World’s Most Dangerous Reefs

World's Most Dangerous Reefs

Magician David Blaine once said, “Mark Twain once said, If you have to eat a frog, do it first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”  

How’s that for some inception? He said, she said, they said…

David Blaine mutters this to Joe Rogan, who sits across from him, intently gazing down at a frog in a jar.  

Blaine is busy chugging bottles of water.  Once he has a gallon of water in his belly he’s going to swallow the frog in the jar whole then bring it back up, still alive.  

We learn that it’s a trick fashioned after an old vaudeville performer nicknamed The Human Aquarium.  The man’s real name was Hadji Ali.  He used to swallow all sorts of things then elegantly – if you can say that – wrench them back up his esophagus for audiences around the world.  

The Human Aquarium
The Human Aquarium spitting up kerosene for a happy crowd.

That was his schtick, controlled regurgitation.  

Sometimes it’s also mine when I think of the state of the WSL and its Oklahoman leadership.

The Human Aquarium is one of David Blaine’s favorite tricksters, and as such Blaine has mastered this revolting but tantalizing skill set. 

In between bottles of water emptying into his gut, the magician stops and asks if he can read one of his favorite passages from James Nestor’s book Deep.  

It’s about coral.

The clip of him reading said passage has recently gone viral for one algorithmic reason or another, and it found its way into my trough of internet-garbage I inhale regularly.

This interview is actually from 2020, and it is isn’t garbage. It’s fascinating.

The two of them talk about all sorts of things. Breathing techniques. Steve Irwin. Hypoxia. Driving needles through biceps. Being buried alive. Frogs…

The usual.

David’s favorite passage from the book is about the way in which different species of coral telepathically communicate to spawn in synchronicity at the exact same time each year. No matter how much distance between them, they let their seeds and eggs and everything else they’ve got release at the exact same time, regardless of prior commitments or squabbles or outstanding debts. They still find the time.


Here’s the clip: 

“If you broke off a chunk of coral and placed it in a bucket beneath a sink in London that chunk would, in most cases, spawn at the same time as other coral of the same species around the world.” 

That is crazy, David Blaine.

So how does the coral do it?

In 2020, the year the interview aired, we had no idea.

Since then, little progress by way of explaining this supernatural phenomenon has been made.

Alas, progress.

One interesting theory has emerged from a study at South Florida University.  Through a series of tests, they’re convinced that coral communicates through sound.  

They ‘talk’ to each other.  

Can I get a HELL YEA!?

It’s actually not such a far stretch when you think about it. Coral are not entirely unlike land plants.

And land plants, the chatty things they are, are able to communicate through ultrasonic sounds via their roots – as well as with gasses and pheromones through their leaves and chemical signals through vast fungal networks below the dirt, among others.

There’s one amusing quip about trees communicating on the “wood-wide web”.

Get it? It’s funny.

Researchers at South Florida University found evidence of four genes in coral that may be used for sound emission or reception in sea anemones and freshwater polyps. 

It’s like I’ve always said, sea anemones are the ears of the ocean. And to think, you’ve been going around sticking your big toes and fingers in its ears like that.

Still, the data and research are inconclusive (and I’ve never said that about sea anemones), but while these aquanauts continue to try to uncover the secrets behind some of these more mystical marine riddles, I’m still stuck on the coral. 

Pun very much intended.

Coral reefs make up such an important part of surfing.  They feed us.  They give us waves. 

Reefs are the foundation for many of the most highly regarded waves on the planet.  Also the most dangerous.

I’ve seen the end result, the wave itself, but rarely have I seen what’s beneath the surface.

I want to peak behind the curtain.

Pull back the veil.

See how the sausage is made.  

What do the actual reefs that give us these magnificent waves look like?  

In many cases, I don’t know.  

Let’s have a look, shall we?


Teahupo’o’s warped slab is a product of two things: the unique shape of the shallow coral reef that it breaks on, and the sudden change in bathymetry.

Bathymetry is the measure of depth of water in oceans, seas, and lakes.

For Teahupo’o its change in water depth swerves abruptly from deep to shallow.

As powerful deepwater swells slam up against the coral shelf, a huge amount swell traveling underwater is stopped and diverted upwards. In an instant the very top part of the swell nearest the surface doubles, triples, quadruples in size and folds over itself in a fury of mutant water.

For this reason, the lip of the wave at Teahupo’o is often as tall as the height of the wave itself.

The sudden change in depth and thrust of water makes this wave an oddity of freakish measures.

The crescent-shaped reef that helps create this wave and gives it its warped, curved aesthetic must be a broken, jagged, craggy demon from the depths below.


It’s actually quite normal. Quite beautiful. Here it is:

The Reef at Teahupo'o

From below it looks rather peaceful, doesn’t it?

Teahupo'o Graphic

Here’s what happens when a swell slams into the coral shelf and jacks up onto the shallow reef.

Below the Surface at Teahupo'o

One distinguishing feature of the coral reef at Teahupo’o is its mass and solidity. To have that much brute force breaking on such a shallow reef time and time again, yet remain in one piece, tells you what kind of structure it is.

Underwater Chaos at Teahupo'o
Brian Bielman

Here, from underwater, we can see the sheer volume of water that follows the breaking lip. When it crashes in the flats of the shallow reef, the combustion creates an intense sucking vortex that is difficult to escape.

Like the sea anemone.

Below Sea Level

Another great angle of the bottom falling out. Here we also get a wonderful look at the curvature of the mutant, which reflects the crescent shape of the reef.

Small Teahupo'o

Here’s what it looks like when even a small amount of water meets the coral reef shelf. Where the whitewater and smaller waves meet marks the curved, downward-sloping edge of the reef.

You can clearly see the crescent outline of the reef by following the line of whitewater.

Scary Teahupo'o

Another view once the swell hits the reef, jacks up, and folds over itself.

Aerial View of Teahupo'o

An aerial view. Everything looks so tranquil from above.

Understanding the technical mechanics and wide net of swell directions that work at Teahupo’o.

Here’s another explainer with the soothing voice of Joe Turpel.

Next up:


“It picks you up and just slams you down and that reef is so hard. It feels like you’re hitting a sharp sidewalk.”

– Taylor Knox

The second wave on our list is second to none. It’s the ultimate proving grounds for every professional surfer. It’s also the deadliest, killing more people than any other wave on the planet.

This is due to a combination of factors including the crowds, who flock to the wave like the salmon of Capistrano when it’s on, and the sharp shallow reef below filled with ledges and holes and so many channels that you might think you’re buying a premium cable package.

This premium cable package definitely includes the nudie stations because the reef at Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu claims its fair share of flesh each year.

Kelly Slater Paying the Flesh Toll
Kelly Slater

But what does it look like?

Pipeline is actually a large network of reefs with multiple waves depending on size, direction, and period of the swell.

The outermost reefs have a curvature to them, which refracts swell energy on each side, funneling the energy into one small focal point with a shallow reef roughly 60 yards from shore.

This focal point is known as First Reef and produces the hollow, left-breaking wave that you will know as Pipeline.

On certain swells it also has a wily right-hander cousin that goes by the name Backdoor.

If you’ve got a cousin named Backdoor, you know things might get weird quickly.

And that goes doubly for Pipeline.

The network of reefs have a stair-step topography to them. This means that the outer reefs are the deepest, with each proceeding reef becoming shallower as we move closer to the shore.

There are three main reefs and they are named perfectly: Third Reef, Second Reef, and First Reef.


In the graphic above we see where the the swells gather energy as they refract inward at Outer Log Cabins and just beyond Third Reef, then race up the staircase of Third and Second Reef, building until they hit First Reef and break, churning out the most perfect hollow wave you’ve ever seen 60 yards from shore.

You feel like you can almost reach out and touch it.

It’s the perfect arena.

It’s mesmerizing, as well as an illusion because it almost seems friendly. It’s not. It’s mean.

When all that water and swell and energy are pushed that close to shore it’s creates a blender of chaos. There’s so much power in such a small focused area that Pipeline makes mince meat of even the most seasoned pros.

As for the reef itself, it’s a combination of lava rock, limestone, and razor-sharp coral.

First Reef possesses many grooves and hiccups and bumps and ledges and corners and holes and caves and dips and dives and knuckles that will maim you if you’re not careful, which it’s nearly impossible to be.

Let’s take a peak!

Below the Surface at Pipeline
Sean Davey

Here we have a clear look at some of the grooves and sharp ledges of First Reef. When a wave approaches, water is sucked out to sea, bringing this death trap even closer to the surface. Or, rather, the surface closer to this death trap.

When a wave breaks on First Reef there’s almost always more water above you than below you, which is a terrifying thought.

Aerial of Pipeline
Sean Davey

A look at the reef on a calm day.

On a flat day, if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you would most likely miss Pipeline completely.

Here’s some underwater footage of First Reef. It’s hard to imagine surfing over such treacherous, hidden terrain in huge barreling surf.

Third Reef Pipeline
John Steele

This is a great example of how a swell travels through the different reefs.

We see proper hollow Pipeline in the foreground at First Reef, while in the background we see a big monster breaking on Third Reef.

When it gets big enough, and breaks like that at Third Reef, it often completely washes out over Second and First Reef.

This looks like the beginning of a set. First Reef is handling it nicely so far, but there could be trouble coming for everyone in the lineup.

Still, even if they get cleaned up, they’ll paddle right back to their spots and wait for another.

The perfection of Pipeline is addicting.

This footage shows beautifully the movement of water as waves break over the reef. Even on a small day you can see the power.

Here’s a great video of the mechanics of Pipeline. It touches more on what kind of swells work best there, but it also gives us perspective on the bathymetry of the reef and the remoteness of the islands.

Here’s Jamie O’brien absolutely psyching to surf his home break. Check out the heavily padded wetsuit that he wears to protect himself from the reef. Still not enough.

We’ll end with a not so subtle reminder of how dangerous Pipeline can be. Here’s Evan Geiselman getting knocked unconscious and being saved by bodyboarder Andre Botha.

When someone asks you about the beef between bodyboarders and surfers just show them this video.


The last stop on our tour brings us to Half Moon Bay in Northern California.

About an hour south of San Francisco’s tech basin, nestled in the heart of the shark-riddled waters of the Red Triangle lies the cold-hearted behemoth, Mavericks.

Most of the year, Mavericks lays dormant and sleepy. It’s an idyllic place to frolic in the tide pools and lounge on the beach during warm spring days, until the water gets cold enough to stir it from its slumber.

During the harsh and windy winter months it rears its angry head and puts on a twisted show.

Known for its incredible power, cold water, and nasty rock reef, Mavericks was not surfed until as recent as 1975 by a man named Jeff Clark.

The rock reef begins over a mile off-shore, gradually winding its way towards Pillar Point Harbor. The reef possesses a peculiar swirling nature to it, chiseled out after millions of years of erosion. The swirling effect draws passing swells into its gurgling witch’s brew, stirring it towards the shallowest portion of its reef.

As the swell is pushed to its breaking point, both sides of the reef drop off. With deep water troughs on each side, theres a magnification towards the still-remaining finger reef. The swell is molded into the shape of a V, which is what gives Mavericks its distinct frame.

Finally, the elements are all aligned and the wave pitches over.

To successfully the ride the wave you need a grown horse’s amount of speed to outrun the throwing lip, then to race down the line and into the deep channel.

If you fall on the take-off, you’re likely to be swept into a series of murderous rock configurations known as the Cauldron. If you find yourself there, it’ll be for an extended two-wave stay at least.

Mavericks only breaks on longer period swells with enough wind to blow Dorothy back to Kansas, which often means sets with 10+ waves.

What do you say we have a looksie at this beauty?

Here’s a look at what the actual reef looks like beneath the cold, murky waters. It’s not great footage, meant more for scientific purposes rather than our viewing pleasure, but it gives you an idea of what it’s like down there.

There are caves and holes and trenches and ledges. It feels as though at any moment a creature from the deep might lurch out and bite and your head off.

Funny enough, with waves like the one pictured below, creatures from the deep are the furthest thing from your mind.

Mavericks Pitching
Billy Watts

The picture above gives a wonderful visual of the V-shaped wavefront that forms when each side of the reef drops off, channeling the energy of the swell towards a single point. The very tip of the lip represents the bottom of the V.

Mavericks from Above Reef
Billy Watts

Here’s another angle of the V or perhaps more accurately called a U. To catch and ride a wave like this at Main Break, also called the Corner, the speed you’ll need is Kentuckian.

Wave Convergence over Reef

Swell Path over Reefs

The maps and illustrations above give us clear insight into how the swell path and convergence of energy play with the bathymetry to create these violent, haunting waves.

Full Scene at Mavericks Reef
Kenan Chan

The photo above shows the full scene at Mavericks. In the foreground we have the calm Pillar Point Harbor, then the lagoon, the Boneyard, Sail Rock, and the Cauldron just in front of that. Beyond there, where the wave is breaking, is the Corner or Main Break.

There’s another break further out than the Corner that only plays on giant swells. It’s called the Outer Bowl, but it’s a finicky beast and rarely allows for visitors.

Two angles of Main Break Mavericks Reef
Emlyn Stokes, Rob Calla

Here’s two other angles of Main Break and the full scene at Mavericks.

Side Angle Mavericks
Jeremiah Klein

Side view of Main Break. A good angle to see the close proximity of the channel and the wave, a clear demonstration of how the reef drops off on either side.

For good measure, we’ll top this one off with a video of Ian Walsh describing the brutal beating a person takes when they fall on giant wave at Mavericks. Toes touching the back of your heard and your elbows tapping behind your shoulder blades like your made of rubber.

Fun fact, Ian Walsh and I have the same back doctor, Dr. Bray of DISC Sports and Spine Center. I think the good Doctor did a pretty good job if Ian is able to remain in one piece after a lashing like this.

That’s all for now. Look for Part II soon.

Father, surfer, poet.


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