Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Big Beach: T-shaped Hugging Waves, Scalloped Shore Line, & Deadly Surf

Big Beach on Maui's South Shore has some of the most intriguing waves I’ve ever seen. I’m not a wave expert, oceanographer, or a surfer, but the wave patterns here are kind of strange.

Tail end of a T-shaped wave.

Ever see a T-shaped wave? It’s a name I made up for the shape of certain waves at Big Beach.  The waves don’t always make a T-shape, but at certain
times of the year, or maybe under the right surf conditions, the surf makes these curious, unusual wave patterns.

What happens?
The wave approaches shore, but as it gets closer, splits into three parts. The middle of the wave slows down, and the sides of the wave move inward, sideways, as if they have arms.  The middle part of the wave catches up and meets the sides. I watched this in slow motion several times. It's like the wave is hugging itself!  Or trying to form the letter T. (If there's a scientic name for this type of wave, I'd love to know!)

The triplet wave then washes back from the shore, leaving a long vertical tail of water. From the bluff above, this looks very strange indeed, like fingers of water reluctantly leaving the shore. 

These triad waves somehow scoop the sand from the shoreline too, because the shore is frequently not straight or in a smooth line, but instead scalloped. So Big Beach has this peculiar scalloped shoreline from time to time.

This shoreline has ruffles and ridges!

Why does this beach make these crazy sideways, hugging waves? I don’t know. Maybe it has to do with last century’s military bombing on Kaho’olawe, the long narrow island across the water, and with the bombing along the La Perouse, Ahihi-Kinau area. The military doesn't bomb these areas any more, but both places were used for target practice for decades. One friend says that the reef and sand under the nearby ocean were massively impacted, so the wave patterns at Makena are not typical.

The only other place in Hawaii that I know of with really odd waves, is Goat Island on the North Shore of Oahu. Crossing from the shore to Goat Island, the waves criss-cross, and make X’s. I don't think this area was used as a military practice site. 

Big Beach is also known for a dangerous wave break. I call it the neck breaker beach. People innocently go out, not aware of the conditions, and come back in a stretcher. This seems to happen at least 10 times a year, which is not bad considering how many people go to this beach. But if it’s you, that’s a tragic way to spoil your vacation.  There’s also a riptide. So you have two ways to win the Darwin Awards: break your neck from a killer shore break, or go out too far, and be pulled out by the ocean. It’s sobering. That’s why we say, “Don’t turn your back to the ocean.”

A couple of years ago, lifeguard stations were installed at the beach, and some dire but comical warnings sound out of the megaphones across the sand:

Ø“If you are new to body boarding, today is not your day. You, standing in front of the shore break, today is not your day. This is not a good idea.”

Ø “The waves backslide into the depression – where you are standing – and will carry you out.  Your child was carried out by those waves earlier and is NOW standing in the same place. Those of you who are hitting head first into the sand, those waves are going to take you. It’s only a matter of time. If you don’t know the water conditions just ask. We are here to ask. Some of you NEED to do this.”

The surf here is usually so good that a lot of body boarders and skim boarders love this beach. Of course, they also know what they're doing, or have survived to surf another day. 

Another infrequent oddity of Big Beach is that the sand can wash out by the ton for weeks. Really large waves can come in and flood the beach, which is not that common either, but it’s a fascinating sight, especially from the overlook on the ridge.

It’s a gorgeous beach though, long stretches of golden sand, beautiful sunsets, no mega mansions or hotels nearby…One of the most picturesque beaches on Maui in my book. 

In short, Big Beach - unusual waves, dangerous surf, and extreme beauty. 

You may also enjoy reading:  
The Makena Cloud: Paradox of Maui Rain (yes, it rains on the beach)
Shark Attack at Makena


  1. Gorgeous photos Courney - Interesting post. The ocean can look so harmless and be so dangerous. A couple of years ago a friend of a friend was standing in knee deep water here at a RI beach. His back was towards the ocean. He bent down to pick up his wife's hat which had blown off and a wave knocked him down paralyzing him. Freak accident on a day the ocean was seemingly unthreatening.

  2. Big Beach looks beautiful but the ocean can be mysterious and dangerous. The T waves are fascinating and there must be some sort of explanation for them. I liked watching the big waves come crashing in. A powerful expression of nature we don't get to see around here.

  3. I've been knocked down by a wave out of nowhere, and hit the sand on my shoulder. Which hurt for months. The ocean's deadly.

  4. There must be a scientific term for this type of wave, but have been too occupied to look for it. The waves are mesmerizing.

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