When Google Earth first debuted to the public in 2005, it was likely your first experience with robust, navigable satellite imagery of the planet’s surface. The software Google Earth is based on, or was then, however, was not new. A company called Keyhole sold satellite imaging software to real estate agents, geologists, cartographers, basically anyone who needed, or wanted, the ability to scour the earth’s surface and zoom in on a small area for more detail. Google acquired Keyhole in 2005, and just a few years later, Google Earth was already a cog in our pop culture machine, with millions of users virtually traveling the planet. It was addictive. For those who love searching out untraveled places, it was like a treasure map, just one that led to areas with no evidence of human civilization.
Adventurers seized on it immediately.
Surfing Magazine jumped on the possibility early on. In 2006, they kicked off the Google Earth Challenge. Readers could submit a screenshot of a potential unknown wave anywhere in the world. The magazine would pick the most likely setup, and fly the reader and a pro surfer or two out to the newly “discovered” break.
In 2008, an IT specialist from Orange County, California, named Brian Gable won the challenge after submitting photos of a long-breaking left-hand wave running along the sandy shore of a peninsula on the isolated coast of Namibia. He’d spent dozens of hours poking around on Google Earth before he spotted this potential wave. After coming in second during the inaugural challenge (no trip was made that first year), Gable redoubled his efforts to eliminate as many questions and hardships as possible before he submitted his entry to the magazine.
“I committed to nothing else. Logging some serious late-night hours online, I focused on studying the country, the terrain, and bathymetry, the people, the marine life, weather-patterns, the cost, travel, logistics, etc.,” Gable wrote in an article for Surfing. “I corresponded with locals halfway around the world. Obsessed and possessed, I selfishly put personal and professional duties aside and spent my days formulating the ultimate package for the ultimate magazine surf trip.”
It worked. Gable won, and soon after, he was winging his way to Africa along with members of the Surfing staff, and a handful of pro surfers, including Cory Lopez, who’s nearly minute-long tube ride at the end of the trip quickly became stamped on the part of every surfer’s brain responsible for uncontrollable drooling over perfect surf.
Within weeks, the wave, quickly named Skeleton Bay, became one of the most sought-after waves on the planet by pros; every image and video of the ludicrously perfect surf rifling over an endless shallow sandbar was lustily consumed by the surf world.
The wave is a mutant. A shallow sandbar that plunges deep offshore pushes wave energy rapidly up and into a perfect but immensely powerful tube that unzips down a sandbar seemingly angled by the gods to perfectly match the angle of the Atlantic swells that pound the arid coast.
Surfers from neighboring South Africa had pushed up the coast looking for waves years earlier and knew of the break, but, the thing was it didn’t really look all that perfect then. The wave is an accident of bathymetry and geology, a temporary sand finger that rose seemingly out of nowhere not all that long ago, and will erode much the same way. Maybe next year, maybe in 10 years. Nobody really knows.
The short film below, called Mirage: The Ever Changing Story of Skeleton Bay is a terrific look at how the wave formed, how it breaks, how it surfs, and what the future may hold for one of the most desirable bits of watery real estate in the action sports world.
It’s also a perfect case study in how a spot—a surf spot here, though the same principles apply to climbing crags, backcountry ski zones, fishing holes, etc.—can be exposed bob something like constant satellite surveillance, and who gets to access those places.
Suddenly, after the discovery of Skeleton Bay, surfers all over the world were poring over every nook and cranny in their local coastlines, and those just over the next hill, wondering if there was something they’d missed, a wave breaking in a spot they’d never thought to look for, maybe. Once, that required a personal visit that took time and effort. Now, thousands of surfers on any given evening click away at a mouse, beer in hand, wondering if there’s a Skeleton Bay somewhere for them.
Watch the film:
And for a mesmerizing look from inside the tube:
Top photo: YouTube screenshot