There’s a picture on the wall of Ricky Grigg’s office. It’s a scuba diver shot from below, silhouetted against the dappled blue surface. In the lower left corner is a crescent of fluorescent orange. “That was the first picture of lava ever taken underwater,” says Grigg. “When we dove, we didn’t know what would happen. It was hairy. We felt our way through it, like looking for the light in a new hotel room. It was a layer cake of hot water; you could see it and hear the crackling. There were several avalanches that could take you down.” His fingers, furrowed by age and constant immersion in saltwater, cascade downward to illustrate the falling lava boulders.
Grigg’s experience of a submarine volcanic eruption is among many daring exploits in a life that has mixed science and adventure like something from an Indiana Jones movie or a montage from a beer commercial. (Which isn’t too far off the mark: Shortly after presenting his doctoral thesis on the population dynamics of marine organisms, Grigg was a model in an ad for Dewar’s Scotch, in which he emerges from the water looking manly in full scuba gear).
Throughout his career as an oceanographer, Grigg has studied the waters of the entire Hawaiian-Emperor Chain, the archipelago of islands and submerged seamounts that stretches from young Lo‘ihi — the half-mile-deep seamount two miles southeast of the Big Island destined to become the next Hawaiian island—to the ancient Meiji Seamount more than three thousand nautical miles distant from Lo‘ihi. The academic world knows him as Professor Richard Grigg, the scientist who coined the term “Darwin Point”; who expanded knowledge about corals and the life cycle of islands; who was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences in 2000. But the surfing world knows him as Ricky Grigg, the pioneering big-wave surfer who won the 1966 Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championship and who just last year was inducted into the Hawai‘i Waterman Hall of Fame. Now 76, Grigg has been a scientist, a surfer and more: He has been a businessman, an expert witness in legal cases involving bodies lost at sea and an influential advisor on issues dealing with local ecology and development for nearly four decades.
He is also the author of several books for non-scientists. His newest, In the Beginning, Archipelago: The Origin and Discovery of the Hawaiian Islands, was just published last year. “It was started in the memory,” he says of the vibrantly illustrated book, which tells the natural history of Hawai‘i. “Forty or so years of doing this work and it came fairly easily.” He says this sitting at his desk in the Marine Sciences building at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. His office has descended several floors since he retired in 2006 to become a professor emeritus, but at least he still has one. “They don’t give offices to just anybody who retires. They must still need me around,” he grins.