Surfing scientists mapping surf breaks in 3-D for reef research

MEGA Lab grand opening at Mokupāpapa Discovery Center in Hilo.

With more than 80 percent of the world’s oceans left unexplored, untouched and unseen by humans, researchers know more about the surface of Mars than the ocean. A University of Hawaii at Hilo professor is helping to fill that knowledge gap by leading a team of scientists to 3D map the planet’s premier surf breaks to help better protect reefs around the world. 

Professors John H.R. Burns (UH Hilo), Haunani Kane (Arizona State University) and Cliff Kapono (Arizona State University) recently mapped the reef at Kurukuru Mailani in Fiji, also known as Cloudbreak, which is home to some of the biggest and best waves in the world. The team takes high resolution images of the reef and uses a technique called photogrammetry to create 3D reconstructions that can be studied to help provide a better understanding of reef systems. 

“These models will help us to understand the composition, characteristics and ecology of the reef and these waves that will help us to protect them in the face of disturbances such as sea level rise,” said Burns, an associate professor of marine science at UH Hilo.

The researchers are skilled surfers and base their work out of the multiscale environmental graphical analysis (MEGA) lab in Hilo. The MEGA Lab specializes in inventing new methods to study coral health and reef formation that influences the shape and speed of waves across the globe. The non-profit is a global consortium of scientists, athletes and artists working together to create innovative solutions to protect the ocean. 

UH students and alumni Kailey Pascoe (MS, UH Hilo, PhD ASU), Crispin Nakoa (MS, UH Hilo, PhD ASU), Atsuko Fukunaga (MS, UH Mānoa) are analyzing data collected in Fiji and constructing high definition 3D reconstructions in the MEGA Lab. 

“The 3D maps give us this framework, essentially a basis of the whole system and its structure and then we figure out which specific corals are supporting various types of fish and ultimately we can dissect what elements of the reef give us the food and the resources that we as humans depend on,” said Burns.

A project is born

The 3D reef mapping project born out of the MEGA Lab is a collaboration between the Hawaiʻi Island-based lab, surf apparel brand REEF and Surfline, a surf forecast and news website. The project first launched in 2021 at the legendary surf break Banzai Pipeline on Oʻahu’s North Shore. The surfing scientists conducted multiple trips to the North Shore to image the famous surfing spot known for its jagged, sharp reef. 

“Many funding agencies may see this type of trip as strictly play, but we are doing real science down here,” said Kapono. 

The team has not disclosed where their next reef research will take place however they do mention looking for possible spots in the South Pacific and aim to include local communities into the research.   

“It’s important to remember that we are visitors in these places and learn from the Indigenous peoples before we impose our tools on the community,” said Kane.

More on the MEGA Lab

This fall, MEGA Lab celebrated the grand opening of its new outreach location at Mokupāpapa Discovery Center in Hilo. The lab is open to the public and provides a space for visitors of all ages to learn and participate in branches of research connected to marine science. 

“We really want to create an engaging place for people to feel like they can be a part of science. For a while, science hasn’t been the most welcoming environment. It can be somewhat rigid and sterile. We just wanted to flip that script and show students that you can have fun. You can chase your passions. You can be yourself,” said Burns. 

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