US & World

Scientists, surfers pursue rogue waves

Noah Johnson rides a wave during the first round of the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau Competition big wave surfing contest on Dec. 8, 2009 in Waimea, Hawaii. Thousands of spectators and surfers flocked to Hawaii's beaches to see some of the largest waves in the state in half a decade. Forecasters predicted waves could reach heights of 50 feet.
Noah Johnson rides a wave during the first round of the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau Competition big wave surfing contest on Dec. 8, 2009 in Waimea, Hawaii. Thousands of spectators and surfers flocked to Hawaii's beaches to see some of the largest waves in the state in half a decade. Forecasters predicted waves could reach heights of 50 feet.
Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

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Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world, the Beach Boys sang.

It sounds so harmless, but for centuries sailors have told tales of giant waves, 100 feet high or more, coming seemingly from nowhere and swallowing ships.

Scientists have been skeptical, but in the past few decades, a startling number of ships have reportedly been destroyed by these "rogue waves."

Larry Mantle talked with Susan Casey about her new book “The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean,” which interweaves extreme sport with science and maritime history.

“As far back as all nautical lore you can find stories of the hole in the ocean or the Three Sisters. These waves, freaks that came out of nowhere,” said Casey, who also serves as editor-in-chief of Oprah’s O magazine.

“If you talk to any sailor, they will have a rogue wave story."

These terrifying waves aren’t what you see crashing off the coast, but are two to four times as high as the sea around them. It wasn’t until 1995 when an 85-foot wave hit an oil platform, said Casey, that scientists started to accept that even in non-stormy weather, 100-foot waves could form in 35-foot seas.

“When you get steep seas, you’re farther away from equilibrium and you can get a wave that sort of pirates the energy of the waves around it and can build itself up by stealing this energy into, what I write in the book, as a teetering monster. And it’s very unstable. It’s a wave that could have a number of different breaking parts on it,” explained Casey. “Its not your typical beautiful rolling wave. It’s really a mutant.”

Predicting these waves is no easy task, even with knowing the kinds of currents and water temperatures that can cause monster waves. There are places, such as the southeast coast of Africa and the North Sea in winter, that rogue waves are known to appear, said Casey.

“But there are also conditions under which they form that can’t really be explained,” she said. “They might form in a place where you wouldn’t be expecting them.”

Scientists, notes Casey, are working on fine-tuning their predictions using light physics, because the wave is behaving more like a particle than a typical swell.

It’s not just scientists tracking massive waves, though. There is also small tribe of extreme surfers who double as amateur meteorologists in search of what Casey calls the “magenta blob,” a distinctive color on a weather map that surfers track in hopes of conquering the holy grail of their sport: a 100 foot or taller rogue wave.

One of the best known of these thrillseekers is legendary surfer Laird Hamilton, who’s at the center of Casey’s book. Hamilton pioneered jet skiing into these mammoth offshore swells.

In what Casey calls an expensive global scavenger hunt, Hamilton and his friends are more than surfers. What they do, she said, is incredibly precise and dangerous – injuries range from split lips to torn wetsuits, dislocated shoulders, broken bones and even death.

“These guys are to surfers what astronauts are to pilots,” said Casey. “They’re really doing something very different. I don’t even know if you even call it a sport. You might call it an expedition. Or a feat of some kind.”