Photos by Dana Edmunds
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.
Before being a beach boy was a cultural phenomenon, Ricky Grigg was catching waves along the Santa Monica boardwalk. A picture in his 1998 memoir shows him as a boy holding a freshly waxed board with a freshly made scar where his spleen had been removed after being damaged in a wipeout. As a teenager he was one of the first to surf triple-overhead Rincon, the famous wave off the coast of Ventura. He won the first Catalina-to- Manhattan Beach paddleboard race in 1955. In 1958 Grigg honored a promise he made to his mother to put study before surfing and graduated from Stanford with a degree in biology. The winter after college, he took a “surfing sabbatical” and made his first trip to the North Shore of O‘ahu, where he paddled out with the California and Hawai‘i surfers who became the first men to ride mountains: Buzzy Trent, Wally Frosieth, George Downing, John Kelly Jr., Greg Noll, Peter Cole. “Peter [Cole] once made nineteen swims for his board—no leashes—in one day, and I was right behind with seventeen,” Grigg writes of that pioneering North Shore winter. “By the end of the year, we were in top shape.” After the winter swells faded, Grigg returned to the Mainland for his studies.
The massive sets of the North Shore brought Grigg back to Hawai‘i once he completed his doctorate at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in 1970. He first taught at Punahou School before becoming a lecturer in UH Manoa’s growing Marine Sciences Department. It was an era of amazing discoveries in ocean science. Grigg uses his hands again to illustrate the theory of the formation of the Hawaiian archipelago predominant among scientists prior to the 1950s. “They used to think there was a crack in the mantle and that the islands propagated through it,” he says, opening his fingers. “Like a crack in the peel of an orange.” Much has been learned since then, and our understanding of how the Hawaiian archipelago came to be—and where it’s going— owes much to Grigg’s work. When Grigg arrived in Hawai‘i, scientists had recently developed several concepts that we now take for granted, like plate tectonics. Continental landmasses are not fixed in place; they float on the mantle, jostling, shifting and colliding to create mountain ranges, volcanoes and earthquakes. Grigg’s work tracked biological evolution with geographic changes, and he developed theories about how the plants and animals of the Hawaiian-Emperor Chain evolved. And by looking specifically at corals, Grigg was able to pinpoint the location where the Hawaiian Islands “drown,” as he writes, sinking and ultimately disappearing back into the mantle of the Earth: the Darwin Point.
In the spring of 1836, Charles Darwin sailed to Tahiti aboard the Beagle. He climbed Point Venus, which overlooks Moorea, a volcanic island like those of Hawai‘i but much older. “Under this view,” Darwin wrote, “we must look at a lagoon island as a monument raised by myriads of tiny architects to mark the spot where a former land lies buried in the depths of the ocean.” Darwin’s observations suggested that tropical islands have a life cycle and that over time they “subside” or sink. As they do, coral grows atop the bedrock and eventually becomes the new ground above sea level — forming first a lagoon and later becoming an atoll. But Darwin’s observations also implied that there comes a moment when the seamount sinks so deeply that the “tiny architects” (i.e., corals) can no longer form land atop it. When that happens, the island drowns.
It was an inspired theory, one that Grigg spent the better part of his career trying to prove. In 1977 Grigg mounted a five-year study he called Project Darwin Point to test Darwin’s theory. Grigg collaborated with state and federal agencies and more than a hundred university researchers, students and fishermen to study the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in a way that few places in the ocean have ever been recorded. Teams of researchers studied corals, plankton production, shallow and deep reef fisheries, offshore migratory fisheries, lobsters, green sea turtles and monk seals. That data is still being used today and was part of the basis for the creation of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the largest marine reserve in the world.
Grigg has cheated death time and again throughout his career: when attempting to film underwater lava flows, several times while charging sets at Waimea and Sunset and once when his one-man submersible flooded. In his memoir Big Surf, Deep Dives and the Islands, My Life in the Ocean, Grigg writes about those experiences and also his many adventures. In 1974 he attempted to solve the high-profile murder mystery of Mac and Muff Graham, a wealthy yachting couple from San Diego who disappeared on the island of Palmyra earlier that year. Grigg dived into shipwrecks and used large fish to approximate the rate of decomposition of a body. “Within several hours, thousands of land crabs had crept out of the jungle to feed on the decaying ‘body,’” he writes of the adventure. Grigg didn’t solve the mystery in the end, and “Mac’s whereabouts is just one more question that adds to the haunting aura of Palmyra’s mysteries,” writes Grigg.
In 1978 fellow big-wave surfer and friend Eddie Aikau was lost at sea when a replica of a traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe, Hokule‘a, capsized off the coast of Moloka‘i. Grigg commandeered his department’s research vessel Holokai to contribute to the search in eighteen-foot seas and forty-five-knot winds. “He lost his board,” Grigg says of the lifeguard who paddled away from the struggling canoe to get help and was never seen again. “He was as strong as anyone I’ve met, and I’m guessing his cord snapped. It’s happened to me at least five times in waves that big. Once it starts skipping and rolling away from you, it’s gone. We stayed out as long as we could before we were about to lose the ship and our skipper made us turn back,” he says.
We return, as Grigg has throughout his life, to science. Project Darwin Point confirmed what Darwin had postulated. The Hawaiian archipelago is drowning. Grigg collected Porites lobata, a coral common in the depths surrounding the island chain. He sliced the samples open to reveal annual growth rings similar to those in trees. The rings of Porites lobata off Kure Atoll in the far northwest of the Hawaiian chain decrease in thickness dramatically, suggesting very slow growth, and the coral is scant anywhere north of the atoll. Grigg had found the Darwin Point. “Without coral growth, the Hawaiian archipelago would be about half its present length, drowning at the point where the last volcanic peak would sink below the waves,” writes Grigg in Archipelago. Past the Darwin Point, the nearly lifeless seamounts take the slow ride down into the Aleutian Trench and under the Asiatic Kamchatka Plate—a process that takes some seventy million years.
The grandeur of the Hawaiian Islands, says Grigg, has always been his inspiration: “The beauty and the magnificence of immersion, in the knowing and loving this place.” For Grigg, to know the islands of Hawai‘i is to love them; to know that they are disappearing is to love them more.
The years are finally catching up with Grigg. He speaks more slowly than he once did, before age and a battle with throat cancer a decade ago diminished his fit frame by thirty pounds and gave his voice a lilt. But to say that Grigg is descending toward his own Darwin Point would be incorrect. At 76 he is still researching, writing “and surfing when I can,” he grins.
The legendary second reef off of Diamond Head called Castles does not break often. “It has to be over ten feet,” Grigg says. One of the tall tales about Duke Kahanamoku is that he caught a massive left at the break and surfed it for more than a mile in the summer of 1917, past the full length of Kapi‘olani Beach Park, past where the Kapahulu groin now juts into the sea, completing his ride near the break called Baby Queens, fronting the old bar of the Moana hotel. In a sidebar in his memoir, Grigg challenges the story on scientific grounds. “Applying what is known of ocean storms in the Pacific and how waves decay as they move across open ocean, rideable summer waves at Waikiki bigger than about fifteen feet or at most eighteen are highly unlikely,” he writes. “A better explanation might be that their size in the old days was greatly exaggerated, and with the passing of time, they’ve become even bigger.”
“Well, I suppose he might’ve done it,” Grigg says when I ask him about the famous wave. Castles broke again during a huge late-season south swell in August 2011. I remember it as the biggest I’d ever surfed, clutching a borrowed board and watching sets overtop the flagpole off Kaimana beach. Grigg remembers it, too. “You were out that day?” I ask incredulously. “Of course I was,” Grigg says. “It was perfect. Best it’s been in recent memory.” He was 74 at the time. I must have missed him, too focused on survival to see an old man ease into an effortless bottom turn on a double-overhead bomb, flying past the palm and banyan trees of Kapi‘olani Beach Park, surfing until his wave faded back into the sea.