10 Heaviest Waves in the World

Big wave surfer at Jaws in Hawaii

In some parts of the world, the sea’s roiling forces kick up waves so violent that they make normally imposing ones look like ripples. 

Just getting into the water with these borderline Tsunamis is an achievement, let alone riding them.

Jaws (Pe’ahi) – Maui, Hawaii

Pe’ahi, aka ‘Jaws”, is known as Maui’s largest surfing break and is a popular surfing destination for throngs of big-wave surfers. It is the top surfers that surf here, while the novices stand slack-jawed and watch in awe. The waves at Jaws are forces to be reckoned with.

While Jaws used to be a tow-in site where surfers had to be dropped out to catch the waves, pros can paddle the break.

To surf Jaws, people have to plan well in advance as there are only a few surfable big-wave events a year. It is recommended that interested surfers or observers look to the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System (PacIOOS) to find out when those surf-friendly times are.

The 1.5-mile dirt road leading to Jaws is not an easy one to travel. As the North Shore is prone to rain, the road can become muddy and slippery. A four-wheel drive is recommended by surfers who have been there as the road is very narrow.

The 80-foot waves at Jaws make it a pilgrimage site of sorts for wave chasers, many of whom consider surfing at Jaws to be a life ambition.

The Jaws break is stunningly beautiful, but wiping out can be extremely dangerous as the break will toss you around 15-feet below before allowing you a mere 2-to-3 seconds of air until you are pulled down again. Surfers describe it as being put in a ginormous washing machine on the spin cycle.

Ghost Tree – California, USA

Ghost Tree, California

Ghost Tree unfurls near Monterey Bay, California, just off the 18th hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links. Ghost Tree generates a ton of buzz in the surfing community because it is one of California’s most forceful waves, amid mountainous competition.

With great white sharks thrown in, Ghost Tree is exceptionally formidable. Even if you virtually live amid boiling froth, to stay on top of this green phantom you will need to give it all you have got, and then some.

Banzai Pipeline – Hawaii, USA

If a title existed for the world heavyweight champion of waves, Banzai Pipeline might well nail it. Banzai Pipeline was once judged un-surfable. Faint-hearts might say that the liquid pit bull remains so. Banzai bares its teeth off the North Shore of Hawaii’s third largest island, Oahu.

Banzai presents you with turbocharged force that makes tackling it smoothly nigh-impossible. The wonder wave keeps you on the brink permanently. Stay aboard for a split-second and you are a bit of a hero.

Teahupo’o – Tahiti, French Polynesia


Teahupo’o unleashes its violence off the southwest tip of Tahiti – the jewel of the French Polynesian archipelago. Teahupo’o may well be the world’s heaviest wave.

Just in case you underestimate it, consider that its name means something to do with decapitation. Just to add to the fun, Teahupoo crashes over an abrasive coral reef. Immense warrior spirit required.

Maverick’s – Half Moon Bay, USA

Dubbed “the voodoo wave”, Maverick’s was once surfed by just one ambidextrous “goofyfoot” athlete, Jeff Clark. Clark first paddled out to face Maverick’s at the age of 17, leaving in his slipstream his high school friend who declined the adventure, telling Clark he would “call the Coast Guard and tell them where I last saw you.”

Unabashed, Clark caught several left-breaking waves, becoming the first documented adventurer to tackle Maverick’s head-on.

He surfed it alone for 15 years before the wider big-wave community cottoned on. An invitation-only contest is held at Maverick’s every winter if the waves are epic enough to satisfy the most ambitious surfers.

Aileens – County Clare, South-Western Ireland

Aileens or, in Gaelic, Aill Na Searrach (“Leap of the Foals”), operates under the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, South-Western Ireland. A supreme product of the Atlantic Ocean’s icy might, Aileens is ferocious year round but especially in winter, thanks to the murky influence of cavernous lows thousands of kilometers away.

The Celtic tiger with the feminine name rears up 30ft or more. If you want to ride Aileens, don’t even think about jumping from the cliffs. Take a boat from 2 miles away because, although Aileens is the least known wave under scrutiny, she comes at you with claws out Nerves of steel and Velcro balance obligatory.

Cortes Bank – Cortes Bank, California

The West Coast break Cortes Bank serves up some of the world’s biggest ride-able waves collectively called Ghost Wave. Featured in the documentary Step Into Liquid, Ghost Wave even dwarves the Hawaiian monster wave, Jaws (see above).

Dubbed one of the world’s seven wonders, Ghost Wave has been thrust in the spotlight by the new non-fiction thriller Ghost Wave: The Discovery of Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth  by daredevil journalist Chris Dixon of Surfermag.com.

10 Startling Facts About Ghost Wave

1. Ghost Wave arises from just the right swells, under just the right conditions, at Cortes Bank – a sunken mountain chain 100 miles off San Diego. Journalist Chris Dixon describes the submerged 17-mile island as “huge and gorgeous” and reveals that it has hidden depths.

2. During the 1960s, two adventurers – B-movie actor Joe Kirkwood and a Laguna engineer – dreamed about building a nautical nation called Abalonia on Cortes Bank. The adventurers enlisted the USS Abalonia: a concrete cargo ship. They hoped to anchor it amid the rich shellfish beds and claim jurisdiction over the area. But just after the Abalonia’s 1969 launch, it foundered and sank, almost killing the crew. Its wreck remains.

3. Cortes Bank retains an uncanny frontier feel. The area has no beach, no coastline, nor landmark of any kind. Riding Cortes Bank’s swell has been described as “like surfing on Mars.”

4. Cortes Bank is just as weird under the surface as on top. Dixon documents abalone the size of bibles, lobsters the size of men, even sharks the size of busses, swimming amid giant kelp forests.

5. The biggest waves at the amazing break arise when light winds, low tides, and giant swells from the northwest collide. Launched from an outcrop called Bishop Rock, Cortes Bank waves routinely rise 60 feet. That is higher than a six-storey building. Hence the decision of one big wave surfer Bill Sharp to write his will before tackling the break.

6. Despite their size, Cortes Bank waves move so fast that surfers cannot catch them by paddling. Instead, each Ghost Wave wannabe hires a jet-skier who tows him with a rope until he is travelling fast enough to engage the wave: a ritual called “tow-surfing”.

7. On January 5, 2008, some of the strongest storms ever logged in the northern Pacific spawned mammoth swells. Eager to engage, a daredevil surfing team scrambled and tow-surfed out to the reef to catch some of the biggest surf ever ridden. The waves soared up to 85 feet, reaching speeds of 45 mph. “We were all real worried about all the chop,” big wave surfer Mike Parsons told Surfline. Whether it would be ride-able at any point that stormy Saturday was a gamble.

8. But, on that fateful January day, Mike Parsons succeeded in riding a Cortes Bank 77-footer – a record, according to the Guinness World Records.

9. Now, 100-foot waves are the holy grail of big wave hunters relentlessly seeking to up the ante – get a bigger adrenaline rush and buzz of achievement.

10. Eventually, Parsons reckons, someone will find and ride a 100-foot-tall Cortes Bank wave. “If you put yourself in the right place at the right time, it will happen.  It’s only a matter of time now.”

Shipstern’s Bluff – Tasmanian National Park, Tasmania

Crazy wild wave at Shipstern Bluff, Tazmania

Also known as ‘Devil’s Point’ or ‘Shippies’, Shipstern’s Bluff is a big-wave surfing locale on the South Eastern coastline of Tasmania, Australia. It is located within the boundaries of the Tasman National Park. It’s around a 30-km boat ride from the coast line to the bluff, and the surfing community describe it as one of the wildest surf rides in the world.

It is also known as one of the most dangerous due to the surf and the abundance of great white sharks in the area.

The waves here are unique and extra challenging for big-wave enthusiasts as the multi-tiered inner formations resemble steps with different levels to master.

The Dungeons – Hout Bay, South Africa

Surfer wiping out at Dungeons

Popular among travelers and locals alike, the Dungeons, South Africa, at the base of Sentinel Mountain, Western Cape, has enjoyed global fame for years.

Big-wave pros consider the Dungeons as a must-surf location, and while their gigantic swells don’t come along often, they are worth waiting for.

Many surfers spend months studying the shore line just waiting for the perfect waves to roll in. They are most often found during the South African winter, but are unpredictable and sometimes appear in the middle of August.

The Dungeons was first ridden in 1984 and the advancements in surfboard technology have made it possible for more people to take on the mythical waves.

Wave swells of over 14 meters have been reported due to the combination of wind conditions and the reef layout. It is also a location known for sharks, so surfers have that extra danger to contend with, in addition to the waves.

Ghost Tree – Pebble Beach, California

Ghost Tree, Pebble Beach, California has an ominous history for those in the surfing community. Back in 2007, big-wave surfer, Peter Davi, met his end trying to surf the swells at Ghost Tree, which were said to be 50 feet.

Because of Ghost Tree’s close proximity to the rocks and cliff, it is a very dangerous place to surf. If you wipe out, you are wiping out on the sharp hard rocks.

Those who have been successful surfing at Ghost Tree say it is worth the risk but caution others that they need to be surfing at the pro level to even consider attempting the surf at Ghost Tree.

Waimea Bay – North Shore of O-ahu, Hawaii

Waimea Bay is found on the North Shore of O-ahu, at the mouth of the Waimea River, in the Hawaiian Islands. In Hawaiian, ‘Waimea’ means ‘reddish water’.

In winter time, Waimea hosts popular surfing contest because of the large waves generated from winter storms in the North Pacific. In the summer, Waimea is known for calm waters.

Surfers weren’t known to tackle the big waves until 1957, and as the waves only break a few times a year, this surfing location is coveted like few others.

The advent of tow-in surfing also increased its popularity as its accessibility increased.

Wave heights of 30-to-40 feet have characterized the surf at Waimea bay, and its interesting history and surf competitions have made it hold a special place in the global big-wave surfing community.

About the Author

Rick Coleman
Rick Coleman
Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona Rick Coleman is a Lifeofadventure.com featured contributor who has written for a wide range of international travel publications. He loves the outdoors and has covered thousands of miles in the pursuit of his next adventure.
Rick Coleman
Rick Coleman
Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona Rick Coleman is a Lifeofadventure.com featured contributor who has written for a wide range of international travel publications. He loves the outdoors and has covered thousands of miles in the pursuit of his next adventure.
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