Are wave pools hurting the culture of surfing?

For over 200 years, surfing has been known as an ocean sport, something that involves grace, coordination, and has an element of danger. However, with new technologies allowing surfing to happen miles away from the ocean, is the element of danger gone?


11-time surfing champion Kelly Slater riding in a competition at his surf ranch. Photo Credit: RicoSurf on Flickr

For those who are unfamiliar with surfing wave pools, they are what they sound like, pools filled with water that create artificial waves.  There are many different techniques for creating these waves, and for around 30 years, people have been attempting to create ocean-like conditions in a pool. However, developing these technologies has been a struggle, with wave pools turning out to be just machines that would create sloppy waves that were barely rideable. These types of wave pools are similar to the machines that you see and ride on at your local water park. Through the years, technology has allowed progressions to be made to the advancement of wave-creating machinery, and the possibility of creating ocean-like experiences was researched heavily by engineers and surfers alike.

The first person to really craft the perfect artificial wave was the 11-time surfing World Champion Kelly Slater, and his company Kelly Slater Wave Co.  Immediately, Slater’s pool caught the eyes of surf enthusiasts around the globe. The reason his pool drew so much attention was due to the fact that it created ocean-like barrels, and did so consistently. There is a problem though. Admission to the pool is very limited, and almost impossible to surf for the general public unless you are willing to pay a heavy price. Whereas, the ocean is free and although it may be slightly crowded on occasion, it isn’t limited to a 700-yard pool.

However appealing these waves may be, they are unnatural and have to be controlled by a machine, bringing up the question, are wave pools hurting the culture of surfing?

Surfing has historically occurred anywhere that there are waves and an ocean. Surfing on natural waves means that every wave is unique, however, coming with that also means that every wave has the potential of being very dangerous. Over recent surfing history, there have been over 25 deaths relating to surfing mishaps. A majority of these deaths have occurred at two of surfing most popular breaks: Mavericks in California and Pipeline in Hawaii.

There are many dangers to surfing big wave breaks, but the most frequent cause of death is because of shallow reefs that are present. A potential drop from a wipeout can be over 10 feet, combined with shallow reefs makes for a deadly combination. However, it is at Pipeline or Mavericks where you could potentially get the best wave of your life! Another reason that many surfing-related deaths are from hold downs. Hold downs occur when a set of waves come, and a surfer is held underwater for several seconds, if not minutes at a time. Another risk that occurs at some breaks would be shark attacks.

Fanning Shark attack

Shark attack on Mick Fanning in 2015 J-Bay competition. Photo Credit: Melvin A on Flickr

Although these are generally rare, it is well known that surfers can be attacked by sharks at any point, but one that stands out to most would probably be the attack on Mick Fanning at Jeffrey’s Bay in 2015.


Surfing the break, Via Wikimedia Commons

Most of these dangers would be completely erased when riding in the wave pool, and that isn’t a bad thing at all.  After all, surfing, in my mind, has always been about having fun and trying new things in the water, not about worrying what dangers you face when riding a wave. I don’t see why the wave pool hinders the ability to do that, I think that it actually enhances it. With less of a possibility of getting seriously injured, the level of creativity and overall fun may also be increased with the pool. With that being said,  I also know that it will never take away ocean surfing, and that surfing the ocean will likely always be more popular. I say this because in my view, breaks like Pipeline and Mavericks will never be able to be simulated by computers or machines.

After examination, I don’t believe that wave pools are hurting the sport or culture of surfing at all. With the expanding audience and overall popularity of surfing, along with its addition to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, I think the wave pool is a very interesting addition to the sport. I see it as something that gives access to surfing to people who don’t live near the ocean and who want to try it out. I believe that wave pools are helping the sport broaden it’s horizons and allowing surfers to improve their craft and attempt things that have never been done before.


Tommy Stinson, Senior

Tommy Stinson is a senior and a member of the Multimedia Journalism class.

Categories: Opinions

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