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The Inertia

From the lineup to the laboratory, chemist and professional surfer Dr. Cliff Kapono is making waves for advancing climate solutions, aiding the future of surfing, and challenging the status-quo stigmas of where scientists should come from.

Born and raised on the eastern shores of Hawai’i, Cliff’s pursuits are not only timely and essential to contemporary predicaments, but are immensely rooted in his ancestry.

As a young surfer honing in his skills outside of Hilo, Cliff poured his heart and soul into riding waves. After years of dedication and following the track of a seemingly linear and limiting path, he decided to head to the mainland and earn his PhD. Where one might have compromised surfing for science or visa versa, Cliff instead prioritized developing his surfing simultaneously with getting his education. “I wanted them both to be elevated together,” he said. “I looked at it like I was a student-athlete. So it was, `Ok, I get into graduate school, then I need to start surfing these kinds of waves’, and so on.”

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The hard part was blending these two pieces of Cliff’s heart in a way that would be conventionally accepted as a full-time lifestyle. As a child, although his interests in science had already been sparked, Cliff found that surfing and science were rarely found in the same conversation. That’s why he’s become part of a new scientific experiment, so to speak, helping to create a facility that allows scientists to come from whatever background, and pursue science simply for the love of science.

“It didn’t feel like there was space to be both an intellectual and a surfer. You needed to develop one or the other. Competition was the only way you could become valuable within the surf industry, and any other choice wasn’t necessarily supported,” he recalls.

That’s why Cliff recently joined scientist John Burns in advancing a new, unconventional laboratory, The Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis Lab, or ‘MEGA Lab’  based in Hilo where he continues his research and explorations of this concept.

The MEGA Lab is an atypical research facility where science blends with creativity, and where labels and lines are blurred, in order to create a deeper interconnectedness between humans and the Earth. It’s a space where no one will have to compromise their identities as surfers for scientists.

“Unlike other labs, it’s not just one school or one institution,” says Cliff. “MEGA Lab was created as a safe space for anyone to be a part of. We have artists, divers, builders, sailors, filmmakers, skaters, surfers. There’s no weird hierarchy. You don’t have to have all A’s or even go to college to have a place there. It’s really about people’s passion for the environment and drive to contribute to society on an impactful level.”

The MEGA Lab focuses on ocean conservation while maintaining three primary pillars in its research: coral reefs, how coastlines are affected by climate change, and the human connection to the ocean.

“It’s a place where we can come together and try to figure out the best ways to be better stewards of the environment by developing technology to create new solutions to oceanic problems,” says Cliff.

At the moment, MEGA Lab’s top priority is using their own proprietary methods to map out coral reefs. Specifically, reefs beneath iconic surf breaks, like Banzai Pipeline.

In order to map the habitat, Cliff and his teammates from the MEGA Lab swim out to these reefs with their cameras and take underwater photographs of the ecosystem. The science behind producing these images requires an interconnectedness between humans and the environment. A respect and understanding of the sets and waves.

After making it through intense swells, the researchers return to the lab where the photos are processed and run through a coding system to produce a virtual, 3D-modeled​​, perfect presentation of the habitat. From there, they are able to understand and determine the best ways to ensure protection of the coral. In turn, this mapping process actually saves the waves as well, which rely on the structure of the reef in order to form the swell.

Surfers need waves, waves need reefs, reefs need healthy coral systems, and coral systems need scientific monitoring and innovation.

Beyond the reefs and waves, the MEGA Lab also looks at how people living on the coasts are being affected by the changing climate by studying the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands’ Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a marine protected area.

“We do other stuff, too. Like, we have a live stream camera that provides people access to underwater reef systems, any time of the day on YouTube. We make fun little videos to try to communicate science better,” says Cliff. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we are very serious about ocean stewardship.”

Moving forward, it’s Cliff’s hope that the MEGA Lab’s blend of identities will transcend and inspire industries far beyond the surfing and science worlds.

“I think people need to see that there’s a safe place to be different,” he says. “Maybe you don’t have to give up singing to be a firefighter or give up physics to work in fashion. There’s so much that we miss out on if we cut people’s identities in two different parts and don’t let them be completely who they are or celebrate their interests. Do what you love.”

Learn more about the MEGA Lab here. 

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