Cliff Kapono
Author: Todd Glaser courtesy of Reef Brand
2024

Cliff Kapono

Professional Surfer and Environmental Scientist

tides of change

meet cliff

Dr. Cliff Kapono is a professional surfer, ASU professor, and environmental researcher. Born on the eastern shores of Hawai‘i, his life involves equal parts science and surf. While contributing to several peer-reviewed publications to the fields of molecular bioscience, he has also produced a handful of award-winning films that discuss indigenous activism, ocean conservation, global food security, and augmented reality. He has been profiled in publications such as The New York Times, NBC, CBS, Surfer Magazine, and more. Cliff is currently based in Hilo, Hawai‘i and can be found tinkering in the lab when not chasing the best waves on the planet.

tides of change
Nominated by: Trevor Wallace, MN'13
Class of 2024 Location Hawai'i, USA
Follow cliff's work:
Todd Glaser courtesy of Reef Brand
Todd Glaser courtesy of Reef Brand

My work to explore the deeper connections between humans and nature has inspired a purpose in my life that makes it all the more meaningful. As a professional surfer who is formally trained in analytical chemistry, I try to elevate scientific research and environmental narratives within the outdoor recreation industry. Growing up in an isolated community in the middle of the ocean, I have seen first hand the power of connection. To survive, we rely on each other in our community as well as our natural resources. In my culture, these connections are often viewed as spiritual but can also be described using conventional science and the scientific method. While my surfing demonstrates my cultural and kinetic relationship with the ocean, my research describes methods that explore how the ocean has the ability to change our DNA. Using 3D photographic surveying technology alongside indigenous storytelling, I document these relationships and work towards strengthening environmental literacy around the world. My hope is to continue to demonstrate that indigenous perspectives coincide with innovative environmental practice and that the world can greatly benefit from strengthening our connections to nature.

“My hope is to continue to demonstrate that indigenous perspectives coincide with innovative environmental practice and that the world can greatly benefit from strengthening our connections to nature.”

- Cliff Kapono
Author: Todd Glaser courtesy of Reef Brand

This past November, I led a team of scientists and surfers to the proposed site of where the 2024 Olympic Summer Surfing Games will be held. Teahupo‘o, Tahiti is known to be one of the most beautiful and deadly waves in the world, but little is known about its mechanics or why this wave breaks the way it does. The purpose of the expedition was to examine the unique features of the reef that make Teahupo‘o so desirable and the current state of the reef at the wave.

While on expedition, it became clear that the local community was concerned over the potential anthropogenic impacts associated with the summer games. Members of the community shared with our team that they greatly depend on the wave, the reef, and the ocean for their livelihoods and the proposed three days of competition does not seem worth threatening their way of life. They shared with us that at the time, foreign interests planned to build permanent structures on the reef to support Olympic viewing of the wave. Our team shared our scientific surveying methods and within two days, members of the local community began mapping their house reefs.

Although our initial plans weren’t to map reefs outside of the targeted wave, because of the community, we were able to identify hundreds of live coral colonies and create a baseline study of their thriving coral ecosystem. This study is now being peer-reviewed and expected to be published by the end of the year. Although we don’t do it enough, including community members into our expeditions and research as collaborators often make the trip that much more meaningful. 

never stop exploring

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE CLASS OF 2024

VIEW THE EC50 2024 PRINT PUBLICATION