Can You Surf a Tsunami?

Can you surf a tsunamiCan you surf a tsunami, is an interesting question, but before I try to answer that question, I think I should answer the following questions: What is a tsunami?   What is an ocean wave?  What are the differences and similarities?


Tsunami is a Japanese word and its English translation is harbor wave.  Tsunamis are large waves, ranging from 30 feet to 100 feet in height (30 feet generally being the norm), they are generated by the displacement of a large body of water.  A tsunami has the power to destory practically everything in its wake.

Tsunamis are a series of waves that can last for hours.  These waves can come in surges that are five minutes to an hour apart.  The first wave of a tsunami may not be the most dangerous of the waves to come.  An approaching tsunami is sometimes preceded by a noticeable fall or rise in the water level.

Tsunamis are often tied to earthquakes but that is not the only thing that can cause tsunamis.  Besides earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, meteorite impacts and other disturbances above or below water all have the potential to generate a tsunami.  Some claim that a nuclear explosion can also generate a tsunami.

Ocean Waves

Can you surf a tsunamiUnlike a tsunami, ocean waves are generated by wind, tides and storms.  Depending on the shoreline, a tsunami can travel as much as 10 miles inland, this will not occur with an ocean wave.  Ocean waves thirty feet and higher have regularly hit Waimea on the North shore of Hawaii, Mavericks in Northern California, Peahi in Maui, Punta de Lobos in Pichilemu, Chile and many other spots Worldwide.

Garrett McNamara (a well-known big wave surfer), in 2011, surfed the largest wave ever ridden (78 feet) in Nazare, Portugal.  Ocean waves can reach heights as high as the heights of tsunamis.  Big wave surfers are riding ocean waves not tsunamis.  Since 2009, the World Surf League has hosted the Big Wave Tour, a tour dedicated to surfing large ocean waves.

Similarities and Differences

The major similarity between a tsunami and an ocean wave is that they both come from the ocean.  An ocean wave can obtain wave heights similar to a tsunami.  Most ocean waves, like tsunamis, hit the coastline.

There are more differences than similarities to an ocean wave and a tsunami.  Ocean waves are generated by wind, tides and storms.  Tsunamis are generated by the displacement of a large body of water.  Surfable ocean waves generally always hit the same area and can be predicted to a certain extent.

Tsunamis, because of how they are generated, do not hit the same area and cannot be predicted.  Surf contests are held for ocean waves and not for tsunamis.  A tsunami can travels miles inland, an ocean wave will usually expend itself on the shore.  Practically everything is destroyed in the aftermath of a tsunami, lives and property.  Large ocean waves are probably occurring as you read this post but you’ll hear nothing of it.

Can It Be Ridden

Can you surf a tsunamiIf you look at the ocean and the waves being generated, you’ll notice that there are waves that rise but then slowly disappear into the surrounding water, this type of wave is a non-breaking wave and is not surfable.  The other waves you’ll see, will rise and the peak (the very top of the wave) or lip of the wave will start to roll-over, this is a breaking wave.

The area of the wave that is rolling over will start to become white, this is known as the whitewash.  The area before the whitewash, which is usually the color of the ocean, is known as the face of the wave and this is the portion that all surfers wish to ride.  The face of the wave is the best part of the wave.

According to the University of Hawaii at Hilo (, you cannot surf a tsunami because it has no face.  A tsunami is like a wall of whitewash, a 30 foot wall of whitewash would be very unstable and could not be ridden.  I know of no surfer who has ridden a tsunami, they have ridden giant waves but they are ocean waves.

In Conclusion

A tsunami is generated by the displacement of a large body of water, ocean waves are generated by wind, tides and storms.  Tsunamis have more differences than similarities to ocean waves.  Big wave surfers ride ocean waves and not tsunamis.  Surfers wish to ride the face of the wave and not the whitewash, because a tsunami is like a 30 foot wall of whitewash, it cannot be ridden.  So, the answer to the question, “Can you surf a tsunami,” is no, you cannot surf a tsunami.

Check out my post: “Top Male Surfers.”

Thanks for dropping in and should you have any comments or questions, please post it in the comment section of this page.

4 thoughts on “Can You Surf a Tsunami?

  1. This is an interesting article, I am reading it as a physicist. I have never thought of tsunami in that way. I am not a surfer and cannot say much. But there is another aspect of this story. Tsunami means disaster, who would ever want to ride something which is going to destroy the shore ahead of it. In any case, thank you.

    • Hi Jovo, I completely agree, why would you want to ride something that will destroy practically everything in its wake but some individuals have no common sense.

      Thanks for the comments and dropping in!

  2. Surfing a Tsnami!!! Are you nuts?
    Well… it honestly sounds scary to even think about it and it is definitly dangerous. But it is interesting to think about the possibility of riding a tsnami, I mean if someone were to try it, I would want to be there to watch it happen.

    • Hi Nahim, I was thinking the exact same thing. The thought of surfing a tsunami it just insane, if you want to learn about waves you can actually surf, check out my post “Types of Waves to Surf.”

      Thanks for the comments and dropping in!

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