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Cliff Kapono: The Surfing Scientist 

Dr. Cliff, spreading the word. Photograph by Todd Glasser/Reef

A style surfer and biochemist, few individuals have alchemised surfing and science into mainstream gold like Cliff Kapono. We recently covered the Hawaiian’s work with the Mega Lab, mapping and exploring the health of our reefs at the best surf breaks on the planet, including Pipeline and Cloudbreak.

Here, we catch up with Cliff to dive into his fascinating career and his goal of making surf and science accessible to all.  

WL: With the Mega Lab, the group has concentrated not just on science, but also the storytelling. How important is that for you? 

CK: It’s essential. As a Hawaiian, storytelling is fundamental to our culture, be it in the form of myth, song, and surfing. As a scientist, I’m interested in helping conventional science reach a broader audience. Telling great stories can make science stick. 

WL: How else are you getting people inspired by science? That could be considered a hard sell for some surfers.

CK: People don’t realise how the surf and science communities are so similar. In surfing, people want to be seen as the gnarliest, craziest, and the best. So that’s an exclusive approach. And I get it. I know it’s great for your ego when you get the wave of the day. And growing up in Hawaii my surfing ability has helped me elevate my social standing. Conventional science is the same, it can be about climbing to the top and so there’s no inclusivity. 

WL: How do you change it though? 

CK: Well, personally when I focused on being a part of the lineup, and not trying to dominate it, I enjoyed surfing so much more. I felt I was accepted more with that approach. My surfing goals became trying to be proficient enough so that I could be accepted in any lineup when I traveled. My mentality changed in surfing, and it changed in science too.

Cliff sliding into Cloudbreak. This is a man with serious substance, and style. Photo by Todd Glasser/Reef

WL: Is there a line-up or hierarchy in the science scene too? 

CK: Absolutely. In academia, you sit on the shoulder for the 24 grades until you get your Ph.D. (Cliff has his in Chemistry). Then once you have your Ph.D. you are allowed to sit on the peak, but that doesn’t get you priority. People question you on who your sponsor is, what your style is like, and who you know in the lineup. But as in my surfing, it is the same as my science; I just wanted to find my own peak.

WL: How did you find a new scientific peak? 

CK: I was in a highly competitive academic environment when I was at school. I studied for my Ph. D at the University of California, San Diego and the Scripps Institute, which in oceanography terms is like CT-level competition. I got enough training so that I could be accepted in any scientific lineup, but I didn’t like the vibe in most of them. Eventually, I left and came home to Hawaii, even though there was no science-based job for me. I had some support, both in science and surf, but they were annual contracts. However, as soon as I did my own thing it started working.  

WL: How did you fund it?

CK: I had some support from my surf sponsors and I applied for my own grants for science research based around surfing and groups found that interesting. It has just evolved and the recent mapping project was a great example of how the surf and science have come together and my career has blossomed. 

Cliff and his tech tools of the trade. Photo by Todd Glasser/Reef

WL: And what type of scientist are you?

CK: People assume I’m a marine biologist or a conservationist, given my ocean-based work, but my training is in chemistry, chemical analysis, bio-engineering, therapeutics, and biotech. I’m very technologically focused in my formal science education, and I’m trying to apply to that surfing. I think that hasn’t been explored enough. I’m a surfer who is mainly trying to champion scientific literacy. I want to talk science and not have anyone alienated. I think we can all be better off in the surf and society if we can be comfortable with science. 

WL: As a concrete example, how will the mapping project help both surfers and society?

CK: We wanted to create a scientific, industry-standard map of such high quality that it can be used in a court of law or an institutional atmosphere. The community could use the map and the imagery if it is threatened, or to prove its resilience. For a reef, it may be the first time the users and community have ever seen it. Sure they know the winds and the tides, and the way the water moves, but this provides hard high-quality evidence. So if anyone wants to fuck with it, people can identify any changes. We see it as a tool that can empower communities to monitor their reefs and so they can take even more pride in what they are custodians of. 

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