Surfer & Scientist Cliff Kapono Celebrates Earth Day Every Day

By Mara Pyzel

For Cliff Kapono, surfing is in his blood. In fact, it was surfing that first piqued Kapono’s curiosity about human interaction with the natural world. His quest for a factual explanation of the relationship between humanity and the environment shaped him into the accomplished scientist, environmentalist, journalist, and activist that he is today.

A natural teacher, Dr. Kapono intrinsically understands the intersection of culture, identity, microbiology, conservation, and surfing, and is able to articulate his ideas in terms easily understood by the rest of us. He can go into just as much detail about bacteria on your outer body relating to your brain and internal gut stimulation as he can about surfing in Tahiti, Aotearoa, Morocco, and Hawai’i. His work has received recognition from numerous noteworthy organizations including Surfrider’s 2018 John Kelly Award, UCSD’s 2018 Changemaker, and Save the Wave’s Athlete of the Year Award.

Raised in Hilo, Hawai’i, Kapono relocated to San Diego, California in 2012 to work toward earning a doctoral degree from UCSD’s prestigious Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

“I wanted to develop a technical skill set that I could bring back home and offer as a contributor to Hawai’i,” he said. Six years and a hard-earned Ph.D. later, Kapono is back at home on the Big Island.

Freesurf Magazine chatted with Kapono about the overlap of his many interests — what he refers to as his “interdisciplinary lifestyle.” Here’s what he had to say about surf, science, and stewardship.

Surfing is in his genealogy.
Cliff Kapono: Surfing is a cultural identity. Surfing is a gift that has been passed through my family for many, many generations, prior to the popularity of surfing in the early 1900s. As with many Hawaiian surfers, the practice of wave sliding is intergenerational, spanning back thousands of years. We take it very seriously. In my family, surfing doesn’t necessarily define us, but it is a huge component to our identity as native people.

To truly understand surfing, you need to understand the environment as a whole.
CK: Surfing is not just the act of sliding on the wave; it comes down to understanding the currents, the fish, the reef, the moon, the stars, the tide, the freshwater rivers, and the ecology of the uplands. Surfing is just this surface name for something that defines our ability to understand our natural environment and be able to harness the benefits of those resources, whether it’s through energy, food, or culture.

Cliff Kapono Photo: Latronic

No matter where life takes him, Hawai’i will always be home.
CK: While studying in California, I would come home to recenter and surf, to spend time in the ocean. It was important for me to return home and be in the ocean where I belonged, where I wanted to end up. I want to surf waves in Hawai’i; I was born in the waves in Hawai’i. I think it’s important for us to continue to immerse ourselves in the place we want to be a part of.

His favorite wave is his home break, Honoli’i.
CK: It’s just a fun beach where you see the whole spectrum like Uluboi, Mikey O’Shaughnessy, and Shayden Pacarro ripping out at the point, or the young up-and-comers like Diesel Storm and Kane Turalde, or the uncles that have been there forever. There’s a strong female presence at the beach, too. It’s a very inclusive place, and has turned into a family-oriented community space in Hilo.

He is fluent in the language of science.
CK: The beauty of science is that it’s a powerful tool that can be used to communicate across many different cultures, many different races, all genders, pretty much all religions – people can appreciate the culture of science. Whether they agree with it or not, we can at least begin the conversation through science.

As with surfing, we can sometimes feel alienated from the rest of society when we want to communicate our ideas; for me, science has allowed me to communicate my feelings and my perspectives using data, theory, conclusions, and questions which every culture also has. Science is a tool that empowers me to communicate my beliefs about being a native Hawaiian, and being a surfer.

All things are inherently connected.
CK: Science is a way of communicating the idea that we are infinitely connected to the natural world. We cannot separate ourselves from it, because if we do, we’re never going to be able to truly protect it. That’s something I firmly believe, and surfing is just another expression of that; journalism is also an expression of that, as is science. For someone that doesn’t understand what it means to be in the ocean, it’s very difficult to communicate why it’s important to protect the reef that the waves break on, or the sand bar that you need to get barreled. It’s difficult to communicate to non-surfers the urgency to protect a resource.

He analyzes surfers’ bacteria through swab samples in his study The Surfer Biome Project to find out if the impact nature has on humans is reciprocal.
CK: We all leave fingerprints everywhere, right? Well, we also leave behind bacteria and chemicals. I wondered: does nature do the same to us? I am nature, nature is me; if I leave a fingerprint on it, it should leave a fingerprint on me. I wanted to try to find some of nature’s fingerprints on us in order to establish a relationship between humans and nature in a different capacity. It’s not just that we are harming nature; nature can do the same to us. If we aren’t performing reciprocity, then we’re going to get screwed over if we don’t take care of the places we live in. That’s what The Surfer Biome Project is all about.

Which population is so immersed in that natural environment that they are willing to risk jobs and relationships in order to be in that environment every day? That’s surfers. Surfers are an ideal demographic that transcends all races, cultures, religions, genders. They are created equal by this central force to be constantly immersed in a marine environment for extended periods of time, as much as they can. They became this great cohort, which I’m a member of.

His Earth Day advice is simple: Go outside.
CK: The biggest contribution we can make as environmentalists is to be immersed in the environment, to go out into nature and not be limited to the beach as surfers. I think it’s very important to be a part of different ecosystems that ultimately affect the beach, whether that’s up in the mountains or in the stream, or out in the deep reef, out on the sea, or in the fishponds. To be able to spend time in these places will really advance our appreciation for protecting the beach and the surf.

Education and experience have the greatest impact on environmental change.
CK: Community service is not only about giving back; you can also gain a lot by going to these places that we could never otherwise have gained access to. It’s a very nice way that this reciprocity can be established. Some of these places we could not otherwise access, and that will ultimately help increase our education of how things are interconnected. This knowledge will allow us to be able to formulate the right questions to bring to the scientists or the people in the community that have the resources and have the understanding to make informed decisions. That’s not just “Don’t use sunscreen” or “Don’t use a plastic water bottle”; I truly believe that going into these spaces outside of surfing ultimately contributes back to the beach, the reef, and to the waves. Exploring will help us gain a greater appreciation for our environment’s health as a community and help us formulate the right questions to bring to the people who are ultimately in charge.

He’s trying to limit his consumption.
CK: I’m trying to improve my lifestyle every day. Something I’ve been trying to centralize a lot of my effort into is eliminating my waste as best as I can, not just in terms of plastics, but actually finding creative ways to reuse the things that I have. I try to get creative… such as my wetsuits: do I give them away or do I make some racks out of them for my surfboards? I’m trying to repurpose the things I already have. I know what it’s like to have to travel across the ocean to get here, and when I think about how strenuous that is, for me it makes me want to reduce my waste and what I import.

Cliff Kapono is just getting started. With more projects underway at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo, and partnerships with VISSLA, OluKai, and Save the Waves Coalition, this surfer and scientist is a busy guy. Be sure to keep an eye out for the publication of peer reviewed results of The Surfer Biome Project and keep up with Dr. Cliff Kapono via Instagram
@cliff_kapono and surf him on the web


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