the fear of missing out—but I have a fear of people finding out what I am doing,” Mikala Jones quietly explains as we stuff boards into bags at his house in Bali, Indonesia. A few feet away, his two daughters playfully fight over the TV remote, disinterested in the mess of boards, leashes, and towels behind them. It’s a common scene in their house, and to Jones’ daughters, the thought of Daddy taking off for a week of feral exploration is hardly noteworthy.
“I try to avoid going to the beach before a swell,” Jones continues, handing me a tangle of leashes. “What am I supposed to do when people ask where I am going to surf? Lie to them? Be rude and just not answer?” He glances over his shoulder, then adds conspiratorially, “By the way, if anyone asks where we are going today, just say Uluwatu.”
Where we are going is nowhere near Uluwatu, but that is about all that I know. Jones has more secrets than the NSA, and zero tolerance for whistleblowers. I don’t bother asking many questions, which is probably for the best, since I get only pointedly obtuse responses anyway. “Don’t worry about it,” he says when I prod him about the wave we’re headed to. “Just pack your paddle vest and make sure we have enough food for a week. And try to get some sleep; we’ll be traveling all night.” In Jones’ world, there is no such thing as full disclosure.
I wake up nine hours later, legs cramping in the tight confines of a violently bouncing minivan, surrounded by drybags and surfboards and Pelican cases full of frozen meat. Up in the front seat, Jones receives a text from a Bali-based photographer who is trying to meet us before the forecasted swell peaks in three days. Jones pecks a vague response on his keypad and then turns the phone off for good. He knows that it’s unlikely the photographer will be able to find us without detailed instructions, but when it comes down to it, Jones would sooner surf without anyone to document it than give up the location of this particular wave anyway.
This may not be the most advisable decision for a professional freesurfer who gets his photo taken in picturesque barrels for a living, but Jones doesn’t appear too preoccupied. In fact, he almost seems relieved. In some half-remembered psychology class I once took, we learned about a thing called cognitive dissonance—a form of emotional discomfort caused by maintaining contradictory values—and, traveling with Jones, I realize that I might be witnessing the phenomenon firsthand. Like any rational surfer who has found flawless, uncrowded waves, Jones wants to keep them that way. The problem, of course, is that, as a professional freesurfer, documenting his travels and broadcasting them to the masses is basically Jones’ job. Although it’s a fine line to walk, few walk it as well as Jones. And it makes sense, since Jones has had plenty of practice. He’s been chasing obscure waves and keeping secrets for most of his life.
Born and raised on Oahu, Jones spent his youth figuring out the nuances of barrel riding with his equally talented siblings. He and his brother Daniel caught the attention of sponsors early on, while their older sister Malia—also a talented surfer—went on to become a successful model, appearing in the pages of Sports Illustrated and Esquire. Today, their younger brother Keoni is keeping with the family tradition and starting to turn heads in Hawaii every winter, the natural result of growing up in a house fronting Rocky Point and surfing most of his waking hours.
Despite the spectrum of perfect, powerful surf at his fingertips back home, Jones was always most interested in exploring lesser-known breaks. He started homeschooling early on, giving him the flexibility to join Rip Curl on their Search campaign, and took his first trip to Bali when he was 13. Flying solo to the island, he was promptly robbed and then subsequently taken in by the local crew, who took him surfing and made sure he survived until his return flight a month later. Jones competed in a local grom event and then drifted from couch to couch, developing lifelong friendships and assimilating into the Balinese culture, where he found much in common with his island upbringing in Hawaii.
Ten years and a few dozen trips later, Jones met his future wife in Bali and decided to move there permanently, relocating to her family’s Canggu compound and using it as a base between missions to the outer islands and Bali’s lesser-known coasts. By the time Keramas became a World Tour stop in 2013 and many of the island’s best waves were overrun with traveling surfers, Jones had already found plenty more remote setups across the Indonesian archipelago, and just as many in other locales around Southeast Asia and in the Pacific. In fact, if you happen to stumble upon an empty, hollow wave in those areas, whether it’s a reef, point, sandbar, or river mouth, chances are Jones has already surfed it. The one thing that all those spots have in common is also the one thing that has defined Jones’ career as a whole: barrels.
Freesurfing in the 21st century has become a specialized job, with different athletes filling different niches—air guys, big-wave chargers, retro soul riders, etc.—but while Jones could have pursued any of those routes, he figured, why bother? Instead, he simply focused on sharpening his wave-hunting skills, and now spends the majority of his sessions getting tubed by himself. It’s a romantic lifestyle, and it’s unsurprising that surf brands would pay someone to go and live out our collective dreams, using the associated imagery for their marketing campaigns. Jones has never had to reinvent himself to stay relevant as a professional surfer; he’s simply continued reading swell charts, scanning maps, and negotiating foam balls.
When we finally reach the wave nowhere near Uluwatu, we set up camp a few hundred yards away from a heavy, seldom-surfed right-hander. Unfortunately, the wind refuses to cooperate, and as we wait it out, surprisingly, Jones tells me a bit about the wave we have come to surf. He’s been returning to this empty corner of Indonesia for the past 15 years, and it has played a major role in both his professional and personal lives. He has scored numerous magazine cover shots and spreads here, but the wave means much more to him than the exposure it has allowed him. Jones has caught some of the best waves of his life along this stretch of reef. He also nearly died here. Three years ago, he ruptured his eardrum and nearly drowned after a bad wipeout. While he was tumbling underwater, Jones explains that he had an out-of-body experience, hearing his daughter calling to him from a thousand miles away. Despite this jarring episode, Jones was back in the lineup just three weeks later, paddling into one of the heaviest barrels of his life on his first post-injury wave.
It’s clear from the way Jones talks about the area that it is special to him—a rare place of refuge for a man who splits his time between the overrun tourist hubs of Bali and Oahu. He even spread his mother’s ashes across the lineup a few years ago after watching her fight a losing battle with ALS, wanting to preserve her memory in one of the places where he feels most at home. No wonder, then, that he is so sensitive about keeping his movements quiet; retreats like this are becoming harder and harder to find.
Our accommodation is a feral campsite, and Jones has no complaints about that. He seems much more at ease setting up a tent and making a cooking fire in an Indonesian jungle than navigating a bustling city street. A jungle campsite stands in stark contrast to our surroundings the previous Saturday night, when we’d attended a film premiere hosted by his sponsor Reef in Bali. Noticeably uncomfortable in a button-down shirt amid the raucous Bali nightlife, Jones stood quietly in the corner with his wife while the festivities orbited around him. But out here, 15 hours of grueling travel away from Bali, he is in his element, cracking jokes and talking story about dreamy sessions.
I wondered how he managed to find this wave, or any of the waves he keeps under lock and key. Was it simply through looking at maps and swell charts and making educated guesses? Does he have some kind of internal compass for perfect surf?
“I’m usually just following up on rumors,” says Jones. “It’s not like I’m discovering places that haven’t been surfed before; people have surfed everywhere. Between the information you can get through Google Earth, nautical charts, and online forums, and how quickly you can move with boats and planes, the world isn’t that big anymore. If you know where to look, you can find information about almost anywhere. The trick is making sure you aren’t publicly adding to that information once you’ve been there.”
To ensure that he doesn’t leave any accidental breadcrumbs, Jones has a set of rules that he adheres to when he goes on exploratory surf missions. He travels only with people he can trust, and once they return, he asks photographers not to share any images that reveal any distinguishing landmarks. If he’s ever asked about any of his scores, he offers only vague answers, never revealing the timing of a specific trip, the type of swell, or even what tide they surfed on. Needless to say, Jones is not a big fan of social media. According to him, surfers are extremely clever, and you don’t have to give them much before they can deduce exactly where you’ve been.
“Once you put an image out there, someone will find your spot; that’s a guarantee,” Jones explains. “The trick is to minimize the damage so that only a few guys can figure out where you went.”
Jones understands that he’s in a tight spot, as he needs financial backing to make these strike missions to obscure breaks a reality, and to get that backing he has to produce photos that could potentially blow their cover and ruin these spots forever. It’s a sort of catch-22, and something that he wrestles with every time he goes off to chase a swell.
One thing that has helped alleviate some of this tension is the rise of waterproof POV cameras. By allowing Jones to shoot imagery himself, POV cams have enabled him to document waves at some of his most sensitive locations. After all, he doesn’t have to trust another photographer to keep from sharing the wrong photo. He simply deletes those images after each session.
Back in Indonesia, the swell is starting to peak. I can’t tell you much about the location, for obvious reasons, but I can tell you that like most of the breaks Jones surfs, it’s perfect, it’s barreling, and we’re the only people out during every session. For me, this is the kind of surf trip that you dream about, but for Jones, this is just another day at the office.
When we get back to the Jones family compound on Bali, I feel like I could fall asleep on my feet after all the travel. Jones, on the other hand, is back on his computer, checking the charts for an update on a long-range swell that caught his eye before we left. He explains that he’s been looking at a certain bend along a certain coastline, and this might be the swell to turn it on. I can hear the excitement in his voice—the hope that this could be his next pristine, barreling muse—and it’s an inspiring sound. In the modern era, many surfers have stopped believing that there are still world-class waves out there just waiting to be discovered. But if anyone is likely to find those last few gems, it’s Jones. And honestly, maybe he already has. He’d never tell us anyway.