Reef Breaks and surfing

Surfing is a growing sport and is very popular worldwide with a range of waves that can be found from Canada to Australia. Reef breaks are one of the most popular types of waves found around the world and attract many surfers, both locally and internationally, to surf the high class waves formed by the reef structure. Therefore it is important to explore the effects of surfing on reef ecology and the effects of reefs on surfing.

What is a reef break?

A reef is an area of elevated material forming a ridge like structure at the bottom or around the bottom of the ocean. Reefs can be naturally formed or artificially formed. Natural reefs, especially in tropical areas, are rich with life and are biodiversity hot spots with thousands of species. Artificial reefs are usually man made with a featureless bottom and are usually made to promote biodiversity, control erosion and to promote surfing. As reef breaks form a ridge like structure on the sea floor and they provide waves that break over the reef structure as the swell from the open ocean reaches the shallow area of the reef break generating waves.


An example of a reef break (Swami’s surf spot, California), (credit)


Why are reef breaks important?

Reef breaks are important for surfers as they provide some of the best waves in the world. Areas such as Indonesia and Fiji, areas containing thousands of reef breaks, are some of the best areas for surfing in the world. As swell is generated from the open ocean, waves are formed as the swell moves over the shallow reef breaks. This is due to a high gradient formed between the “open ocean” and the shallow reef. As the gradient is, usually, quite steep top heavy waves are formed over the reef often forming tubes. This attracts many surfers to reef breaks all over the world.

Example Teahupoo

A classic example of a reef break is Teahupoo. Teahupoo is a unique wave as it forms one of the heaviest waves in the world. Teahupoo is located within the French Polynesia archipelago, on the island of Tahiti, in the Pacific Ocean. As Teahupoo is located on an island the swell that hits the reef is quite large as it travels from the open ocean of the pacific. Teahupoo’s uniqueness is generated by the very steep gradient from the open ocean to the shallow flat reef at a 1:1 ratio and then a 1:3 ratio at the last 150m before the surface (1:1 ratio = 1 foot of depth for every one foot of distance). This causes big waves to break over the reef at Teahupoo, a lot larger in size compared to your local beach break.

As the shore is so steep this prevents coral from growing as the coral needs light in order to photosynthesise that cannot be attained at the depths of the steep shore. Another unique factor of Teahupoo is the fact the wave maintains its shape despite all of the power of the water breaking over the reef, this is because of deep channels within the reef that allow water from the shore to be drained back out to sea and this also contributes to the thickness of the wave.


Laird Hamilton surfing Teahupoo (credit)

Dangers of reef surfing


Surfing reef breaks can be very dangerous for numerous reasons. Firstly, the water is usually significantly shallower compared to other surf breaks potentially causing surfers to be injured on the ocean floor. Another danger is the razor sharp coral found on natural living reefs, such as fire corals (Millipora) that can cause very deep cuts. Another danger is the power of the waves found at reef breaks. Due to the power of the waves a surfer can easily be held under the water for long periods of time and can be crushed, via the weight of the wave, against the sea floor.

There are, however, some prevention methods to prevent severe cuts such as wearing reef boots and wearing protective rash vests in order to prevent sever cuts from fire coral causing long term injuries.



An example of protective footwear used by surfers for protection on coral reefs (credit)

Human impacts on reefs

There are many human impacts on coral reef ecosystems and structure. Tourism is a big impact as many snorkelers damage the reef by treading on the delicate coral and cause negative impacts to the coral ecosystem by damaging many habitats for the thousands of organisms found on coral reefs.

Another human impact on coral reefs is litter. There is approximately 8 million tons of trash dumped into the oceans each year. Many items of trash are found amongst coral reef ecosystems and cause negative impacts on the organisms found there. For example fishing nets, an example of marine debris, roll over coral reefs damaging the structure and destroying many habitats.

Chemical pollution is also a major impact on coral reefs. As many of the chemicals produced by humans end up in the ocean t causes large areas of the ocean to increase in temperature and causes ocean acidification to occur. Ocean acidification occurs as a result of more CO2 in the ocean increasing the acidity of the ocean in large areas. This leads to the destruction of many coral reefs as bleaching occurs due to the high levels of acidification.


Impact of discarded fishing nets within the ocean (credit)



The future of reef breaks

As reefs become increasingly damaged due to human impacts, the waves produced by the reef structure become unsurfable. As large proportions of coral reefs become destroyed due to acidification the waves generated by the reef become dysmorphic in relation to their normal state, when the reef is not damaged. This results in waves with less power and no faces causing the waves to be un rideable.

As reefs are becoming increasingly threatened it is important for surfers to protect the reefs that provide them with good quality waves by recycling and using less pollutants. It is also important for awareness to be raised of the negative impacts human pollution and tourism can cause on the reefs. If the current rate of pollution continues thousands of reefs will be affected over the next few years causing negative impacts not just within the surfing community, but for people all over the world too.


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