Big Wave Week

For weeks, we’ve been waiting for the waves…

...watching the forecasts for a big storm to our north, then waiting to see if the storm actually comes. Watching the wind field set up: is the fetch pointing to us? How long will the winds stay in place? Did they generate a swell? Is it coming?

Then we wait. The ocean is quiet while we haunt the internet for signs that our waves are on their way.

This week's waves come after two solid weeks of anticipation. We saw the storm forecast. Then it set up, huge enough to dominate the entire Northern Pacific. Monstrous wind fields pointed perfectly to us! We knew the waves were on their way, and still long days from us.

Dawn Patrol, getting up to greet the day when the coquis quiet and the birds are still asleep. Making some coffee and strolling down to the coast with a tripod and a puppy to wait for the sunrise. Mouse and I have a tradition of shouting "Aloha" to the first big set that comes in.

We're always hopeful there will be some early sets, but happy to settle for a beautiful sunrise anyway.

We have a local group on Facebook, Puna Weather, where we discuss approaching swells and weather events. The news of the approaching waves got everyone excited. As the forecast firmed up and the waves built, we ran into familiar faces at sunrise and sunset.

We had a few impromptu gatherings in Kahakai Park where people brought their evening drinks or pupus to share. In the lead-up to the big waves, the ocean was just a backdrop for our discussions of when the real swells would arrive.

The Big Waves Finally Arrived!

I heard them roaring in the night, pounding at the cliffs in the darkness. We were anticipating 20-foot waves, maybe up to 30 feet tall depending on the exact angle. All week there was a buzz on Puna Weather about the waves coming. They arrived on Election Day so it wasn't much of a stretch to take the day off work. None of the kids on the island had school anyway.

It's a trick managing salt spray and cameras. Over the years, I've come up with a few techniques. We usually have an offshore breeze at sunrise, which helps. I plan my sunrise shots with my good cameras and heavy tripod. Extra UV filters.

Later in the day, though, it's all about getting the action shots. Then I switch to my little pocket camera, a little Sony RX100IV I got a waterproof case for. I don't trust the case for submersion, but it's great for heavy spray and splashing, maybe the occasional drenching.

I ran into some friends down at the cliffs. Ryan was there with a handful of kids, all thrilled to be out of school on a big wave day. High fives and giggling, bouncing with excitement: the kids were physical expressions of the glee we all felt More neighbors and friends came along, and we formed a loose caravan to explore some of my favorite spots. Live here long enough and you figure out exactly where to stand to get the experience you want out of each swell.


Knowing the ocean is key. I combine years of experience watching waves in all the spots along our cliffs with a careful eye on the signals at the shore.

By the time the swell arrives, I've been watching it form and hit the buoys all along the island chain. Still, before I go close to the edge, I always stand a while and catch the rhythm.

I look for foam first, as I walk up. If there is foam, there have been --and will be again -- big waves, even if they're small when I walk up. There can easily be a half hour's break between the big sets, or even longer. Where the rocks are wet on the cliffs and the crabs are climbing: that is where the splashes reached. I look at the ground under my feet. A solid drenching draws small gravel back toward the ocean as the wave recedes. Sometimes even plants are scoured off the shore, and you know the wave itself reached up to grab them.

We all trooped down to Disconcerting Rock. It's a high cliff that juts out into the deeps. The waves break past you, like you're on the bow of a giant ship. You look at curling, moving mountains on both sides of you. The ground shakes: it's disconcerting.

Of course the kids loved it! Ryan climbed down a step toward the ocean to get a closer shot of the waves while I caught the shot above.

It is both scarier and much safer than it looks. The rock where he's crouched is 30 feet above the sea and completely dry. But when the entire cliff moves, you clutch the ground and your heart races before you laugh and wait for the next one.

Every sunrise and sunset, and lots of times between

For a whole week of big waves, I've been grinning at the ocean. I have a pile of images to edit, there is a backlog of chores waiting around the house, and my camera bag needs a good washing -- again!

This was the first real wave event of the winter season. From here on out, it's whales and waves until mango season!

A hui hou, Big Waves, and mahalo!

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