The Top 5 Biggest and Gnarliest Waves in the World to Surf

Surfing California, Tasmania and More

A surfer in a barrel, Tahiti
Chris Dyball/Innerlight/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Wave riders fiendishly search for ways to smash boundaries considered unbreakable. In addition to aerial surfing, performance levels in the big wave realm have been shattered by both paddle and tow surfers. With satellite imagery and forecast technology available on the Internet, surfers have found new waves all over the world that have the potential for unimaginable surfing possibilities. But where are the biggest and gnarliest waves in the world?

Teahupo’o, Tahiti

Teahupo’o (better known as “Chopes”) is a heinous Tahitian left-hand reef break. Arguably replacing Pipeline as the world’s heaviest left, Teahupo’o is at once beautifully spiraling fodder for nature artists and a notorious meat-grinder for surfers.

Breaking off the south-western coast of Tahiti, Teahupo’o drops from sea level more than it peaks up above it. The wave is hardly noticeable from behind, but once it drags over the shallow reef, the wave face stretches and contorts into an intimidating hyper-vertical cavern. Best surfed at 5-10 feet, Teahupo is all barrel, all tube, all shack, all the time. Teahupo’o (and its nearby breaks) has become a Mecca for traveling surfers and the site of the Billabong Pro.

During the late 80s and early 90s, stories filtered back to Hawaii from bodyboarders and traveling locals like Mike Stewart and Ronnie Burns, telling of an insane barrel like no other. Since then, surf history has been numerously etched in that same shining blue water. Corey Lopez paddled into a gaping tube, thus raising the performance bar and dropping him into every magazine and video for the next year. Then Laird Hamilton towed into a beast at Chopes called by many, “The Heaviest...” Malik Joyeux and Garret Mcnamara have also had big moments there as well.

From bodyboarding to paddle surfing, to tow surfing (Keala Kennelly was the first woman to tow surf Chopes), Teahupo'o has become the measuring stick when it comes to giant barrels.

Shipstern’s Bluff, Tasmania

In surfing, there are great surf spots and there are insane surf spots. Great surf sports might include Rincon, J-bay or Cloudbreak. These are waves that get perfect and otherworldly at times but generally remain in the realm of possibility for advanced surfers. Then, there are those insane waves that even advanced surfers say “Hmmmm, I don’t know about that one.” Take Pipeline for instance: The drop is past vertical and stands some 30 feet over shallow and decidedly cavernous volcanic reef. The crowd is probably about as dense and deep with talent and anger as anywhere in the world...BUT the water is warm, the beach is close, and lifeguards are usually watching. So while the wave is well beyond what most surfers can handle, the location and accessibility make it a possibility.

Shipstern Bluff is a right breaking mutant wave that slams over a massive hunk of granite. Waves pour in from deep water and release with unholy power over that rocky ledge and slam into a mass of boulders. What’s more--the water is below freezing, so your 4/3 wetsuit, gloves, and booties will make that 30 foot, morphing multi-level drop even more difficult.

The name Shipstern Bluff comes from the massive, iconic headland of rock that juts into the sea and stands tall behind the massive magnitude of the wave itself. It sits like a dead hulk of a seafaring vessel. The ghosts of that lifeless mass blow in and out with the lashing winds. This ain’t Hawaii by any stretch of the imagination.

If you are looking for isolation, this is the spot. Miles from the nearest hospital and a long and bumpy boat ride to the nearest anything, Shipstern is for surfers who are looking for the edge of the surfing experience. The isolation, the sharks, the cold, and that God-awful wave.

Credit for first surfing the wave is often given to Tasmanian Andy Campbell who is said to have first surfed Shiptern Bluff in 1997. However, Matt Griggs’ superb book Surfers interviews Tasmanian David Guiney who paddled out with Mark Jackson for the first time in 1986. According to Guiney, he surfed the place for years by himself before turning Campbell onto the place. In 2001, Guiney chaperoned pro surfers Kieren Perrow, Mark Mathews, and Drew Courtney and the secret was out in a big way.

While the wave size is consistent, the wave’s rideability depends on the wind. A slight cross-chop can mean certain and violent disaster. But even when it’s perfect, the wave pulls on the craggy rock below and mutates into several sublevel sections that form on the face, making for more than one true trough. Spectators can immediately see which surfers are experienced in the many faces of this Devil’s drop. Most visiting pros find it more than they bargained for and locals have taken infinite near death drags into the rocks before they fully understand the waves shifting personalities.

Although cameras and sponsors and professional egos have defiled the lineup at Shipstern Bluff, nothing will change the wave. The wave has moved the edge of surfing a little further into a realm that most never dreamed of.

Cortes Bank, California

Stories from fishermen, sailors, and pilots of a massive albeit perfect wave churning in the open Pacific were first thought to be a bunch of abalones. But by the 1990s, surfers began searching for the elusive beast.

Photog Larry “Flame” Moore and pilot Mike Castillo flew out to the Bank during a monster swell and spied waves that looked to be some 90 feet and perfect. Based on those photos and reports, a group that included Sam George, George Hulse, and Bill Sharp ventured out and found rideable 15-foot surf with no one out for hundreds of miles.

Then in 2001, the proverbial cat leaped from the bag when Skindog Collins, Peter Mel, Mike Parsons, Evan Slater, John Walla, and Brad Gerlach motored out to the underwater mountain range. Gerlach towed Parsons into the biggest wave of the year (at that point). Flame and Dana Brown filmed the massive half-mile long waves (estimated at 60-70 feet) for magazines and television. The whole event was like nothing seen in surfing at that point. Cortes Bank was some open ocean delicacy so full of flavor and danger that it whetted the appetite of adventurous wave riders around the world.

Since then, the Bank has broken the Guinness Book of World Records and awarded two Billabong XXL awards. Today, the spot is monitored via Internet forecasters for perfect conditions, and this isolated lineup actually gets crowded--a statement on the modern state of surfing.

Mavericks, Northern California

In 1975, Jeff Clark paddled alone out into some the coldest, sharkiest, and altogether gnarliest conditions imaginable. Mavericks (named after a dog who tried to swim out to the infamous wave) was 20+ feet a mile off the coast and had never been ridden. At just 17 years old, Clark changed the trajectory of his own life and the trajectory big wave surfing in California forever.

Twenty years later, the wave would be the epitome of big wave bravado and would make the careers of some of surfing's most illustrious personalities, from Ken Collins to Peter Mel. The deaths of Hawaiian chargers Mark Foo and Sion Milosky would underscore the danger of the place.

But for sheer savage beauty, few waves (save for Teahupo'o) hold the splendor of Mavericks. It a predominant right-hander (with a short hollow left) that can top out at 30+ feet, but the size is only half the danger. The wave is thick, steep and fast, breaking a mile out to sea in some of the world's most turbulent water.

Jaws (Pe’ahi), Maui

Known as Jaws, Peʻahi was originally a spot frequented by windsurfers. Using the power of the wind, they could attain the speeds needed to flow into the massive drop. Waves that reach 60-70 feet are almost impossible to paddle into when the offshore winds blow against their face. So when Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox, Darrick Doerner, and David Kalama began tow surfing in the late 80s, the wave was open for business.

By the late 90s, surfers and media from around the world were invading the scene, and the wave became a global sensation. But tow surfing with all its amazing possibilities and visual dynamite was becoming almost boring in its safety. Surfers began looking back to the machismo of the early big wave surfers who confronted the ocean with strength and knowledge alone.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of paddle surfing. Chargers like Greg Long, Ian Walsh, Kohl Christensen, and Shane Dorian sparked a worldwide paddle resurgence at Jaws that would change the approach to big wave riding heading into the next decade.