Meet The World Wave Project
This December will mark six years since Kelly Slater unveiled his wavepool to a public who sat agog as that first, faultless wave zippered towards the camera. Slater’s was the first pool that matched the promise of man-made perfection. Since then, wavepools have become an industry with ten pools currently operating around the world and almost fifty more in construction. There’s also a publication dedicated solely to wavepools, and a global conference showcasing the ever-expanding technologies.
So it's fair to say the industry is booming.
However, in the twenty years leading up to 2015 the field of fake waves - or artificially created waves, or engineered waves, choose your term - was dominated, not by wavepools, but by artificial reefs. And in turn that industry was dominated by one company, Amalgamated Solutions and Research - simply known as ASR. ASR was a New Zealand company headed up by three surfers, two of whom, Dr Kerry Black and Dr Shaw Mead, met at the University of Waikato while Mead was doing his thesis studying the architecture of high performance surf breaks and their potential for replication.
ASR sold a vision of surfonomics based on the ‘build it and they will come’ mold. Flagging regional councils saw visions of Snapper Rocks appearing on their grim, marginal, and mostly closed-out beaches, and they bought into the concept that good waves attract surfers and that interest converts into dollars. See Bali, or Hawaii, or the Gold Coast, for instances of regional economies built on the back of good waves.
However, despite a rash of projects, none delivered on that promise. The website for Raised Water Research tracks all artificial surfing reefs and its history makes for dire reading for proponents of the technology:
Kovalam, India, a failed artificial surfing reef.
Mount Maunganui, New Zealand, a failed artificial surfing reef.
Opunake, New Zealand, a failed artificial surfing reef.
Boscombe Surf Reef, England, a failed artificial surfing reef.
The list includes Narrowneck on the Gold Coast, designed by ASR but built by another company, primarily as coastal protection, but also as a surfing reef, and in this respect could be considered moderately successful in that waves now break where they never used to.
Boscombe was the most notable one for ASR, a big budget (3.25 million pounds) reef happening on the international stage. For various reasons, mostly covered here, the reef never worked and it left a black mark against both ASR and the artificial reef industry.
Speaking to Bournemouth Echo in 2019, Boscombe Councillor Jane Kelly said: “People have this idea that they [ASR] were con men, but they weren’t. They were nice men, they were ambitious, forward thinking and radical.”
In 2011, Boscombe Reef was closed, while in 2012 ASR went into liquidation. Their great hope of coastal engineering deemed a failure, while all the energy in the room shifted to that other ersatz solution, wavepools.
However, it’s not the end of the story.
The two directors of ASR, Dr Kerry Black and Dr Shaw Mead split up, though both went on to establish tropical surf resorts. Dr Black opened Heaven On A Planet at Ekas, Lombok, on 10 acres of land he bought in 2000, and his part in the story effectively ends here.
Meanwhile, in 2009 Dr Shaw became a shareholder in Maqai Beach Eco Resort in Fiji, with access to a good if wind-affected righthander offshore and a handful of C-grade waves. Dr Shaw kept his professional hand in the field of marine research, founding eCoast in 2011, a New Zealand marine consultancy company, yet it’s Maqai where Mead kept alive his ambition, first articulated in his 1995 thesis, of transforming nondescript coast into A-grade waves.
Almost immediately after purchasing Maqai, Dr Mead set to work. In 2013 he co-wrote a paper titled ‘Development of a Multi-Purpose Breakwater Reef at Maqai Eco Surf Resort’ that detailed the three-stage construction of a feature that would both allow access to the resort at high tide and provide a learner-grade surfing wave.
In the subsequent years little progress was made with Mead’s big ideas, however his role as owner of Maqai brought him into contact with Anthony Marcotti. Marcotti started both Kandui Resort in the Mentawais and also World Wave Expeditions, a surf travel agency selling packages for surf resorts, including Maqai.
By 2018, Mead’s gospel of reef augmentation was starting to appear in some of Marcotti’s thinking. In an interview with Magic Seaweed, Marcotti, after waxing lyrical about the magic of perfect surf, signed off with an auspicious quote:
“I think, the real future of surf exploration is developing the technology to create our own waves in the ocean and using the ocean’s energy to our benefit. To alter waves that are close to being good into waves that are actually good and to find a harmonious balance between the environment and the science and techniques behind creating those waves; the next twenty years should be interesting.”
In Marcotti, Mead had picked up a running mate who, through his travel agency, took the dream of engineered waves from half-baked regional beachbreaks, funded by desperate councils and tourism bureaus, to the coral reef frontiers. Any surfer who’s spent time on an Indonesian charter boat understands how abundant coral reefs are, and also how few of them actually create good waves. Rare is the surfer who hasn’t daydreamed about improving a wave with some down home engineering: a night raid with a barge full of boulders, or maybe a well-placed stick of semtex.
For most, those thoughts remained in the province of dreams, yet Marcotti and Mead sought to turn them into reality. In 2019, they created the World Wave Project, launching the initiative with a website that laid bare their plans:
“Our goal is to create new surf breaks. These breaks will range from beginner’s waves through to high performance surf breaks that are comparable to world-class waves in world class locations. This will be achieved by selecting a location that has clean consistent swell and favorable winds but an unfavorable seabed for good surfing conditions. The site will be enhanced by altering the profile, depth, angle, and orientation of the sea floor to form a surf break.”
Marcotti and Mead invited the public to invest in the World Wave Project via a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. Set a goal of raising $342,137, the amount wasn’t reached. It’s unclear how much money, if any, was raised as Indiegogo has since removed the fund from its website. And in fact, World Wave Project’s own website is now also removed from the web, it’s only evidence of existence visible through The Wayback Machine.
It’s easy to think that the reason they didn’t reach their target was because the idea remains too far-fetched for Joe Public. It’s not an easy idea to believe in, especially considering ASR's litany of failures, yet it’s with good reason that Mead was described as “ambitious, forward thinking and radical.” To that it might be added, “good networker”.
In March this year, World Wave Project Limited registered itself as a company in New Zealand. The records show that seven people are shareholders: Mead and Marcotti, plus Ed Atkin - Mead’s colleague at eCoast - Michael Lucas, a co-owner of Vunabaka resort, and two Fijians, Rasnil Kalyan and Mohini Deo. The last shareholder is an American named Scott Nolan.
The latter name is the reason the surfing world will soon hear much more about Mead and Marcotti’s vision. Scott Nolan is a partner in the Founders Fund, the investment firm started by PayPal’s Peter Thiel, and which has famously invested in adventurous start ups such as Facebook, Spotify, Airbnb, and SpaceX. Nolan has a kink for the Kiwis. In 2011 he invested in 8i, a Wellington-based virtual reality company, then in 2014 visited Auckland for the Startup and Tech Meetup, while in 2017 he made clear he was focussing his attention on Kiwi companies, telling website Idealog:
“New Zealand is punching well above its weight in the startup world with a number of things happening there relative to the population size. I see huge potential, generally speaking...I hope to plug into New Zealand’s ecosystem, to the startup environment and support even more great companies with investment and advice.”
Nolan’s bio page on the Founder’s Fund website, describes him as someone who “focuses on companies rearchitecting industries, usually with hard engineering at the foundation”, all of which makes him an ideal investment partner for two guys aiming to ‘rearchitect’ dormant coral reefs.
Moreover, Nolan has summed up his aggressive investing technique, telling Business Insider that he doesn’t look for companies that are profitable, but rather companies that are unprofitable. That is, he backs companies who believe wholeheartedly in their idea to the extent they’ll burn through their own cash to succeed.
It makes for exciting copy in the finance pages, however World Wave Project’s first foray into the world of rearchitecting coral reefs is creating unwanted press elsewhere. Shortly after registering the company, they began work to clear bureaucratic hurdles and build waves at Dr Mead’s Maqai Beach Eco Resort. They planned to create “3-5 waves” around the resort by modifying the depth and contours. The techniques would include reef scraping to reduce height and rock compounds to create it.
Dr Mead told FBC News he, “believes several world-class waves in the region will attract additional investment in new resorts in the area creating employment opportunities for locals,” and that, “they can reinvent surf tourism while promoting Fiji as the world’s preeminent surf destination.”
This week, however, Taveuni Tourism Association, an organisation of fifty resorts on Taveuni, Qamea, and Matagi islands, formally opposed the work saying, “the proposed project will remove healthy coral, change the eco-system, impact adjoining reefs and threaten the livelihoods of tourism in the Northern Division.” They also pointed to “a huge amount of supporting evidence showing that many of these projects have failed around the world.”
Having shifted his focus from marginal beachbreaks to tropical reefbreaks, and his benefactors from regional councils to Silicon Valley, Dr Mead still needs a working proof of concept. His Big Idea requires its own ‘Kelly Slater wavepool’ moment. At present he’s mired in local politics, yet even if he resolves the dispute and is allowed to continue engineering the reefs, the project is still a veritable moonshot.
The Kelly Slater Wave Company, or indeed Wavegarden, or any of the wavepool companies, are dealing with a static environment; a settled pool plus a displacement object...and that’s it. It’s a cordoned off facsimile of nature. Whereas real world settings are infinitely more complex, with elaborate relationships between swell direction, size, and period, (and sometimes many swells all at once), interacting with tide, and the unseen X-factor of bathymetry. When you parse the data it becomes obvious why, with ten million coral reefs in the world, there’s only one Cloudbreak. As a business model it's not replicable or scalable.
Yet when the bull-headed ambition of Dr Shaw Mead meets the fuck you money of Scott Nolan, giving up simply isn’t an option.
You’ve not heard the last of the World Wave Project.
POSTSCRIPT: The original version of this article noted Dr Shaw Mead as the founder of Maqai Beach Eco Resort, however he only bought into the resort in 2007 as a shareholder. In 2013, he assumed co-ownership of the resort. It also implied that construction work at Maqai had begun, when at this stage it's 'paperwork'. An EIS is currently being prepared.