hand, you can't help but immediately fast forward to the worst-case scenario.

Which is what?

That you've got a world champion, who comes from the mountains of China, or from Kansas, who's never been in the ocean, never worn a leash, never dived through a wave, never navigated the current, never tasted salt water or had it sting their eyes, just never been part of that whole glorious experience. But, that's actually an apocryphal worst-case scenario.

Was there one moment where realized you were desperately in love with the ocean?

I learned to bodysurf when I was five and my parents owned a hamburger stand on the beach. I was on the beach all summer, from ages five to nine or 10. I do remember one moment in high school, surfing a spot in La Jolla, called South Bird Rock, by myself at like two in the afternoon. It was shoulder-to-head high and beautiful, just gorgeous. No one around.

The wind was a bit offshore and I remember now that was when I realized the aesthetics, and the setting, and the kind of all-encompassing sensual aspect of surfing was so much a part it. It was much more than just the wave riding and the dance. That hit me hard.

When wave pools are doing such a great job of delivering a sensation we all love, what might that mean for stewardship of the ocean?

I don't think it's going to really impact the number of people who care about the ocean. All real ocean surfers, if they start using these pools, their heart is still going to be in the ocean, and they're going to care about it just as much or just as little as they do now.

People who are surfing this wave pool exclusively probably never would have gone in the ocean anyway. If anything, maybe this will draw them to the ocean.

So these pools could act almost like a gateway drug.

Ocean waves are free. You can get as many as you want in a day as long as your arms hold out. So yeah, it could be a gateway drug, but I can't imagine someone moving from Ohio to Santa Cruz because they got a jones for surfing while in a wave pool.

What do you make of International Surfing Day?

It's a great idea. It's important to have a community like surfing all look toward one thing and remember how big a part of our lives it is, and what we can do to protect it. People organize armies to go out to the beach with trash bags, right? It's a good thing, but it's symbolism. It's kind of an artificial construct.

What will you be doing on International Surfing Day?

Surfing, I hope.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.