Pipe Dreams

The reality of artificial reefs

| posted on June 02, 2014
The artificial reef at Kovalam.

The once-hyped and now-failed artificial reef at Kovalam in India.

In 2008, along a beach located inside the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand, government officials from the town of Mount Maunganui and local surfers alike beamed with pride as they unveiled an artificial reef that they believed would create a new wave, enhance their town, and draw in visiting surfers. The wave, which would come to be known as Mt. Reef, was constructed by a New Zealand-based company known as ASR at a cost of $1.5 million NZ. Fast forward six years, and Mt. Reef has largely become an embarrassment for many surfers in the area. With the exception of a few days of decent surf, the artificial reef has yet to truly deliver, with some surfers calling the project a colossal waste of money. Over time, the reef has fallen apart, creating such a severe rip tide that local officials announced last week that they would dismantle it because of the danger it posed to swimmers.

“The reef’s expected positive effects have not been realized,” said Eddie Grogan of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, whose organization hired ASR to design the reef. “It’s also generated some unforeseen effects, including creating a large scour hole which affects waves and currents, increasing the frequency and intensity of rips which pose a serious risk to swimmers. We have to dismantle it. It’s not only not created a wave, it’s simply created a situation that’s proven to be too dangerous to beachgoers.”

This wasn’t the first time that ASR has come under fire for their multipurpose artificial reef. In addition to the failure of Mt. Reef (ASR defended that particular project by stating that construction was never actually finished) the company has left a long list of highly criticized projects in their wake in towns like Taranaki, NZ, Kovalam, India, and a project in Boscombe, England that proved to be so divisive that the local county council actually considered legal action against the company. However, one of the company’s earlier projects in Narrowneck, Australia has been met with generally mixed reactions from surfers.

In the 2000s, ASR positioned themselves as a company that could protect coastlines around the world from erosion while simultaneously producing a high-quality wave through their multipurpose reefs, which were composed of a series of strategically places geotextile bags filled with sand. The company contends that their multipurpose reefs weren’t only meant to produce waves, but to combat coastal erosion. Their sales pitch was slick and with grand visions of manipulating nature, of creating perfect peaks from thin air, of turning Huntington into the Super Bank, and of widening beaches, seaside communities began calling.

For the town of Bournemouth, England, the reality of their lofty dreams proved to be a multi-million-dollar nightmare. As a tool to help to revitalize a downtrodden beachside village, the Bournemouth Borough Council inked a deal with ASR to create Boscombe Surf Reef, Europe’s first artificial surfing reef, in 2007. On November 2, 2009, well over budget and way behind deadline, the reef was completed at a cost of just over £3 million. By 2011, the reef was closed.

In the two years that it was operational, many local surfers believe that the reef—which was meant to create both a quality right and left—failed to live up to expectations. Critics stated that the waves it produced were inconsistent, too steep, and too short. The lone exception to the criticism were a crew of bodyboarders, who reportedly favored the peak when it actually broke. The reef, which was closed for repairs that were never completed, was rebranded this year not as a surf reef, but as a Coastal Activity Park catering to diving, snorkeling, and wind surfing.

“The reef never worked right from the start and then began to disintegrate and become dangerous,” said Bournemouth County Councilor Ben Grower. “Some damage was made to the reef by a boat, or it was claimed to be so, but this was not the real problem. The design was defective and the construction was poor. The local Council wasted £3 million on this scheme.” An independent monitoring report found that the reef only met four of the 11 requirements the council laid out to gauge its success.

In 2010, ASR unveiled another multipurpose reef funded by the Indian government in the town of Kovalam. Not long after the reef’s completion, the company released a video showcasing a very rippable left-hand peak. ASR appeared to finally have found their mark. But according Jelle Rigole, the founder of the Kovalam surf club, the conditions deteriorated not long after this wave came to life and the break has been reported as presently being a closeout.

“I was stoked to hear about the construction of the reef,” said Rigole. “In the beginning, it was great. But after the first monsoon season, some of the bags that composed the reef came loose. The reef sank deeper into the sand so most of the waves just roll over the reef now without even breaking. Even when it comes to halting erosion, to be honest, I don’t think the reef makes the slightest difference. It’s just a peak that sometimes seems to steepen, but then sinks away again and changes into a closeout dumping on the beach.”

Further investigation reveals that the money that the Indian government actually paid to create the reef could be tied to Tsunami Relief Funds. Reports from both Sky News and a source from within ASR confirmed this. In 2009, 54 percent of ASR’s shares were bought out by an American group, Sealutions LLC. And in 2013, facing numerous unsurmountable hurdles, ASR was liquidated as a company.

Dr. Shaw Mead, who cofounded ASR, left the company not long after Sealutions took over. Dr. Mead contends that when it came to producing waves, the multipurpose reefs did hold potential, but that numerous hurdles—most notably unattainable expectations and inadequate funding to produce the proper structures—blocked them from being successful. He was also adamant that while many of the waves never delivered, the multipurpose reefs were effective in combating coastal erosion.

When asked what the company could have done differently, Dr. Mead stated that “they should have tried a lot harder to temper the expectations. Artificial reefs invariably get hyped up as some kind to magical creature that will make perfect waves every day—no breaks can do that…I believe that the company should have built on all that had been learned and demonstrated, helped the clients end up with what we actually designed, and actively worked with clients and the media to get across what should be expected in the way of wave quality for a particular site.”

Dr. Mead went on to say that the number-one mistake ASR made was selling the majority shareholder rights to Sealutions LLC. It was from there, he said, that the business began to slip. “Without doubt the single biggest thing should have done differently would have been to not sell the majority shareholding out to a group of young Californians, that was the beginning of the end for the company.”

SURFER was able to contact a former ASR employee who wished to remain anonymous, to further describe the issues that faced the company.

“It’s true that there weren’t any reefs that we created that you could say were successful in the sense that they produced a consistently good wave. They were multipurpose reefs that served a variety of functions, but when it came to delivering the kinds of waves surfers wanted, no, none of them were really successful in that sense.” The source went on to add that “This wasn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. No one really made any money off of it. You have to realize that we are scientists, engineers and dedicated surfers. No one wanted it to work more than us. It’s really difficult and expensive to build an artificial reef when you factor in all of the supplies, manpower and equipment needed. A lot of the faults of these reefs were because they were underfunded. To do one right, you’d need to spend $50 million, not $5 million.”

When asked to detail the failures of the reef, most specifically the one at Boscombe, the source described the situation as being complicated and marred by mistakes.

“The failure of Boscombe Reef should have been foreseen. We should have never put a reef there. But when a council comes to you with millions of dollars, what are you going to do? There aren’t a lot of opportunities to build a reef in the first place. That’s not to say that we created wasn’t more or less what we said we would. The council would come to us and we’d tell them that we could create a 60-meter long wave that would suck up a little and throw. And, given the right condition, that’s what we created. The biggest mistake was managing expectations. The council in the UK, they weren’t really surfers and they thought they were getting a wave that was different than we actually agreed upon.”

  • Balm

    I live and surf at the Mount and am one of the biggest knockers of ASR, also have a lot to do with Opunake surfers and their promised reef which was a balls up as well…
    These guys are biggest fraudulent thieves/wankers going today who should be made accountable for their actions. Praying on local communities and businesses who do not quite understand the mechanics of surf/swell wind etc and promising a massive influx of surfers into the region to surf this ‘thing’ with economic growth. I remember some of their marketing had things like ‘perfect surf guaranteed everyday’ who are they trying to kid, mother nature will decide that!!
    I sent Bournemouth council two emails back when I found out they were going to fund their ‘sack’ in the ocean warning them about ‘Kerry Blacks’ company and all the failures so far. they obviously didnt listen. I understand he sold out and is now hiding away in Lombok at a little surf camp that he has built with all your money!! Bring these robbers to justice

    • boogs

      it’s called heaven on the planet in lombok, the waves suck there to….

  • Spot Man

    Yep, Im in I agreeance with Mr Balm , these guys created the hype, miss leading local governments around the world with dream time banks created by sand filled sacks … please ? , May be when the coral grows over them in about a 10,000 years youll get your reef .
    I witnessed the construction of the Opunake reef – destined to fail – , simply because there not enough flat days to construct ? worse than that the decision was to construct during winter?? therefore blew out of schedule & budget , construction crews blew in and blew out leaving their shit every where fortunately no one was injured while their construction site was abandoned and left unprotected for more than a year
    the project is not finished to this day ( needs more sand in the bags they recon ??)
    I can see way they folded as the majority was soon to awaken and to remove these failed reefs will cost as much the install …. say 2-3 Mill a throw

  • isurfnaked

    You know the monorail episode of The Simpsons? That’s kinda how I imagine Bournemouth council were suckered in to building that reef.


    See this discussion on ASRs from Surfrider’s Beachapedia website:

  • Got it all wrong.

    You don’t need a bunch of money to build a sick artificial reef. All you need is a proper horseshoe bay, a giant triangular tarp, and something solid to secure it to. Sand builds up beneath the tarp creating a triangle in the bay. Voila. Instabreak. Stop wasting money and use your minds.

  • GiantDong

    I live in Raglan, and knew a lot of the ASR crew. The original guy, Dr Shaw knew his stuff, but took on a heap of international geek interns on their doctorate courses. They did the majority of the work for free, were badly managed as Dr Shaw had lost interest, and once it was bought out, it went down as fast as the staffs visa’s were expiring. A company called Met Ocean has taken over some of their work, with old ASR staff, but they have learned from the mistakes of their competition, and are not pursuing that avenue of business, more forecasting and weather modelling from what I gather.
    Most of the ASR reef work was always seen as a spin off to coastal defence projects, and was seen as great publicity, work experience and an attempt at a working reef first. Somebody had to do it to make the first mistakes, and somebody had to pay for it, which councils did with great expectation. Guess the dream of having a legendary surf break is a pretty big attraction for a council, and its pretty easy to waste council money and inflate budgets – they wear the wrong kind of suits to know anything about surfing, but its lucritive image.

    On a positive note, at least they are taking them out or providing a new habitat for marine life. The Rena – the ship that crashed into the reef just off Mt Maunganui is still there, the salvage company paid to remove it says its not worth it. Crashing a huge ship on the captains birthday, on a clear night with no swell, into a super well marked reef, with brand new navigation systems, and then leaking oil in NZ’s worst maritime spill is worse.
    At least we won our fight with the seabed mining, we said NO to the big companies and won after a 10 year fight!

  • Andre Pattantyus

    building reefs with textile bags will fail 100% of the time. There is an implicit assumption that they will not fail or that they will last x number of years which is beyond any reasoning. I read a surfing magazine article from 1995 or so where they talked about building reefs with poured concrete which is pretty similar to how they build reefs by sinking old ships/planes/bridges which seems like the only reasonable way to build one. The problem becomes, how will it all settle and accrete sand? The current understanding of along shore transport just isn’t there to make promises like that. Sure it might work for a few months or years but especially when sand is involved there is no permanent solution

    • chris eaves

      yeah andre!

  • tommy_one

    Ala Moana is man made still pumping… need the concrete “jacks” to do it right.

  • Dave Burns

    Asking a company to build a surf reef is like asking a company to build you a mountain……too expensive, too chaotic, impossible to model the results accurately and completely stupid

  • Kezuk999

    What you haven’t said is the council at Bournemouth knew about the failings of this company but still went ahead ! …. And guess what …no one was to blame at the council !