Surfing’s dark tides: are wave pools the answer?

Surfing being knighted as an Olympic sport is a bittersweet turn of events, a feel that many surfers will resonate with. The Olympic committee’s controversial decisions at Teahupoʻo, Tahiti, started a growing friction between environmentalists, surfers, and the world of competitive surfing. The decision to upheave ancient and pristine coral reefs to build a judging tower for the 2024 Olympic surfing events is fraught with understandable anger and dismay. However, it has brought to light the question of really quite how harmful the current system of competitive surfing is to our environment. Could it be that wave pools are the answer competitive surfing needs?

The local judging tower that hosts the Tahiti Pro, and the precious reef below. Photo: Tahiti Pro/ WSL.
The local judging tower that hosts the Tahiti Pro, and the precious reef below. Photo: Tahiti Pro/ WSL.


So, what is happening in Tahiti?

Tahiti is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. An oasis in the midst of the wild Pacific Ocean, it is often referred to as the most prolific spot of evolution on the planet. The coral reefs that frame these islands are some of the most pristine and intact reef ecosystems in the world. It is home to unchartered ecosystems, some of which we are still stumbling upon for the first time as recently as 2022

They are not replaceable, needing millennia to reach the maturity and productivity of those who sculpt the waves at Teah’upoo. The health of these reefs 1970s has been slowly declining, a theme witnessed across the world. Everything from petrochemical leakage and sound from outboard boat engines to the oceanic heatwaves these reefs have had to tolerate in recent years means their protection is at the heart of the Polynesian people. 

Corals in Tahiti. Photo: Tahiti Tourisme (Gregory Lecoeur)
Corals in Tahiti. Photo: Tahiti Tourisme (Gregory Lecoeur)

On a fundamental level, without healthy, intact coral reefs at Teahupo’o, there would be no wave. 

So, it came as a shock to the system when the Olympic organizers proposed changing the current wooden tower which has been used to judge competitions at Teahupo’o until 2023, to a new in-built aluminum tower. 

The International Surfing Association (ISA) expressed the worldwide disdain at the prospect of ripping up this reef for a new tower. They submitted an alternative proposal for judging at Teahupo’o in 2024, utilizing the original wooden frame. Yet, unfortunately in December 2024, the Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet provided the following statement (per Reuters): 


“This is an option that had been looked into but discarded because it would mean the events being judged from a 900-meter distance.”. 


This is despite the wooden tower currently used being acceptable for World Surf League (WSL) events like the Tahiti Pro, where it is removed and reassembled for each event to minimize impact. It was a harsh reality check for the surfing community, confirming suspicions that even in a world with 8K drones and broadcasting technology, a sport that celebrates the natural forces seems to cause their destruction. Make of it what you will. 


Is this the future of competitive surfing?

Competitive surfing is notoriously frustrating, with event call-offs and frequent location changes being the result of trying to create uniformity in a sport that hinges on the whim of Mother Nature. 

The areas where competitive surfing takes place are home to the best waves on the planet, think Margaret River, Australia, or Pipe, O’ahu. 

These sites are often places of rich environmental worth as well as mutant waves. However, the local area is often overloaded with tour infrastructure and a huge yet temporary influx of people that place excessive strain on the local community and environment that some of these sites are not equipped for. 

Not only are they often fragile, but many of these sites are also more vulnerable to the future impacts of climate change. For example, Pipeline, a frequent stop on the World Surf League’s (WSL) tour is at an extreme risk of flooding, experiencing storm surges and rising sea levels. Although the WSL is one of the leading sporting organizations for incorporating sustainable practices in their events, from becoming net zero in 2019 to working alongside Indigenous and First Nations communities, it appears to be increasingly a fight to justify the costs and wastage (postponed events) of these events. 

While not perfect due to their energy requirements (which are increasingly being provided by green energy such as solar and hydroelectric power), wave pools seem to be a logical step in the progression and evolution of competitive surfing.

The technology could also be seen as a way to improve the accuracy of judging these events, with no natural variations in waves providing advantages. 

Wave pools can be constructed in regions equipped to deal with the influx of environmental stress that hosting an event, especially one the size of the Olympics ensues, such as URBN SURF in Melbourne. 


The modification of wave pool settings is rapidly progressing,
The modification of wave pool settings is rapidly progressing,

For many, this might be an uncomfortable thought. After all, the essence of surfing is appreciating the natural world by harnessing its raw power to dance on waves created from energy traveling thousands of miles to reach you. However, competitive surfing is surfing as a sport, to be judged and assessed – and ultimately to push the boundaries of what is possible. 

Transitioning competitive surfing to a pool sport could help keep surfing from hurting the planet and contributing to its demise, so are wave pools the answer to keep surfing sustainable?