Artificial surf reefs: they can create a barreling wave out of nothing, but not all proved to be successful | Photo: Red Bull

The world's first attempt to build an efficient artificial surfing reef took place in 1971.

Unfortunately, despite the several projects built since then, there were only a couple of structures successfully generating good, rideable waves.

An artificial surfing reef is a man-made structure placed on the seabed designed to enhance wave characteristics, making the waves more suitable for surfing.

The primary goal is to improve the breaking of the wave so that it becomes better for surfing, either by increasing the wave height, lengthening the ride, or improving wave shape.

Artificial reefs can be made from various materials, including sandbags, geotextile containers, concrete, and other engineered materials.

Their design and placement are crucial and typically require a thorough understanding of oceanography, coastal engineering, and wave dynamics to ensure that the wave's quality is improved without causing adverse effects on coastal processes or marine ecosystems.

The concept also stems from the need to protect coastlines from erosion, restore marine habitats, and create new recreational opportunities in areas where natural wave conditions are poor.

Despite the potential benefits, the construction of artificial surfing reefs can be complex, expensive, and controversial, with varied success in different projects worldwide.

Two Success Stories

Burkitts Reef, Bargara, Queensland, Australia

Burkitt's Reef is an example of an artificial surf reef, which has been modified from its natural state to improve the quality and consistency of the waves for surfing purposes.

The idea, spearheaded by Greg Redgard of the Bargara Boardriders Association, was born from a vision to transform the hazardous and boulder-strewn right-hand point break into a smooth, peeling wave, with the added bonus of occasional barrels.

Despite initial government reluctance, Greg's persistence, backed by strong community lobbying, eventually won approval for the renovations.

The objective was clear, but the approach was grounded in simplicity; rather than relying on sophisticated design techniques, the project was guided by the practical wisdom and surf-savvy insights of Greg and a few volunteers.

The actual construction was a brisk affair, taking just two days in February 1997, where a large Kobelco hydraulic excavator took advantage of the low tide to break down and reposition at least 12 large boulders.

These efforts smoothed out the underwater terrain, reducing the surface irregularity that had previously disrupted the break.

While the exact volume of rock moved wasn't recorded, estimates suggested about 300 cubic meters were repositioned.

The tidal conditions, with swings up to 2.5 meters, were a boon, easing the labor of the renovation.

All this was achieved with a modest budget of about $10,000 AUD; a sum cobbled together from Redgard, the local boardriders association, and regional businesses.

The fruits of this labor were clear and tangible - there was a clear improvement in the wave's quality post-renovation.

The wave, when it came in at the right angle and tide, presented a consistently peeling face that surfers could relish, and the spot's safety improved dramatically with the elimination of boulders and shallow hazards.

The number of surfable days jumped from a mere handful to roughly 30 per year, with the wave reaching overhead heights on occasion, about four times annually.


Neilson's Park Reef, Bargara, Queensland, Australia (2008)

Neilson's Park Reef, commonly referred to as Neilson's, is a crafted surfing haven born from the vision to elevate the surf experience.

This man-made wonder was once a rugged area known as "Boneyards," notorious for its exposed boulders that posed a challenge to the local surfing community.

In a transformative effort led by Keith Drinkwater, the then-president of the Pacifique Boardriders Association, this patch of ocean underwent a dramatic makeover.

With the might of a hydraulic excavator and the precision of a surgeon, over the course of two days at low tide in 2008, the troublesome rocks were shifted, forever altering the seascape.

What's remarkable about Neilson's transformation is the absence of any documented plans or approvals - no paper trail, no bureaucratic stamps, just pure, on-the-ground action.

The local surfers, who once eyed the spot with caution, now hail the changes as a resounding success.

The waves, once unruly and erratic, now break with a smoother face and a more reliable form, inviting surfers to their improved playground.

Before the boulders were relocated, Neilson's was a high-tide-only affair, the lurking rocks beneath the surface keeping surfers at bay until the water rose.

Post-renovation, a new reality emerged; the wave could be ridden even at lower tides, stretching the surfable hours and, indeed, days within a year.

With the menacing boulders out of the picture, the reef transformed not only in shape but in spirit, becoming a safer domain for surf enthusiasts.

Once dissected by hazardous rocks, Neilson's lineup now invites surfers to carve through the water, less fraught by the peril of what lies beneath.


Below Average and Failed Projects

The following artificial surfing reefs failed to deliver the goods in one way or another.

Hoppy's Reef, Hermosa Beach, California (1971)

Hoppy's Reef, conceived in April 1971 off Hermosa Beach, California, was an early, innovative attempt to shape surfable waves through an artificial reef.

Named after the pioneering Lewis Earl "Hoppy" Swarts, a key figure in organized surfing, the project was a communal effort documented by Swarts's close surf photographer friend Leroy Grannis, with physical aid from Phil and Merlin Olsen of the LA Rams.

Located just two blocks north of the Redondo Beach breakwater, about 100 yards from the shoreline, Hoppy's Reef was engineered to sculpt the ocean floor to improve wave quality.

The construction involved nylon bags, each measuring approximately 8 feet in length and 4 feet in diameter.

These bags, initially empty, were transported by boat to the installation site, where they were then filled with sand pumped from the ocean bottom.

Despite the team's ambitions and hard work, the reef did not produce the desired surfable waves and eventually disappeared into the ocean's sandy floor.


Cable Station Reef, Perth, Australia (1999)

Established in 1999, this reef was hailed as a pioneering structure, one of the earliest of its kind, purposefully designed to enhance surfing conditions.

Surfers have delivered a mixed verdict on Cable Station Reef.

The quality of the wave, when it does break, has garnered praise for its form and potential for exhilarating rides.

However, the reef's Achilles' heel has been its inconsistent nature; optimal surfing conditions are reportedly infrequent, occurring only several times per month, though some assessments suggest there are up to 150 days per year with rideable waves.

The ambition behind Cable Station Reef was to introduce a dependable surfing locale near Perth, offering symmetrical waves with left and right breaks and the idyllic barreling waves coveted by surfers.

This vision was driven by the Perth Artificial Surfing Reef Committee, which mandated that the reef should accommodate swell sizes from 0.5 meters to 3.5 meters with a peel angle of approximately 45º - ideal for intermediate surfers.

The journey to realize this project began in 1988 with comprehensive evaluations of Perth's surf spots to pinpoint the optimal location for the reef.

With further momentum, the initiative gained financial and conceptual traction.

Financial backing for engineering assessments and early design stages was provided by the Western Australia Ministry of Sport and Recreation, with studies being conducted by the Department of Marine and Harbours and the University of Western Australia, supported by private engineering firms.

In 1994, the expertise of coastal and construction engineers was solicited, leading to a detailed report to the WA government outlining site selection, design specifics, construction methods, and potential environmental impacts.

After a series of studies, a final design was selected.

The reef's blueprint featured a structure 140 meters in length, with a maximum width of 70 meters.

Positioned about 275 meters from the shore in waters of 3 to 6 meters depth, the reef's crest was intended to be submerged 1 to 3 meters below the surface at average tide levels.

Construction was initiated in February 1999, reaching near completion by May, and finalized in December of the same year.

The construction utilized over 10,000 tons of quarried granite boulders, some measuring up to 3 meters across.

WA Limestone, the principal construction company, implemented a cyclical process of transporting and positioning the boulders atop a limestone bedrock substrate, which prevented sinking and negated the need for sand cover - a realization that led to an extension of the reef's southern end.

The endeavor had a budget of approximately $2 million AUD, underwritten by the Western Australia Department of Sport and Recreation.

The post-construction phase of Cable Station Reef saw its wave quality rarely come into question.

Stacey Bancroft's study in 1999 confirmed that the reef's peel angles closely matched the intended design.

Under favorable conditions, the reef offered steep faces for an array of surfing maneuvers and occasional barrel opportunities.

Nevertheless, the reef's infrequent delivery of surfable conditions has been a point of contention.

While initial interest inflated the number of surfing days, local surfers suggest that waves below chest height fail to break effectively on the reef, contradicting the design objective.

A 2009 evaluation identified that both the depth of the reef and its location - shielded from prevalent south swells by Rottnest Island and other outer reefs - were critical factors affecting wave consistency.

Adjustments were proposed to increase consistency, such as making the reef shallower and extending its nose seaward.

The robustness of the granite construction has stood the test of time, faring better than some geotextile-based alternatives.

Nonetheless, access to the site has instigated dune erosion as surfers trek across the cliff face to reach the break.

On a brighter note, the reef has witnessed significant biological recolonization and activity, suggesting ecological benefits beyond its recreational value.


Narrowneck Reef, Gold Coast, Queensland (1999)

Narrowneck Reef: the 20-meter long and 4.80-meter wide geotextile sand bags used to build the artificial surf reef in the Gold Coast | Photo: Müller/Saathoff

Birthed from the sands in 1999, this artificial construct sprawls across 70,000 cubic meters, claiming the crown as the largest multi-purpose reef to date.

Narrowneck itself is a slender stretch of land, measuring a mere 100 meters across.

The reef's raison d'être was to act as a bulwark against the ocean's forces, fostering the accumulation of sand on the beach to widen the isthmus, thereby shielding inland structures from the wrath of the sea.

Its blueprint was the brainchild of International Coastal Management (ICM), working alongside a cadre of specialist consultants.

The early stages of design saw Professor Kerry Black and his students from the University of Waikato pioneering wave modeling with tools like WBEND and Bousinesq wave modeling in Model 3DD before Black's transition to the private sector with ASR Ltd.

Physical models at a 1:50 scale were meticulously crafted by the Water Research Lab at the University of New South Wales, allowing researchers to simulate and scrutinize the reef's influence on waves and shorelines.

In pursuit of the secondary goal of upgrading the surfing experience, the initial V-shaped reef design was modified due to safety concerns about strong currents.

A split-V configuration was adopted, alongside an extension of the north arm, to ameliorate the groin effect and cast a broader protective "shadow."

Safety apprehensions also led to a pivotal design tweak, lowering the depth of the reef by one meter just before its construction.

This adjustment left the reef's crest 1.5 meters beneath the low tide mark.

The novel construction utilized approximately 400 geotextile bags, each spanning up to 20 meters in length and filled with sand, to forge the reef.

The majority of these bags were emplaced in 1999 and 2000, with subsequent "top-ups" to rectify bag displacements and damage.

The cost over the initial decade reached roughly $2.1 million AUD.

Yet as the years wore on, the reef sank deeper into the seabed, and damage to the bags compromised its integrity.

By 2017, the reef's restoration was imperative, and the Gold Coast City Council acted, installing 84 new bags to resurrect the reef's crest to its intended depth.

The refurbishment, led by McQuade Marin No 2 Ltd., with design and project management by ICM and physical modeling by the Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation (DSITI), mirrored the original construction cost.

In 2010, a study by Angus Jackson, Bobbie Corbett, and Timothy Evans from ICM noted that the reef did indeed deliver better surfing conditions, with waves breaking at heights of 0.7 to 2.0 meters approximately 50 percent of the time.

GPS tracking indicated rides spanning 150 to 200 meters, with durations up to a minute, though more recent evidence suggests a dip in ride quality and frequency.

The University of New South Wales Water Research Laboratory pointed out that Narrowneck initially fulfilled its purpose by cultivating a broader beach behind the reef, about 20 meters wider compared to unaffected areas.

A decade-long review by Jackson, Corbett, and Evans echoed this observation, noting a conspicuous wider beach and a visible salient forming in the lee of the reef.

However, the most recent data does not exhibit a pronounced salient.

The city's analysis indicates that the reef continues to bolster offshore sand volumes, a factor that the 2018 renewal sought to enhance, aiming for increased sand on the offshore bars rather than the upper beach.


Pratte's Reef, Los Angeles, California (2000)

At the dawn of the new millennium, off the shores of El Segundo and El Porto, California, an ambitious project took shape beneath the waves: Pratte's Reef, named after a dedicated environmentalist and surfer, Tom Pratte.

This artificial surf reef was envisioned as a remedy to a surf community's woes, a bold foray into engineering that sought to turn the tide of nature itself.

However, the project's outcomes were mixed, providing both cautionary insights and a testament to the value placed on recreational marine environments.

The narrative of Pratte's Reef is intertwined with industrial interventions on the Californian coast.

In 1984, the energy giant Chevron constructed a 900-foot jetty to safeguard its El Segundo refinery from the relentless encroachment of the sea.

This structure was also meant to protect the pipelines feeding the company's oil tankers.

Yet, this solution to one problem inadvertently spawned another: it disrupted the natural surf that the local surfing community treasured.

Enter Tom Pratte, an environmental steward whose involvement in the project's permitting process yielded a significant clause: the requirement for Chevron to monitor and, if necessary, rectify any negative impacts on the surf conditions.

Pratte's extensive research led the California Coastal Commission to acknowledge in 1990 that the jetty had indeed altered the local waves, particularly diminishing the surf at Grand Avenue.

After prolonged deliberations, a consensus was reached in 1998.

Chevron, the Coastal Commission, and the Surfrider Foundation agreed to the creation of an artificial surf reef.

This groundbreaking project would be partially funded by Chevron to the tune of $300,000.

Skelly Engineering, the firm tasked with the reef's design, crafted it in a V shape, aligning its arms at a 45-degree angle relative to the predominant swell direction.

From the sandy sea floor, the structure would rise, peaking just a meter below sea level at low tide and positioned approximately 100 meters from the beach.

The reef was to be fashioned from geotextile bags filled with local sand.

These bags, albeit smaller than those typically employed in similar marine constructions, were deemed apt for safety and budgetary reasons.

The final design called for an initial setup of 110 bags, each weighing in at a hefty 14 tons.

Skelly Engineering carried out the construction in the summer of 2000, only to watch their efforts seemingly vanish beneath the seasonal offshore migration of sand during the winter swells.

It soon became apparent that the reef required augmentation to achieve its intended effects.

Additional funding of $250,000 was sourced, allowing for the placement of 90 more bags in April 2001.

Despite the added volume, Pratte's Reef seldom produced the quality of surf it was designed to enhance.

Some surfers claimed it delivered "epic" conditions a handful of times per year, but such instances were the exception rather than the rule.

Dr. Jose Borrero and Chad Nelsen, who meticulously monitored the reef, observed only a solitary surfer braving the waves over several months in 2001.

With the arrival of the winter swells in January 2002, the project's fragility was laid bare: the geotextile bags succumbed to the pounding surf, disintegrating into the sand below.

Borrero concluded that the reef's modest size and proximity to shore were its undoing.

When compared to other artificial reefs, such as the 6000 cubic meter Mount Reef or the vastly larger Wedge in Newport Beach, Pratte's Reef was simply too small to be effective.

Beyond size, other issues plagued the reef. Diving surveys reported the bags had shifted, submerged, and were shrouded in sand.

The black polypropylene bags were also deteriorating.

A decade was the window given to Surfrider to establish a functioning reef that could compensate for the surfing conditions lost due to the jetty.

However, considering the potential hazards posed by the decaying structure, the decision was made to dismantle Pratte's Reef.

An anonymous $300,000 donation funded the removal, executed by the Coastal Frontiers Corporation.

A team of divers carefully emptied the bags of sand underwater and retrieved the geotextile material, concluding the task in 2010.

Tom Pratte, who sadly passed before the reef's completion in 1995, left a legacy of environmental advocacy and the pioneering recognition of surfable waves as a valuable natural resource worth preserving.

Despite the reef's physical failure, its conceptual success was marked by the unprecedented collaboration of 23 regulatory agencies and the acknowledgment by the Coastal Commission of the significance of surfing conditions.

For those interested in diving deeper into the story of Pratte's Reef, a documentary by Kurt Schaefer provides a rich historical account and compelling visuals of this fascinating chapter in the quest to reconcile human desires with the forces of nature.


Opunake Reef, North Island, New Zealand (2006)

Opunake Surf Reef is a failed artificial surf reef on the North Island of New Zealand.

It was designed and constructed by Kerry Black and his colleagues at ASR Ltd., the same company behind the Boscombe, Narrowneck, and others.

Unfortunately, the Opunake surf reef never produced waves.

Research prior to the design of the reef indicated that there are surfable waves in the Opunake area one out of eight days, on average.

The artificial surfing reef was designed to increase the frequency of good surfing days by providing one good day out of every three days, on average.

With more frequent good surf, Opunake and south Taranaki hoped to draw more visitors and create jobs.

ASR examined the sea floor at Opunake and combined this with data from world-class surf breaks around the world to come up with the design for the reef.

The reef was designed to create a right-hand wave on the north side of the cove at Opunake Beach.

According to National Geographic, the reef was supposed to produce waves measuring 1.8-2.5m high on the face of the wave.

The wave was designed to be ridden for 100 meters.

The designs were tested in a small-scale wave pool at the ASR facility in Raglan to help ensure they would perform as designed.

To create the wave, ASR planned to use geotextile bags filled with sand. The bags would cover an area around 90 meters long and 20 meters wide.

To construct the reef, the South Taranaki District Council allocated $1.1 million to the project.

Construction started in 2006, and Black believed that it could be completed in two months. However, the project was plagued with multiple delays.

In 2009, reported that all 27 geotextile bags were in place, and only "fine-tuning" was required.

The fine-tuning included filling some bags with additional sand and filling in some gaps between the bags.

Neil Walker, acting chairman of the Opunake Artificial Surf Reef Trust, told Stuff that the wave was "already breaking on a couple of points."

The amount of money spent had exceeded $1.7 million at this point, and the Trust was looking for $400,000 more to finance the tuning.

Around that same time, just prior to Sealutions LLC buying out ASR, Dr. Mead met with the South Taranaki District Council Mayor and discussed how to complete the reef using rock on top of the geo-containers (as is often used with the mega-containers today), with an estimated cost of $150,000.

During negotiations on the majority sale of ASR, Sealutions (Nick Behunin and Chris Jensen) agreed to put $150,000 aside during the sale to complete Opunake Reef.

According to the plan, once complete, the council would pay back the funds. Sealutions reneged on its commitment to provide the $150,000.

In 2010, Stuff reported that the project was encountering additional delays and difficulties due to changes in the sea floor.

Nick Behunin, a managing partner at Sealutions, told Stuff that one part of the reef was working better than two other parts of the reef.

"We may have to change the bag layout and how full the bags are," he said.

Unfortunately, the Trust owed a management fee to ASR at this point, but it wasn't clear how much.

In August 2011, the relationship between the council, Trust, and ASR degraded further when Ross Dunlop, Mayor of South Taranaki District Council, criticized the performance of ASR and wrote off a $400,000 loan it gave the Trust.

According to the Bournemouth Echo, ASR called the remarks "defamatory," and Chris Jensen (ASR's marketing director) said, "The council's stance has been that it would not put any more funds into the project for the past three years."

The additional work required at least $133,000, according to ASR.

The Trust took ASR to court in 2011. The council wrote off its debt as "unrecoverable," and shortly thereafter, ASR went into liquidation.


Mount Maunganui Reef, Tauranga, New Zealand (2008)

The journey of Mount Reef began with the formation of the Mount Reef Trust in 1997.

This organization harbored ambitions of enhancing the local surf conditions while simultaneously providing a valuable case study on the environmental impact of artificial reefs.

With over 1.2 million NZ dollars pooled from diverse sources, including the city, private donations, and local surf shops, the reef's construction received a green light with a research-focused 5-year resource consent obtained in 2000 via the University of Waikato.

The reef's conception was entrusted to ASR, with Kerry Black at its helm, aiming to present surfers with a challenging wave dynamic.

Initially shaped like a wedge, the design evolved into a "delta-wing" silhouette following a resource consent modification.

The construction plan involved the deployment of robust, sand-filled geotextile containers, some stretching to lengths of 60 meters.

These containers were anticipated to be superior in durability compared to past projects, such as the unsuccessful Pratte's Reef in Los Angeles.

The design of Mount Maunganui Reef called for a structure with a volume of approximately 6,000 cubic meters, dwarfing Pratte's Reef by a factor of four.

Construction was beset by various difficulties, including inclement weather and financial overruns.

Despite the challenges, a glimpse of success was seen in March 2006, when the partially completed reef transformed a modest windswell into impressive left-hand barrels.

Upon its completion, albeit not entirely to design specifications, the reef's performance was inconsistent.

When conditions aligned, the reef generated exhilarating rides, eliciting comparisons to smaller versions of famed breaks like the Box.

Surfing enthusiasts, including Mike Smith, experienced the reef's potential firsthand, carving through its waves on favorable mornings.

The reef also facilitated ecological research, with studies noting an increase in beach width and biodiversity comparable to natural reefs in the vicinity.

Yet, the positive outcomes were fleeting.

Over time, the reef's condition worsened due to issues such as sand leakage from the bags and the formation of hazardous rip currents.

By 2013, reports by experts such as Dahm and Gibberd highlighted the reef's failure to meet surfing and beach enhancement expectations, primarily due to the flawed execution of its construction.

A severe scour hole had developed leeward of the reef, and the area was afflicted with stronger, more frequent riptides, exacerbating risks for swimmers.

Local lifesavers voiced their concerns, labeling the reef a "dangerous flop" and pointing to the amplified riptide hazards necessitating increased rescues.

This mounting evidence, coupled with visible damage to the reef's structure, led to a consensus that the reef had become a liability.

The artificial reef that once promised a surfing utopia had become a cautionary tale of environmental intervention gone awry.

The Bay of Plenty Regional Council deemed the reef unsafe and beyond redemption, earmarking 87,000 NZ dollars for its removal.

By November 2014, the Mount Maunganui Reef was no more, leaving behind lessons on the complexities of marine constructions and their unpredictable interplay with oceanic forces.


Boscombe Surf Reef, Dorset, England (2009)

Initially unveiled to the public in 2009 after a series of delays, the Boscombe Surf Reef was engineered to generate waves suitable for both surfers and bodyboarders.

When conditions were favorable, the reef did produce waves that bodyboarders found appealing, with the left side of the reef creating fast, occasionally barreling waves, while the right offered slightly gentler rides, lasting around 8 seconds.

The optimal swell size for the reef's wave production was between 1 and 2 meters in face height, a parameter shaped by its location, which, by design, limited exposure to larger swells.

Despite this, the reef was met with challenges that compromised its functionality, including damage attributed to boat propellers and an overall decline in structural integrity.

In 2011, merely two years after its opening, the reef was closed due to these issues, marking the end of its brief surfing life.

With a vision to revitalize the Boscombe seafront, the artificial reef project was spearheaded.

Its design, entrusted to New Zealand-based ASR Ltd., a firm with experience in crafting similar structures elsewhere, aimed to duplicate the number of quality surfing days recorded in the area - 77 during a benchmark year - and, consequently, to double the number of surf-related visits to the beach.

Envisioned to contour and harness incoming swells, the reef's design consisted of 55 large geotextile bags filled with local sand spread across 2.5 acres of the seabed, around 210 meters offshore.

Although the initial budget was pegged at £1.4 million, the final tally escalated to £3.2 million, with the local council raising funds through the sale of assets, including a car park and beach pods.

Construction commenced in mid-2008, with components shipped from New Zealand and installed on the ocean floor.

After a pause during the harsh winter months, the project concluded, and the reef was launched in November 2009.

Subsequent damage and attempted repairs in April 2011 did not salvage its fate; planned enhancements were left incomplete as ASR Ltd. faced liquidation, and the director went missing, leaving behind not only an unfinished project but also outstanding debts.

Despite its closure as a surf-specific feature, the Boscombe Surf Reef found a new identity in 2017.

It was integrated into the coastal activity park and rebranded as a "multi-purpose reef," continuing to play a role in the marine environment and serving as a part of the seaside attractions.


ASR Reef, Kovalam, India (2010)

Kovalam, India: one of the several failed artificial reefs built by ASR | Photo: UNWTO

Kovalam, situated in the state of Kerala, is no stranger to the ravages of monsoon swells, which batter the coastline and contribute to significant erosion.

To mitigate this, the Indian government traditionally constructed sea walls along the Kerala coast, with Kovalam's shores being no exception.

However, evidence suggested that such sea walls could exacerbate erosion rather than alleviate it.

In a bid to explore alternative solutions, the government earmarked funds specifically for tsunami recovery and defense under the auspices of the Planning Commission.

It was under this scheme that the Kovalam artificial reef project, financed by the Tsunami Rehabilitation Project, was born.

The Kovalam Reef's primary objective was to safeguard the coastal strip, especially the area around Lighthouse Beach.

Enhancement of the local surf scene and ecological benefits were considered secondary yet favorable outcomes.

The task of designing and constructing the reef was undertaken by ASR Ltd., a company with a mixed track record in executing multi-purpose reef projects.

Project leaders Chris Jensen and Nick Behunin steered the project, which involved deploying geotextile bags, each 30 meters long, aimed at creating a surfable 100-meter left wave as southern swells wrapped around the point.

The team escalated the project's scale mid-construction, enlarging the volume of geotextile bags from the proposed 3,000 cubic meters to 4,800 cubic meters.

Construction commenced in December 2009 and concluded by February 2010, with the project's cost reaching 75 million Indian Rupees (approximately $1.1 million).

The immediate aftermath of the reef's installation saw a positive response from various quarters: local residents, scientists, surfers, and even government officials.

Observational data, including weekly photographs over a year, indicated that the beach width was maintained post-installation, even during the harsh monsoon period.

Surfers enjoyed the brief advent of better-shaped waves, providing enjoyable rides and maneuvers. The Kerala Tourism Board initially lauded the project as a success.

However, the reef's integrity was short-lived.

Within a mere two weeks, the first signs of failure surfaced as damaged geotextile material began washing ashore, an alarming occurrence for both tourists and local fishermen.

As the structure's condition worsened, the bags lost their fill, deflated, and ultimately submerged deeper into the ocean bed.

This caused the surf to roll over the reef without breaking, rendering the surfing conditions back to their pre-reef state.

By 2010 and into 2011, as the reef's conditions deteriorated, the local community, supported by civil society groups in Kerala, called for a judicial and scientific inquiry into the project.

The financial implications were further complicated when the Deccan Chronicle reported on tax issues involving ASR Ltd., which had not established a formal presence in India.

Consequently, the local Harbor Engineering Department was left to grapple with the unresolved tax obligations.

Compounding the project's issues was the revelation that no comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), Social Impact Assessment (SIA), or Fisheries Impact Assessment had been mandated or conducted, leading to scrutiny over the project's oversight and long-term sustainability.

Additionally, the initial hopes that the reef would bolster tourism through surfing were dashed.

The "India: Borrowing False Solutions" report from 2012 confirmed that the anticipated influx of surfing enthusiasts did not materialize.


Airwave Reef, Bunbury, Western Australia (2019)

Airwave: the inflatable reef that was laid in Bunbury's ocean floor | Photo: Airwave

In the picturesque coastal town of Bunbury, Western Australia, an ambitious project to enhance the local surfing conditions is making waves - quite literally.

This innovative endeavor involves the installation of an artificial surfing reef known as the "Airwave."

However, despite the excitement surrounding its potential, the project has encountered a snag during its installation, with strong currents causing damage to the structure.

The Airwave is the brainchild of Troy Bottegal, a visionary who has poured his creativity and expertise into designing a structure that could transform the surf by improving the shape and quality of ocean swells.

Designed as a dome-shaped, inflatable bladder, the Airwave rests on the ocean floor and aims to manipulate the waves to produce both left and right breaks suitable for surfing.

These breaks could extend rides up to 40 meters or approximately 26 seconds, providing surfers with longer and more thrilling experiences.

Measuring 12 meters in diameter and rising about 2 meters above the seabed, this bladder is an environmental enthusiast's dream, being constructed from an environmentally inert rubber compound that is 5mm thick.

This robust material is intended to withstand the harsh conditions of the ocean while minimizing any ecological impact.

The anchoring process involves filling the bladder partially with sand while water and air make up the rest, ensuring it remains fixed to the seafloor.

Bottegal has high hopes that the Airwave will not only boost surfing conditions but also contribute to coastal preservation.

By encouraging waves to break farther out at sea, the reef could help mitigate beach erosion, which is often a pressing concern for coastal communities.

The artificial reef, by altering wave patterns, can potentially encourage sand accumulation towards its structure, thereby reinforcing the beachfront.

Installation of this aquatic innovation was undertaken in December 2019 but was met with an unexpected challenge.

A deep swell, unanticipated by the team, induced an undertow that exerted undue pressure on one of the Airwave's seams, leading to a tear.

The force of the current, moving to and fro, was more than what the structure's seam could handle, putting a temporary halt to the project.

Despite this setback, the durability of the Airwave's material has not been compromised, according to Bottegal.

He stands by the resilience of the rubber, which he touts as the strongest and most durable of its kind in the world.

This suggests that the issue may be more a matter of design under extraordinary conditions rather than a material flaw.

With the installation reported to be 90 percent complete, Bottegal and his team are undeterred.

Although not yet fully anchored, the progress suggests that with some adjustments, the Airwave may soon become an integral feature of Bunbury's Back Beach, enriching the surfing experience and potentially contributing to the coastal ecosystem.

The cost of creating such an ambitious artificial reef comes at a significant price, with the Airwave's price tag, including installation, reaching around $400,000.

It's a substantial investment that the town of Bunbury hopes will pay off in terms of tourist attraction and local recreation.

The installation of the world's first inflatable surf reef has been groundbreaking despite the current challenges.

The future of the Airwave project remains a subject of much anticipation, with surf enthusiasts and environmentalists alike eager to see this innovative concept fully realized.

As the team works to repair the tear and secure the Airwave to the seabed, the potential benefits to the Bunbury community and its visitors hold a promise of longer, more exhilarating rides and a flourishing, more stable beachfront.

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