Skin Deep

Story by Brittany Lyte. Photo by Ryan T Foley

Surfers are always saying how their passion makes them feel connected to the ocean, at one with it. Turns out that’s not just New Age spirituality, metaphor or magical thinking. Surfers really are connected to the sea—by bacteria.

Our bodies host a community of microbes—a microbiome —that’s specific to us as individuals, a kind of microbial fingerprint. We leave it behind wherever we go, a biological cloud that sheds onto dollar bills, dog fur, cell phones and anything else we touch. It goes the opposite way, too: Whatever we touch for long enough rubs off onto us. Clifford Kapono wanted to know what might be unique, then, about a surfer’s microbial fingerprint.

Kapono, a 30-year-old doctoral candidate, descends from a long lineage of Hawaiian surfers. Growing up on Hawai‘i Island, he charged overhead waves and spent his nights dreaming of going pro. In high school he began to explore the ocean through science, which has kept him suited in a lab coat nearly as often as boardshorts. His proficiency at surfing as sport and science has earned him sponsorships from eco-conscious brands such as Vissla and OluKai, whose ad campaigns feature portraits of Kapono in safety goggles as often as footage of him surfing deep in a glistening green barrel. “Finally,” Kapono says,“caring about the environment is being seen as cool.”

Now Kapono leads the Surfer Biome Project, which is funded by the University of California at San Diego’s Global Health Institute and endorsed by the American Gut Project. Over nine months he traveled the world, swabbing the faces, hands, navels and boards of surfers in Ireland, England, Morocco, San Francisco, San Diego and Hawai‘i. Volunteers also provided a stool sample. Back in the lab, Kapono and his colleagues used gene sequencing and mass spectrometry to analyze five hundred samples. Some of the results revealed what you might expect: Surfer skin holds traces of things like sunscreen, surf wax, caffeine and nobiletin (a citrus flavonoid found in tangerines).

But Kapono also discovered something surprising: Surfers, unlike landlubbers, host a type of bacteria common among a variety of sea creatures. “There are twenty million surfers across the planet, and they’re all connected by the ocean,” he says, noting that the bacteria is “something that surfers share not only with one another, but also with sea sponges, coral, kelp and sharks. Now we’ve found that they share something with each other on the molecular level.” The molecular interconnectedness revealed by Kapono’s research isn’t limited to surfers: This microbial exchange happens to anyone who spends long periods of time in the sea. Kapono’s findings confirm the long-held suspicion that our bodies are much more porous than once thought. The research suggests that at a microscopic level we become a part of the places where we spend our time as much as they become part of us.

How and whether the molecular exchanges between surfer and sea influence human and environmental health remain a mystery, but this much is certain: The microbes surfers acquire from the ocean cannot simply be rinsed off; they become part of the microbial fingerprint. Kapono, who makes independent films about ocean conservation, virtual reality and global food security, hopes this revelation will raise awareness and encourage people to take better care: Trash stewing in the ocean could eventually show up in the form of microbes on our skin.

“When we go into nature, nature sticks to us,” Kapono says. “Now that we’ve established a connection, we can begin to study a little bit more about what it all means.” HH