[This feature originally appeared in SURFER magazine Volume 60, Issue 1. Click here to subscribe.]
I was sitting on my board at the opening of a river mouth just outside Hilo, Hawaii, getting jostled in cloudy, brackish water by sizable swells that had looked much more manageable from the shore. Now in the lineup, the unruly surf was only made worse by backwash as waves warped and crashed on a sinister row of boulders just 10 yards inside.
"Hey, don't get too far out!" yelled Cliff Kapono, who sat on my inside, an anxiety-inducing distance from the rocks. "The current will pull you out, and the closest place to paddle in would be…" He paused for a moment to think. "Just don't go too far out."
I nervously scratched against the current until I was next to Kapono, who then informed me that I shouldn't paddle too far inside, either. In addition to the boulders, he said, there were also jagged chunks of concrete and rebar that lurked just below the surface—remnants of the sugar industry that had long since withdrawn from this particular valley.
Outwardly, I nodded like I understood completely. Inwardly, I wondered why Kapono had taken me to a deathtrap masquerading as a surfable wave—until he swung around on an ugly-looking 6-foot lump, smoothly linked a few well-timed pumps and then blasted a clean frontside air somewhere in that extremely narrow safe zone he'd described.
It made a perfect kind of sense that Kapono would find that middle ground and turn it into his own personal dance floor. Kapono is a great surfer, sure, but more broadly speaking, Kapono's life has been defined by his ability to deftly navigate the spaces between, to find a middle ground where few others could—and use it to do incredible things.
Kapono has long inhabited disparate worlds. On one hand, he's a pro surfer who gets paid to chase waves, ride them with panache and get his picture taken wearing the products made by his various sponsors. On the other, he's a doctor of chemistry, currently working at University of Hawaii alongside some of the foremost coral experts in the world to better understand and protect reefs.
In the world of professional surfing in 2019, it's common for team riders to catch their sponsor's eye with their non-surfing interests as much as for their abilities on a board. Sponsored surfers who moonlight as shapers, artists, photographers, musicians and environmental advocates are familiar freesurfing archetypes. But a skilled wave rider who conducts experiments and gathers data between swell chases around the world? That's something few in the surf industry knew what to make of at first.
"It's funny because people see sponsored freesurfers as guys who hang out and paint or whatever between sessions," Kapono told me after our surf. "I thought, 'I don't use a paintbrush, I use a pipette. But that's just as cool, right?"
In the academic world, Kapono's college professors also raised a collective eyebrow at the ambitious young scientist who kept showing up to the lab with wet hair and pterygium-reddened eyes. But who Kapono was, and the value of his ability to connect those disparate worlds finally began to come into focus for both his professors and surf sponsors in 2016, when Kapono embarked on the Surfer Biome Project.
The Surfer Biome Project was an ambitious experiment in which Kapono traveled around the world collecting fecal samples from surfers (yep, you read that right), then used something called mass spectrometry to map the microbial communities within each sample to better understand the correlation between our environments and the microbes inside of us.
It's Kapono's hope (the research is currently under peer review) that his research will show that the chemicals we encounter while surfing in the ocean can't just be washed off at the public shower following a session, but that they actually change the chemistry within us—as good a reason as any to better police the pollution of our oceans and waterways.
After the media caught wind of the project, Kapono was as famous for his endeavors in the
laboratory as he was for his skills in the lineup, and he'd received as much coverage in The New York Times science section as any traditional surf media outlet.
"So much of my life, surfing has felt like a barrier to me achieving something," says Kapono. "But when I started the Surfer Biome Project, that's when I realized that people outside of the surf community are interested in surfing and how you can use the learnings from surfing to be productive and impact the world in a positive way."
For the outside world, Kapono's existence at the intersection of surfing and science is something curious and novel. But to Kapono, the two have always gone hand-in-hand. Because before he ever inked his first surfing sponsorship, or began working on his dissertation, Kapono was a Hawaiian, and that cultural identity has done more to shape his view of surfing, where knowledge is obtained and how it can be applied to his surroundings than anything else.
"I always felt that the things I learned through surfing, through my ancestors' stories and through the culture of my Hawaiian heritage are very similar to this thing called 'Western Science,'" says Kapono. "So I wondered, 'Why is there a distinction between them?'"
A FEWdays before our nerve-racking session, we'd just left Hilo International Airport and were driving down Kamehameha Ave in true Hawaii fashion, with Kapono, SURFER photo editor Grant Ellis and I sandwiched together in the cab of an early-2000s Tacoma, passing gorgeous waterfronts and quaint buildings nestled in overgrown foliage.
Hilo is classic small-town Hawaii, with no shortage of small-town charm. The sleepy commercial center fronting Hilo Bay consists of original single or two-story structures built in the early 1900s, now occupied by health-food markets, restaurants and tourist shops. The downtown area is framed to the west and the east by the Wailuku and Wailoa Rivers, respectively, which filter into the enormous, tranquil bay. Wave energy is blocked from the bay by a long breakwater, allowing cruise ships into port to give mainlanders a chance to stretch their legs and see an authentic Hawaiian town.
We turned left before Wailuku River and started heading up the hill toward Kapono's sister's house, where we'd be staying for the next week. As we made our way up the hill, Kapono pointed out the row of schools starting with Hilo Union Elementary near the bottom, then Hilo Intermediate a little further up on the left and finally Hilo High School on the right.
"Going up this hill is basically like your life trajectory if you're from here," Kapono said, before
noting the local jail on the left-hand side, just after the high school.
Hawaii's public education system doesn't have a great reputation, with local schools consistently ranking below the national average when it comes to standardized testing and few native Hawaiians attaining higher education. Kapono said that it was common to see young surfers in the community struggle to find economic opportunity around Hilo, with many falling into vicious cycles of drugs, violence and incarceration.
"People want to come to Hawaii to escape the realities of life, and when they get here and realize that there are some harsh realities here too," says Kapono. "They're like, 'That's not what I paid for.' But the thing is, this ain't Disneyland."
Kapono wasn't as dependent on the public education system as some. In the Kapono family, education wasn't confined to traditional classrooms; it took place outside, on the beaches and in the ocean. Kapono's father, Cliff Kapono Sr., a Vietnam War veteran who went to college on the G.I. Bill, emphasized that Kapono do well in school, but he also placed just as much importance on Kapono learning about his Hawaiian heritage and the natural environment around him. Invariably, this informed Kapono's early surfing experiences as well.
"The first time I surfed with my dad, it was a really good swell direction and the conditions were amazing," explains Kapono. "We're sitting down the beach and my dad goes, 'OK, let's find the currents, let's look at the wind and every other element that we need to be aware of to get out safely and have fun.' And I'm like, 'What? No way! Let's just go!' He says, 'You want to do it that way? OK, let's do it that way.'"
From there, the story changes depending on who you ask (Kapono just admits to being in over his head, while Cliff Sr. says he accidentally ran his son over), but either way the lesson stuck with Kapono: "You have to watch the place and learn how to interact with it if you want to participate."
The lessons didn't stop at the tideline, and everywhere they went, Cliff Sr. would always point out native plants and make sure that Kapono knew what they were called, both in English and Hawaiian, and the part they played in the local ecosystem. He'd tell Kapono the Hawaiian place names for the geographical features all around Hilo, and he'd explain to him the importance of the history of the land. As Kapono understood it, knowing his Hawaiian heritage was equal parts responsibility and privilege.
"My dad's generation is very special in Hawaiian history," says Kapono. "Their grandparents were actively told not to be Hawaiian, and many of my dad's generation were raised by their grandparents. They felt the uprooting of our cultural identity, and that stuck with them. They never forgot that. My dad was born in the territory of Hawaii, not the state of Hawaii."
Cliff Sr. was always a voracious reader, and he'd insist on family outings to the library, where Kapono and his three sisters would spend much of their time when they weren't at the beach or at school. Kapono gravitated toward science fiction and adventure books, often reframing the stories in his head, like imagining Huckleberry Finn as a native Hawaiian on a quest across the aina. But Kapono's favorite part about the library was that it had a serious collection of surf magazines.
"I'd read every surf magazine cover to cover," says Kapono. "It's funny, because I remember seeing a magazine with a photo that said 'Waimea', and at first I thought it was Waimea on the Big Island, which isn't even by the coast—it's just ranch land. I just remember thinking, 'What? There's a huge wave in Waimea? Where could it be?' But over time I learned about these waves on the other islands and all over the world and I was just so inspired. I wanted to travel and experience these places."
After dropping off our bags at Kapono's sister's house, we headed back down the hill and just up the coast toward Honoli'i, the most user-friendly wave in the area and the beating heart of Hilo's surf scene.
Like many breaks on the Big Island, Honoli'i sits at the mouth of a stream bringing fresh, cool water from the hills down to meet the warm Pacific. Kapono pulled into a parking spot up against a long guardrail that runs the length of the embankment overlooking the break. We watched as crumbly reef waves did their best beach break impression below, sending playful peaks up and down the rock-lined shore.
Kapono started sifting through a stack of surfcraft in the back of the truck, which contained an alaia, a short, beefy board for nearby slabs and a brand new performance shortboard from Channel Islands. Over the past few years, Kapono has been doing R&D with big board brands like CI, advocating for more sustainable materials and putting the more eco-friendly craft to the test in Hawaii and abroad. Last year, his efforts culminated in a partnership with Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii to put on a video-based surf contest called The ProTest, to see who could put together the best edit on more sustainable surfcraft.
A lot has changed for Kapono since he first started surfing Honoli'i. He remembers his family having no money and living off food stamps when he was a kid, and so new surfboards were a luxury they couldn't afford. When Kapono got a scholarship to the prestigious Kamehameha Schools on Oahu, and a $20 monthly stipend from the school, he'd save all year to buy a secondhand board.
For Kapono, school itself was never particularly difficult ("It's very simple," Kapono says of traditional K-12 education. "It's not about how smart you are. It's a formula."), the hard part was staying stimulated—and finding time to surf. It wasn't until he enrolled at the University of Hawaii at Manoa to study plant and environmental biotechnology that he realized the freedom that academia could allow.
"If you know what you're doing, people leave you alone to do your work until you're ready to show what you've found," says Kapono. "In my mind, an academic goes out to understand the world and bring it back to the public in a meaningful way. You should be trying to improve society. It's very empowering and very fulfilling to see a problem in the world, and to then use what you've learned and obtain new data to hopefully solve that problem."
Kapono went on to get a masters degree in molecular bioscience and bioengineering from UH, and while studying the toxins in cone snail venom and their potential therapeutic use, he was approached by recruiters from the University of California, San Diego, who offered to cover tuition for his PhD in addition to paying him a monthly salary. It was a great opportunity for Kapono, but he was hesitant to accept.
Kapono had never lived outside of Hawaii, and in addition to being far from his family, friends and community, he was also worried about how a proudly-Hawaiian surfer would be received by the mainland faculty. According to Kapono, he'd already experienced bigotry and racism from one of his undergraduate professors who said he "could work for me when you quit surfing," and also told him to act less "Hawaiian."
"Trust is hard for Hawaiians, because we grew up with the people we care about most telling us not to trust outsiders," says Kapono. "Our elders truly believe that we are going to be lied to and taken advantage of by people from the outside, because that's their own personal experience—and it's not wrong. People have these personal stories about being abused by foreigners, so that shapes their perspective."
Despite his reservations, Kapono decided to visit UCSD and hear the recruiters out. As fate would have it, Kapono's arrival in San Diego coincided with one of the best swells to hit the campus-adjacent Blacks Beach in years. It was after getting spit out of a heaving right barrel that he made up his mind—he'd accept their offer.
I’D BEEN with Kapono for a week, and this was the first time I'd seen him put on a pair of shoes. They were required to enter the marine science building on the north end of the University of Hawaii at Hilo campus, where we were meeting one of Kapono's frequent laboratory collaborators, renowned coral researcher John Burns.
Kapono scanned us in with his keycard and led us to Burns' office, which was packed with DSLR cameras, 3D-image-capturing GoPro arrays and 3D-printed sections of coral reef. Burns is a professor of marine science and data science at UH, and he and Kapono pioneered a process of studying coral reefs using a technique called photogrammetry to create three-dimensional maps of coral. Based on real-world samples taken from the coral, they were then able to layer the chemical signatures of the reef onto the map, giving a more complete picture of corals, from the living structures that you see with the naked eye all the way down to the molecular level. It's the type of cutting-edge environmental research that's becoming more important every day as sea levels rise and the ocean becomes more acidic as a result of climate change.
For being a renowned science professor, Burns looked surprisingly casual wearing shorts and a T-shirt at his desk, with a week or so of blonde scruff sprouting from his face. The two greeted with a half handshake, half hug and immediately started talking about the surf conditions that morning. It's clear that while they do groundbreaking research together, their bond is based as much in the lineup as it is in the laboratory. In fact, had it not been for surfing, they may not have started working together in the first place.
The two first crossed paths several years ago when Kapono was working toward his masters degree at the UH Manoa campus and Burns was doing the same at the Hilo campus. Burns, who grew up in Oregon and got his undergraduate degree in San Luis Obispo, CA, was living with one of Kapono's longtime friends. "I asked my friend, 'What are you doing hanging with this haole?'" remembers Kapono of the first time he met Burns while visiting home. "'He doesn't know about Hawaiian things. What do you guys even talk about?'"
From those unlikely beginnings, the two connected not only through their shared passions for surfing and science, but also through their shared appreciation for Hawaiian land and culture. For Kapono, who had experienced condescension from non-Hawaiian academics in the past, it was perspective-shifting to hear an outsider come to the islands eager to not just conduct research within the parameters of traditional Western science, but to learn from the locals and explore how their cultural knowledge can supplement that research.
"JB came to Hawaii to learn about coral reefs and actually understood where he was," says Kapono. "He didn't just want to learn from the academics, but from the fishermen and the hula dancers and the Hawaiian people. He knew that there was more to learn than what was in the textbooks. That was the first time I've felt that level of respect in the scientific community. It was an intellectual respect. Not like, 'Oh, I need to respect you so I don't get pounded.' It was recognition that I hold value with my perspective as a Hawaiian."
According to Kapono, his friendship with Burns was pivotal in reframing his view of outsiders, and it's allowed him to trust and connect with people in the scientific community in ways he never had before.
"Recently I've been able to meet people around the world with similar perspectives, who come from communities with low representation in science," says Kapono. "It's exciting because we're building our own community, and everyone can appreciate the struggle of overcoming fear. We can all participate."
Today, Burns and Kapono continue to work together at the UH, pioneering coral research using innovative data science tools—they also spend plenty of time researching a certain right-breaking slab a short walk from Burns' home. And while some members of the scientific community still balk at Kapono, who continues splitting his time between the lab and swell chases, Burns believes that the platform surfing allows Kapono is just as valuable as the time he puts in at the lab.
"Cliff is a really powerful role model here in Hawaii and beyond," says Burns. "Through professional
surfing, and by being a cultural practitioner involved in the Hawaiian community, he reaches and connects to so many different people. That's the most important thing that we can do right now as scientists, because the work that we're doing is pressing. The world is rapidly changing and undergoing pressures that are affecting every environment. So when you have someone like Cliff out there who can not only do important research, but can also get the word out and be a powerful ambassador for science, that's making the world a better place every day. He's probably done more for the awareness of science than most top-level scientists will do in their careers, just because he connects with people beyond academia."
Right now, Kapono's research mainly focuses on the coral reefs along his home coast of Hawaii, which
is a dynamic subject due to the high volume of rain, the movement of sediment from waterways to the
ocean and the abundant wave energy found there. But the effects of his research will likely extend far beyond the Hawaiian archipelago.
"I focus my efforts on Hawaii, to look at the problems here, because this is my community," says
Kapono. "But hopefully the work we do here can be a model for others on a global scale. We all share many of the same problems—people in the Canaries, people in Alaska, people in Buffalo. I feel like I can look at the way they solve problems and apply them to my focus, and vice versa."
After leaving the lab, we drove down to Honoli'i once again to check the waves. The pulsing swell from the day before had already dropped, but there were still plenty of fun, chest-high waves scattered across the reef. Kapono grabbed his alaia out of the bed of the truck and paddled out to a right peak just on the east side of the river mouth.
I remembered something that Kapono had said earlier about his alaia, and how he feels it represents
the relationship he sees between modern science and Hawaiian heritage. "Sure, it's a traditional craft, but the design is contemporary," he'd explained. "It's light because it's made of Australian paulownia, but it's also strong because it has Hawaiian koa wood inside of it. It's a Hawaiian thing, but it's integrating other ideas from all over the world. Together, it's a nice match."
When a clean right came to Kapono, he smoothly climbed to his feet, staying in a low crouch with his
right hand acting as a rudder in the face of the wave until he shifted his weight to his heelside rail, gracefully spinning a full rotation on the finless craft and continuing into the shallows. It was a little bit traditional, a little bit modern—a nice match, indeed.