The most famous surfing coastline on Earth appears on no map. No official map, at least, geopolitical or topographic. The fabled shore does exist, however, floating in the Pacific at latitude 21.590 degrees north, longitude 158.112 west. The region has a name—several, in fact, comprising approximately nine miles of coastline. But if asked, the average surfer would probably have difficulty describing the epic waves off Waialua Bay, Kawailoa, Kamananui, and Waialee, if, in fact they had ever heard of those locations.
So far as surfing is concerned, the North Shore is a geological miracle—our very own Big Bang Theory, in which creation of an ideal form emerged from chaos.
But ask a surfer about “The North Shore”—not even the north shore of the island of Oahu, but simply “The North Shore”—and you’ll most likely be given a detailed account of surf breaks, swell direction, bottom contours, wind speed, population—both local and transitory—history and even real estate prices. And this from surfers from Easky Bay to Easter Island, surfers who’ve never been within a thousand nautical miles of Oahu, the sixth link (from south to north) in a volcanic chain of islands known as Hawaii. It’s a small wonder that more has been filmed and written about this tiny little stretch of sand, lava, and coral than any other surfing coastline in the world. So that while the regional names Waialua, Kawailoa, Kamananui, and Waialee mean little to surfers, the names Haleiwa, Laniakea, Waimea Bay, and Sunset Beach, names given to those region’s lesser geographic features, instantly call to mind a thousand images, each surf break an iconic shrine on the path to surfing’s Holy Land. The North Shore as Jerusalem: this has been accepted doctrine since the late 1950s, taken on pure faith. Belief in the North Shore’s supremacy is so pervasive that few surfers stop to ponder its place in the pantheon—technically, that is.
Yet the answer to this question can be broken down into three elements: geological, meteorological, and sociological. (A fourth, mythological, could be included, if it didn’t warrant its own separate treatise.) An examination of these quantifiable components can only lead to a better understanding of why we’re so drawn to a nine-mile corner of a tiny island in the Pacific.
So far as surfing is concerned, the North Shore is a geological miracle—our very own Big Bang Theory, in which creation of an ideal form emerged from chaos. Almost 70 million years ago, the entire Hawaiian Archipelago, stretching over 1,600 miles from the Big Island of Hawaii in the southeast to Kure Atoll in the northwest, began erupting almost 70 million years ago from a tectonic “hot spot,” a crack in the Pacific Plate, from which rose plumes of molten magma. Now few scientists would associate this primordial, geological event with the eventual development of the pig-dog at Pipeline or the aerial 360 at Rocky Point, yet this is, in fact, the case. Because over the millennia, these hot spots led to the formation of volcanoes that eventually poked their fiery heads up out of the Pacific.
Throughout further eons, the volcanic peaks experienced periods of growth, then erosion (called subsidence in geologic circles) during which fringing coral reefs developed. All of the Hawaiian Islands are volcanic in nature. Oahu was formed by two ancient fire mountains: Ko’olau in the east and Waianae in the west. But here’s where it starts to get good. Lava flows that ran down the steep northeastern side of Ko’olau gouged their way to the sea on the north-facing shore, creating a series of gulches that would eventually become natural streambeds. At the same time (give or take a few million years—this is geology we’re talking about) catastrophic landslides triggered by caldera wall collapse, spreading volcanic debris down slope, often for many miles. The combination of these two natural formations—lava being distributed down slope and into the sea and the development of a series of freshwater streams, both perennial and intermittent—is responsible for the bathometry, or underwater topography, that makes the North Shore unique among virtually all other coastlines: The Ultimate Hot Spot.
Despite common perception, most of the North Shore’s fabled breaks are volcanic in origin, not coral reef. This explains why surfers must boat their way out to the barrier reef pass of Teahupoo, while on the North Shore they can stand knee-deep and 25 yards away from a gaping Pipeline tube. Oahu has no barrier coral reef on its northern shore, as it does on its eastern shore from Kaaawa to Kaneohe. Subsequently the inshore coral growth over volcanic base that characterizes its northern coast has been more dramatically shaped by the freshwater streams flowing off the Ko’olau Range, freshwater being a deadly coral killer. And Oahu is perfectly formed to provide this precious surfing resource. With peaks rising to almost 3,000 feet, the island is ideally situated to wring from the prevailing northeast trade wind every drop of moisture. The result is an extensive system of streams and even rivers that flow to the sea all year long. The Anahulu, Kaunala, Kawailoa, and Kanamanui are just a few of the freshwater streams that have and are continuing to shape the North Shore’s surfing topography. Mix in the efforts of intermittent streams—like Paumalu, near modern-day Sunset Beach, which comes to life following heavy rains from Kona storms—and you have a veritable surf-spot factory.