Nazaré and the World’s Largest Waves

Like tornadoes and mountains, ocean waves are a form that seems to have a primal impact on humans. Their shapes, sounds, and monotonies are alluring, but they also feature a fear-inducing monstrosity. The looming tsunami wave is a moving wall from which one cannot escape. Millions of years of evolution and disaster have likely instilled us with a healthy dose of awe and respect.

But, if we’ve learned nothing else from studying the natural world, humans love to toe the line between caution and exploration. The inimitable Carl Sagan, speaking about the future of humanity, wrote: “Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.”

Yet, not everyone can be an astronautical scout. At least to date. So, the adventurous have had to make do with the gnarly components of Earth. The great mountaineer Reinhold Messner said, “Without the possibility of death, adventure is not possible.” To some, the desire for adventure is so great they risk their lives in the mountains, caves, and oceans.

A surfer at Mavericks in California - photo by Shalom Jacobovitz

Big wave surfing began in the 1940s and took off in the 1950s, as intrepid athletes tackled the massive waves of Hawaii.

The normal ocean wave – like the one pictured above – is caused by wind action and tidal forces. They can travel through open, deep water for thousands of miles, looking like relatively small undulations, before crashing onto a beach. The breaks that allow surfers to ride waves occur because of the shallowing of the ocean bottom. As the energy on the underside of the wave meets the opposition of an oncoming beach, it slows down; but the top of the wave continues unabated. Eventually, this imbalance causes a break.

The size and shape of a beach’s waves depend on the underwater topography of the region. Gradual slopes tend to form gentle waves. Sudden changes in water depth can produce gargantuan waves. Certain world areas have become famous for their geometric conditions: Jaws and Waimea Bay in Hawaii; Mavericks in Califonia; The Box and Shipsterns in Australia; Dungeons in South Africa.

These locations became legendary surfing hotspots.

The videos above display just how large the waves can be at these sites.

Surfers scoured the planet for big undulations. Though the timbre of each of the famous beaches varies, they each share one key feature: they’re in (mostly) warm climates. Many in the sport thought all the wave wonders had been located, but they made a crucial oversight.

They hadn’t expanded to cooler regions.

Lurking in the generally pacific Atlantic Ocean is a spot that makes the waves above look like toddlers.

The divide between the two beaches at Nazaré - photo by Octavio Passos

The picture above is a point near the town of Nazaré, Portugal. To the right (south) is the city and its namesake beach, Praia da Nazaré. To the left is Praia do Norte, the North Beach.

Locals sometimes refer to Praia do Norte as “forbidden” because this traditional fishing village knows that, between October and April each year, the topology of the Earth below the lighthouse on the point generates waves that look like this:

Big waves at Nazaré - photo by Octavio Passos
The view from the point - photo by Bruno Alexio

Clued in by local bodyboarders, renowned big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara came to Nazaré in 2010. Until that point, no one had dared to attempt riding the Portuguese waves. Using a helicopter to enter the water and a jetski to pull McNamara into the action zones, he managed to set a world record for the largest wave ever ridden. Measurements put the beastly swell at 78 feet high!

The scale and power of McNamara’s ride are staggering.

With a world record on the books, Praia do Norte went from a hidden gem to a worldwide sensation.

In 2017, a Brazilian named Rodrigo Koxa assumed the world-record mantle, zooming into shore on an 80-foot monster. On 29 October 2020, German Sebastian Steudtner became the current holder, as he successfully surfed an 86-foot wave.

Unsubstantiated wave heights exceed even these totals. McNamara reportedly nabbed a 98-foot wave in 2013 and Hugo Vau survived a wave nicknamed “Big Mama” in 2018, which some estimate to have reached over 110 feet in height. 

If these waves were not caught on camera or seen in person, one would easily be excused for dismissing them as hyperbole.

Of the 10 highest waves ever surfed, seven of them happened in Portugal, including four of the top five. The fourth-highest transpired at a spot called Cortes Bank, a seamount (barely submerged island) 100 miles off the coast of San Diego. The other two in the Top 10 happened at Jaws in Hawaii, where 70-foot waves stand out as the highest ever at that spot. Nazaré frequently tops those figures.

Why does this zone produce such behemoth waves?

Nazaré is a perfect amalgamation of factors. Off the coast lies the Nazaré Canyon. This abyss is 140 miles long and dips 16,000 feet into the ocean. Though a deep point in the ocean is not unique, a curious arm of the canyon reaches out and kisses the mainland right at the dividing point between the two beaches of Nazaré. When deep meets shallow, waves get big.

Geomorphology of Nazaré Canyon - graphic by Rúdisicyon
The relief of the canyon - graphic by MaxSea/Dr. Kevin Horsburgh

This geography would already make big waves, but Nazaré has another quirk that raises the acmes even higher.

The red areas in the graphic above indicate high, level points of the ocean floor. When high-energy waves exit the canyon, moving to the north of the point at Nazaré, they meet normal swells traveling straight on the level seafloor. Waves have the fascinating ability to amplify or cancel other waves, depending on how the two line up. At Nazaré, the normal waves and the giant waves happen to sync well, which adds up to the world’s biggest.

Further, in the winter, storm systems blow into the North Atlantic, sending swells for thousands of miles toward the shores of Europe and North America. This extra boost elevates Nazaré’s waves, which is why the tallest transpire during the winter.

These surges have nothing on the largest megatsunamis, which are caused by objects hitting and displacing water. That they are dwarfed by something says more about those non-natural waves than Nazaré. The waves in Portugal are simultaneously gorgeous and terrifying.

Thankfully, one does not need to brave the water to witness them in person. Hundreds of thousands of people now flock to Nazaré to watch the incoming onslaught from the cliffs above the beaches. Should I ever visit Portugal, I would find myself as one of the dry spectators.

Still, one cannot help but wonder what it might be like to experience the crushing forces of Nazaré. A successful ride might bring an elation few have known, but a wipeout could produce a human smoothie:

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