According to author Susan Casey, in response to increased temperatures and “other factors no one’s aware of yet,” the world’s oceans have been producing bigger and bigger waves. For researchers and scientists, this has provided a fertile area of foreboding research. But what worries some people brings great delight to surfers, some of whom travel the world finding the next great wave to feed their high.

Casey (The Devil’s Teeth) offers a probing look at both the passionate and the pragmatic sides of these oceanic wonders in The Wave. The first side is represented by surfing legend Laird Hamilton and his friends, who take these gigantic waves—and survive—in two-man teams, equipped with a jet ski, years of experience and respect for the elements. When Casey isn’t tagging along with the humble Hamilton and his affable crew to the next great waves in Hawaii, Mexico and California, she visits experts who explore the scientific side of these massive waves.

Giant, destructive waves are not a recent phenomenon; they have occurred for hundreds of years. What’s vexing, Casey’s subjects reveal, is that there are still a lot of unexplained issues regarding how 80-foot-high waves can appear in typically placid waters, or when all of this geological and temperature-related tumult will exact permanent, worldwide destruction, instead of isolated disasters (e.g., 2004’s Indian Ocean tsunami). The surfers, meanwhile, have no handbook for what they do. Regardless of experience, there’s little room for error, especially with a vocation defined by feel and instinct.

Though some may wince at Casey’s first-person chumminess with her subjects or her gushy outdoors-as-heaven prose, she shows that this occurrence in nature has more than one meaning: It’s an adrenaline rush, a marketing scheme, a cause of apocalyptic-scale concern and a workplace hazard (for a marine salvage expert). Casey’s curiosity in learning about every conceivable aspect of waves makes for compelling reading, regardless of whether you look at waves as a great ride or with great concern.

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