The search for waves - between science and Neptune's gifts

Have you ever slept by the sea? Ok, this might sound cheesy, but it is a very special experience, no matter how often you repeat. If you’re somehow connected to the ocean, you'll agree. And if you're into wave sports, you'll know that feeling of pure joy, similar to being tipsy, and giggly impatience that comes over you when you hear the sound of the waves breaking out there in the night. It almost doesn’t let you sleep, especially when it catches you completely by surprise, because you didn’t expect any waves.

Even though anyone who practices sports such as surfing, bodyboarding, kite surfing or other water activities is used to constantly checking wave and wind forecasts, they do still exist, those waves that you didn't expect. Of course, around the area where you live, you have a pretty good command of the forecasts, but when you travel, or sometimes even if you just go to a coast that you don't usually frequent, it can be a whole new game. The data that gets you fired up at your home break sometimes turns out to be a real bummer somewhere else. Yep, checking forecasts and looking for waves can be frustrating, but if the surprise is for good, there is no better glory.

That's what happened to us on a camping trip. We were arriving in the dark and not even remotely thinking about waves, because, according to our interpretation of the forecast, there weren't going to be any. However, later that night, we started to hear something that promised the opposite and the next morning, it turned out we were right: offshore wind, incredible waves, perfectly shaped, and, best of all, nobody in the water! A festival for any bodyboarder or surfer, that goes without saying. Some questions, though, maybe are worth explaining:

Where do waves actually come from? Why do forecasts change so much from one place to another? And how come that sometimes they’re not even very reliable? Let's take it one step at a time: 

Waves - a simple explanation

You might even skip this paragraph because you already know how waves form and have plenty of knowledge about the sea. Still, how often do you actually take a moment to realise what it is, that makes this liquid blue something appear in such a defined, curved, powerful, sometimes more, sometimes less perfect shape? Especially as it is a liquid, water, isn't it impressive that it’s basically our playground for so many different activities? Well, the very short explanation would be: there’s a lot of energy of different kinds involved. 

Well, it is a bit more complex, especially because a wave can have more than one origin. Let's start with perhaps the most common one. When the sun's energy heats the air, it transforms it into wind, which blows over the water and creates the chop on the surface. That would be the energy of the wind, which is transferred to the ocean. This energy, the molecules in the water, start to move under the surface in a circular motion, from the top, down, up again and down again, and so on. With the wind pushing, that ball of energy can travel for miles. The wind is not the only source though that can create this dynamic. It could also be a storm out in the ocean, the movement of a ship, an earthquake... There are all kinds of energy sources.

But let's stick to our circular underwater motion, capable of traveling long distances. It only changes its dynamics when it hits an obstacle. For example, when it reaches the shore and the bottom is no longer deep enough to allow the ball of energy to pass, or something in the water, rocks or whatever, that elevates the bottom and, again, doesn't let it pass. That's when it breaks and what we call a wave appears. Normally, they travel in series, series of three, but obviously there are always exceptions to the rules.

Forecasts or crystal balls

Ok, so far so good, but where do the surprises that get us all stoked come from if there's so much logic behind a wave? Well, they might be explicable, but there are many factors that are not so predictable. To begin with, everything is based on statistics, same as weather forecasts, and we all know that when it’s meant to be sunny the next day, sometimes it's just the opposite. Wave forecasts work the same way. Besides, the ocean ground is key when it comes to creating a wave. Forecasts are based on data from buoys offshore, but depending on the bottom, the predicted energy on the coast can take one form or another.

Well, there is a lot to say on this subject and to cover it all in detail, we could fill whole books, and you would probably not read til the end of this article. In fact, we didn’t even mention particular phenomena yet, such as rebel waves - one-off waves that are much higher than the rest of the waves in their series and still have no exact explanation; sea solitons - waves that travel alone and without changing their shape over a long distance; or tsunamis - gigantic waves formed by the impulse of earthquakes or eruptions at the bottom of the sea. 

See, there are all sorts of weird things out there, traveling the oceans, and it’s in the nature of human beings to want to investigate and explain it all. In many cases they succeed, and that’s great, but in some cases they don’t. And that’s also great. Because otherwise, we would never feel that pure happiness, like a child under the christmas tree, that fills you when you get ready to get into the water, because yes, there are waves and you weren't expecting it!