Water Worlds

Circular, artificial wave pool in the middle of a desert in Australia

Does the ocean dream of electric waves? A brief (and biased) history of wave pools. 

Right now, there’s an entire generation of surfers growing up who believe surfing robot waves in the desert is totally normal. This science fiction of stoke. These automated aberrations of the ocean. These wonderful puddles. 

“Wave pools will never compare to the ocean,” explains 15-year-old Jackson Dorian, son of big-wave legend Shane. “But they’re still super fun in their own way. Because it’s always the same, you can practice things in ways you’d never be able to in the ocean. Kinda like a skate park. Then you take that practice back to the ocean and it’s just sick.” 

The dream of wave pools has been lapping the shores of our imagination for decades now. In the ‘60s, there was Summerland, because Tokyo’s sloshing shores were barely suitable for boogie boards. The ‘70s gave us Arizona’s underwhelmingly smallish “Big Surf.” Then there was the world tour event in Allentown, Pennsylvania. A wave pool in Disneyworld. Rick Kane in North Shore. A sword-wielding surf-dancer performing nightly at Japan’s Ocean Dome. All of it fell dramatically short of the power, intensity, and mystery of the ocean. Such pathetic inland yearnings. We laughed at it all. 

Ariel shot of Kelly Slater's wave pool called, The Surf Ranch
Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch

Flowriders were stagnant. Wavegardens were fruitless. Typhoon Lagoon was swamped. 

And then… on a misty dawn morning, 84 miles from the ocean … at 7:05 a.m., December 5, 2015, the Kelly Slater Wave Company fired a set heard round the world. The resulting video footage of a track-and-foil wave pool created bigger, longer, hollower, more powerful waves than anything the surf world had ever seen outside the ocean. 

Founder and 11-time world champion Kelly Slater watched the first empty wave break in giddy hysteria. Then he stepped into the chilly, brown water and proceeded to rip the bag out of a long, overhead wave featuring multiple turn sections and two inhumanly perfect barrels. 

“It feels like when I won my first title and it didn’t sink in for a long time,” Slater said after the first wave. “After seeing this today, I’m 100% sure our team built the best wave anyone’s ever made. It’s a freak of technology.” 

In an instant, the inferiority complex of wave pools was trampled underfoot with industry insiders scrambling for their angle to experience the landlocked anomaly. 

“It’s confusing when something goes from funny to serious,” wrote surf historian Matt Warshaw. “Before Slater finished his first wave in that clip, I wanted to get in shape, order a new board and apologize to Kelly on behalf of anything I ever said that might have offended him and thus kill any chance of a press pass to ride his amazing freshwater miracle wave.” 

Two years after unveiling The Right, Slater’s Surf Ranch ran the foil back in the opposite direction to create … ta-da, The Left. Seventy-three-year-old Pipeline legend Gerry Lopez, world champ Tom Carroll, and 11-year-old Jackson Dorian (Slater’s godson) were on hand to test-drive the first waves. They were all blown away. “This is as pure as it gets,” said Lopez after his first ride. “Kelly has created the quintessential perfect wave, and to be able to get that over and over again, it’s going to push the envelope of surfing like it’s never been pushed before. That’s the future, bro.” 

Slater’s creation was embraced with cover shots, pro endorsements, a world tour event, and a mainstream reality TV show, granting new levels of legitimacy (and funding) to wave pool projects past, present and future. Over the next five years, dozens of new large-scale surf park projects have broken ground around the world, endorsed by city councils and featuring luxury hotels, private villas, personal coaches, board rentals, exclusive memberships, fancy gyms, surf-widow spas, fine dining, non-fine dining, skate parks, lazy rivers, and golf. Yes, golf. 

I’m 100% sure our team built the best wave anyone’s ever made. It’s a freak of technology.

And they’re not all the same. While the amusement park-inspired track-and-foil mechanicians employed at Slater’s Surf Ranch generally seems to pack the most punch (think of a train pushing a snow plow over a man-made beach), it’s certainly not the only system gaining traction. With six parks operating worldwide and 46 more in development, Wavegarden’s design has evolved significantly and seems to produce the most waves and variety for the buck. Then there’s the Surf Lakes in Australia, which raises and drops a giant plunger into the center of a circular lake, sending surf-sized ripples in every direction across four unique rubberized reefs. Or the Wave Loch concept, which flushes waves from a big holding tank to blast across a slanting pool-bottom bathymetry. And there’s still unrequited fantasies for a circular “endless wave” concept that may someday lead to surfing’s own version of aquatic roller derby. But we digress. 

15-year-old surfer, Jackson Dorian flipping mid-air with his board at a  wave pool in Waco, Texas.
Jackson Dorian at Waco Surf. Photo by Rob Henson

So, which is best? 

“If I had to choose one design to surf the rest of my life,” says wave-pool regular Jackson Dorian, somewhat uncomfortable with the question, “It would have to be the Waco Surf (formerly known as BSR) in Waco, Texas, because it has so much variation to it and it really pushes your progression. I’ve been there 11 times now, and I usually do a three hour session where you get 100 waves in a day. That’s 50 lefts and 50 rights. With that sort of repetition, matched with the best air section in the world, you can really get better at surfing fast.” 

“Kelly’s wave is as perfect as a wave can get,” continues Jackson, “but it’s kinda stressful too, because you only get 15 in a day, so you almost safety surf it a little because you don’t want to blow it. But the ride is sooo long and perfect.” 

Perhaps craziest of all, saltwater surfers (aka, “surfers”) have nothing to be grumpy about. Wave pools detract nothing from their ocean-dependent experience, except maybe a few yuppies from the lineup. After decades of sneering down our sunburnt noses at the lackluster potential of freshwater stoke, it took an 11-time world champion—holder of most surfing records and the irrefutable GOAT—to lead surfing through to the next evolution. 

And if you want to know more, there’s Wave Pool magazine to follow online. There’s a poolside country club serving escargot and Red Bull in the hot tub between “wave times.” There’s DJ’d night surfing, surfboard locker rooms, freshwater shapers and a flawless wave that never ever ends. 

And there’s an entire generation of surfers growing up thinking all this is totally normal. That’s the future, bro.