Artificial Reefs: Volume. Volume. Volume.

Dr. Jose Borrero from ASR Ltd. a marine consulting firm based in New Zealand is an expert in the field of artificial reef design, construction and deployment. The implementation of artificial reefs at various locales is, at first glance, a no-brainer. The good that is created cannot be undervalued: a diving experience, a surfing experience, a new home for sea life, and a possible cure for beach erosion. Nevertheless, a raised eyebrow or two often accompanies this relatively new concept. Dr. Borrero shed some light on the process of creating artificial surfing reefs.

SURFER: Tell us first, how are these reefs made, what is the cutting edge as far as technology and materials?
DR. JOSE BORRERO: The reefs that we’ve built are made of out of really big sand bags. They are very durable. They are strong, and they are massive. Imagine sand bags the size of a school bus or bigger. They weigh hundreds of tons when lying on the seabed.

SURFER:Sand bags seem so…simple. Is there anything on the horizon that will take the place of sand bags like say, giant concrete jacks, or have we come to place where sandbags are the best option for artificial reefs?
DR. JOSE BORRERO: We have gone through the mental gymnastics and brainstorming of all sorts of different options. When it comes down to stability, ease of construction, and the ability to really define what you are building sand bags are ideal. We’ve thrown around all sorts of concepts like cars, and tires and people say, ‘what about this?’ or ‘what about that?’ and we’ve explored it all. Sand bags are they way to go.

SURFER: In one of our past issues we did a feature titled ‘Man vs. Nature’. We talked to the Army Corps of Engineers and they said, ‘We really do not know what goes into making a good surf spot. The variables are so great.’ Have you been able to determine not only what materials to use, but more importantly, how to design a good surfing reef, one that surfers will be stoked to ride over?
DR. JOSE BORRERO: Of course. There has been a lot of work done on determining what makes a good, surf-able reef. Starting with Kimo Walker, in the ’70s and ’80s at the University of Hawaii. Walker did some good basic research. And Dr. Kerry Black and Shaw Meade who work with me at ASR, they’ve studied the best surf breaks in the world. We know what makes them work. The swell, the shape, the directional focus, lots of variables that have all been defined. The one realization from this research is the best surf breaks are large geographical areas. And unfortunately you are not going to be able to recreate say for instance a Rincon or JBay. Or something along the size and scale of a headland. The volumes of everything, the sandbags, the time of work, the quantities of money, are immense. But recreating a slab wave. Recreating as wave that is short and sweet, those types of waves can be recreated as the volumes are viable.

SURFER: Something like say Kaisers on the south shore of Oahu, which was created by a sunken barge.
DR. JOSE BORRERO: Yeah, you’ve got to set your expectations in the right zone. For instance the Mount Reef (artificial reef at Mount Maunganui in New Zealand), it was always said that that reef was going to make a 50 to 75 meter ride. Now if you go measure a 50-meter ride, it’s not that long. But it’s important to keep these volumes within realistic parameters. Volume. Volume. Volume. I sound like a carpet agent (light laughter). Prattes Reef was about 1400 cubic meters. The Mount Reef is 4000 to 4,500 cubic meters. So think about scales of volumes. The southern jetty in Newport Beach, which makes the Wedge, is 700 meters long with, I’m speculating here, 1000 cubic meters per meter of length. That’s 300,000 cubic meters of material that was used to make the Wedge…give or take. Now the Wedge only produces on average 10 classic Wedge days a year. But it is an integral part of our surfing landscape and culture. So we are at the very beginning. Four artificial surfing reefs have been built in the history of human kind. Three have done all right and one completely failed.

SURFER: That’s not a bad record and what you are speaking to here is baby steps. It is easy to be critical of these reefs but I prefer that we stay optimistic. If you are a surfer you have to stay optimistic.
DR. JOSE BORRERO: I like to compare it to skateboard ramps. The first quarter pipe you built. What did that look like? Probably not much. I skated a lot and by the time I got to college we were building spine half pipes coated in steel and laying the plys at 45-degrees and they were awesome, so you know, it will get there.

SURFER: Wow. It would’ve been good to be your friend back then. I could’ve been a skate hero. It’s interesting that we’ve only come a little ways down the road when you consider that our accidental involvement in the ocean has created lots of great waves. Harbor mouths and piers and jetties for example.
DR. JOSE BORRERO: They just happen because, you know, man puts up a structure and sand builds up on it and a bank is made. Surfers will surf anything. The accidents just come about because they engineers have had a lot of sand to play with, a lot of rocks to play with, and a lot of money to play with. Eventually a good mistake will happen. When you throw a bunch of spaghetti at the wall eventually some of it will stick. Just imagine if they had actually designed and created those projects with recreational activity around them like surfing and diving. The waves created off the jetty are an indirect benefit. At ASR, we are creating projects with a direct recreational benefit as the main focus. We are now looking into the economic viability of these reefs. Just imagine if you could guarantee people spending $75 per day, like they do with snowboarding and skiing. There is no mechanism to do that. And I’m not saying there should be either. Nay sayers, environmentalists, whoever… whatever, if there was an economic motive driving these reef projects they would have been created and built thirty years ago.

SURFER:The Success in New Zealand, the Mount Reef, tell us about it.
DR. JOSE BORRERO: Mount Manganui is on the east coast in the Bay of Plenty, it faces straight north. It doesn’t get a lot of swell. It is a popular beach, lots of surfers. It’s a wide sandy open beach. The reef started as a student project and then some locals got involved and people in the community heard about it. It took something like 15 years before the reef was put in the water. The reef sits 300 meters offshore. It’s a shallow sloping beach, when the waves get really big the waves break way outside the reef, but then the entire spot is unsurfable anyway. The right range of swell conditions makes for a slabby hollow ride. Boogie boarders dominate the spot. On the right days you can board surf it. I’ve surfed it. It has is moments like any surf spot. There are days when there are no people on the reef. There are days when it is packed. There are days when there are only three people using the reef. So it functions just as any other surf spot would. It’s a small structure. But it is a great time. It is doing what it was planned to do. It provides sucky 50-75 meter waves.