Pipe Dreams

The reality of artificial reefs

The artificial reef at Kovalam.
The once-hyped and now-failed artificial reef at Kovalam in India.

In 2008, along a beach located inside the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand, government officials from the town of Mount Maunganui and local surfers alike beamed with pride as they unveiled an artificial reef that they believed would create a new wave, enhance their town, and draw in visiting surfers. The wave, which would come to be known as Mt. Reef, was constructed by a New Zealand-based company known as ASR at a cost of $1.5 million NZ. Fast forward six years, and Mt. Reef has largely become an embarrassment for many surfers in the area. With the exception of a few days of decent surf, the artificial reef has yet to truly deliver, with some surfers calling the project a colossal waste of money. Over time, the reef has fallen apart, creating such a severe rip tide that local officials announced last week that they would dismantle it because of the danger it posed to swimmers.

“The reef’s expected positive effects have not been realized,” said Eddie Grogan of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, whose organization hired ASR to design the reef. “It’s also generated some unforeseen effects, including creating a large scour hole which affects waves and currents, increasing the frequency and intensity of rips which pose a serious risk to swimmers. We have to dismantle it. It’s not only not created a wave, it’s simply created a situation that’s proven to be too dangerous to beachgoers.”

This wasn’t the first time that ASR has come under fire for their multipurpose artificial reef. In addition to the failure of Mt. Reef (ASR defended that particular project by stating that construction was never actually finished) the company has left a long list of highly criticized projects in their wake in towns like Taranaki, NZ, Kovalam, India, and a project in Boscombe, England that proved to be so divisive that the local county council actually considered legal action against the company. However, one of the company’s earlier projects in Narrowneck, Australia has been met with generally mixed reactions from surfers.

In the 2000s, ASR positioned themselves as a company that could protect coastlines around the world from erosion while simultaneously producing a high-quality wave through their multipurpose reefs, which were composed of a series of strategically places geotextile bags filled with sand. The company contends that their multipurpose reefs weren’t only meant to produce waves, but to combat coastal erosion. Their sales pitch was slick and with grand visions of manipulating nature, of creating perfect peaks from thin air, of turning Huntington into the Super Bank, and of widening beaches, seaside communities began calling.

For the town of Bournemouth, England, the reality of their lofty dreams proved to be a multi-million-dollar nightmare. As a tool to help to revitalize a downtrodden beachside village, the Bournemouth Borough Council inked a deal with ASR to create Boscombe Surf Reef, Europe’s first artificial surfing reef, in 2007. On November 2, 2009, well over budget and way behind deadline, the reef was completed at a cost of just over £3 million. By 2011, the reef was closed.

In the two years that it was operational, many local surfers believe that the reef—which was meant to create both a quality right and left—failed to live up to expectations. Critics stated that the waves it produced were inconsistent, too steep, and too short. The lone exception to the criticism were a crew of bodyboarders, who reportedly favored the peak when it actually broke. The reef, which was closed for repairs that were never completed, was rebranded this year not as a surf reef, but as a Coastal Activity Park catering to diving, snorkeling, and wind surfing.

“The reef never worked right from the start and then began to disintegrate and become dangerous,” said Bournemouth County Councilor Ben Grower. “Some damage was made to the reef by a boat, or it was claimed to be so, but this was not the real problem. The design was defective and the construction was poor. The local Council wasted £3 million on this scheme.” An independent monitoring report found that the reef only met four of the 11 requirements the council laid out to gauge its success.

In 2010, ASR unveiled another multipurpose reef funded by the Indian government in the town of Kovalam. Not long after the reef’s completion, the company released a video showcasing a very rippable left-hand peak. ASR appeared to finally have found their mark. But according Jelle Rigole, the founder of the Kovalam surf club, the conditions deteriorated not long after this wave came to life and the break has been reported as presently being a closeout.

“I was stoked to hear about the construction of the reef,” said Rigole. “In the beginning, it was great. But after the first monsoon season, some of the bags that composed the reef came loose. The reef sank deeper into the sand so most of the waves just roll over the reef now without even breaking. Even when it comes to halting erosion, to be honest, I don’t think the reef makes the slightest difference. It’s just a peak that sometimes seems to steepen, but then sinks away again and changes into a closeout dumping on the beach.”

Further investigation reveals that the money that the Indian government actually paid to create the reef could be tied to Tsunami Relief Funds. Reports from both Sky News and a source from within ASR confirmed this. In 2009, 54 percent of ASR’s shares were bought out by an American group, Sealutions LLC. And in 2013, facing numerous unsurmountable hurdles, ASR was liquidated as a company.

Dr. Shaw Mead, who cofounded ASR, left the company not long after Sealutions took over. Dr. Mead contends that when it came to producing waves, the multipurpose reefs did hold potential, but that numerous hurdles—most notably unattainable expectations and inadequate funding to produce the proper structures—blocked them from being successful. He was also adamant that while many of the waves never delivered, the multipurpose reefs were effective in combating coastal erosion.

When asked what the company could have done differently, Dr. Mead stated that “they should have tried a lot harder to temper the expectations. Artificial reefs invariably get hyped up as some kind to magical creature that will make perfect waves every day—no breaks can do that…I believe that the company should have built on all that had been learned and demonstrated, helped the clients end up with what we actually designed, and actively worked with clients and the media to get across what should be expected in the way of wave quality for a particular site.”

Dr. Mead went on to say that the number-one mistake ASR made was selling the majority shareholder rights to Sealutions LLC. It was from there, he said, that the business began to slip. “Without doubt the single biggest thing should have done differently would have been to not sell the majority shareholding out to a group of young Californians, that was the beginning of the end for the company.”

SURFER was able to contact a former ASR employee who wished to remain anonymous, to further describe the issues that faced the company.

“It’s true that there weren’t any reefs that we created that you could say were successful in the sense that they produced a consistently good wave. They were multipurpose reefs that served a variety of functions, but when it came to delivering the kinds of waves surfers wanted, no, none of them were really successful in that sense.” The source went on to add that “This wasn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. No one really made any money off of it. You have to realize that we are scientists, engineers and dedicated surfers. No one wanted it to work more than us. It’s really difficult and expensive to build an artificial reef when you factor in all of the supplies, manpower and equipment needed. A lot of the faults of these reefs were because they were underfunded. To do one right, you’d need to spend $50 million, not $5 million.”

When asked to detail the failures of the reef, most specifically the one at Boscombe, the source described the situation as being complicated and marred by mistakes.

“The failure of Boscombe Reef should have been foreseen. We should have never put a reef there. But when a council comes to you with millions of dollars, what are you going to do? There aren’t a lot of opportunities to build a reef in the first place. That’s not to say that we created wasn’t more or less what we said we would. The council would come to us and we’d tell them that we could create a 60-meter long wave that would suck up a little and throw. And, given the right condition, that’s what we created. The biggest mistake was managing expectations. The council in the UK, they weren’t really surfers and they thought they were getting a wave that was different than we actually agreed upon.”