Hawaiian surfer Cliff Kapono, in the lab at UCSD. Photo: Ellis
Hawaiian surfer Cliff Kapono, in the lab at UCSD. Photo: Ellis

Our Mother Ocean: Gut Check

Is there a unique set of bacteria shared by surfers worldwide? With his Surfer Biome Project, Cliff Kapono hopes to find out

The public perception of surfers has come a long way since their portrayal in 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," but surfers still battle stereotypes, especially around school campuses. Just ask any surfer who's come to class with eyes tinged red from sun and saltwater and gotten skeptical looks from their professor. Pterygiums? Yeah, they're not buying it.

So it makes sense that Cliff Kapono, a surfer and University of California San Diego (UCSD) graduate student studying biotechnology, bioengineering and chemistry, hid his affinity for the ocean from his teachers for the first half of his college career. "I didn't want them thinking I was just chasing swells all the time," Kapono says when asked about balancing surf and school at a campus just a stone's throw from a playful La Jolla beachbreak. "I was afraid they would interpret it as if I didn't take formal education seriously. But all that changed with the Surfer Biome Project."

The Surfer Biome Project got its start after a conversation between Kapono and his professor, Dr. Pieter Dorrestein, about trying to better understand how humans interact with nature, specifically the ocean. Dorrestein was a strong supporter of Kapono's commitment to surfing and encouraged him to integrate his passion for science into his lifelong pursuit of waves.

Funded by UCSD's Global Health Institute, the Surfer Biome Project (SBP) is a subset of the American Gut Project. The main goal of the SBP is to try to find out if there are molecular signatures exclusive to surfers; while surfers represent a diverse population scattered throughout disparate climates and geographical regions, we're united by our consistent contact with the ocean. Kapono's study asks how that contact may affect human health across the globe. Are surfers different from non-surfers in terms of our exposure to bacteria and chemicals, and how does a surfer's location in the world factor into that exposure?

To find out, Kapono set out on an extended trip through England, Ireland and Africa and up and down the California coast. Stops in South America, the South Pacific and Asia are still to come.

What exactly is he doing? "I'm using tools like mass spectrometry to look for chemicals and genome sequencing to look for bacteria to help us see what's going on in a surfer's body," says Kapono. "It's like a check-up with your doctor, but we're looking at chemicals and bacteria instead of taking your temperature. For instance: Will a group of Moroccan surf guides have different bacteria on them than a group of Irish surfers/farmers? We're hoping to show that surfers aren't just unified by their behavior, but also by the type of bacteria that lives on them. All I have to do is swab the skin, mouth and surfboards with these special Q-tips. The trickiest part is getting fecal samples from used toilet tissue, but, surprisingly, everyone was down for the cause." [Laughs.]

With the first phase of his travels complete, Kapono is now testing all of the samples he has thus far, and he can't wait to find out what they will suggest about the differences between surfers and non-surfers. At the end of the day, Kapono figures, if he can prove that bacteria and chemicals from the ocean can't just be washed away in the shower after a surf, that could increase people's understanding that polluting the environment is ultimately polluting ourselves, and help raise awareness about the importance of environmental conservation. (Getting barreled in places like Ireland while compiling his samples is just the icing on the cake.)

"I always knew that surfing could play an important part in research, but now the world is starting to feel the same way," says Kapono. "It's almost as if a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I don't have to hide anything anymore. Walking around campus, I get asked how the waves are now, even by professors. It is a bit surreal. That would have never happened just last year."

At last, those red eyes are justified.