A Raglan based surfer-scientist involved in a company facing major opposition for its plans to create a surf break by excavating 2.5 hectares of a Fijian coral reef has courted controversy before for his role in attempts at creating surfable waves – including a project in the same part of Fiji a decade ago.

At first, they seemed like a radical innovation: sand filled vessels placed on the seabed in a way that would alter the waves to generate surf breaks where there were none or where they were marginal.

These polyester and polypropylene ‘geo-containers’ were going to help create the conditions for surfing at new places around the world.

And they would do more than just attract surfers. Known as multi-purpose reefs (MPRs), they would also aid in preventing coastal erosion and foster the growth of marine species.

See also: Horror at plan to rip up Fiji reef for surfing

But the reviews didn’t live up to the hype.

“Giant dogs’ turds”, “huge disappointment”, and “stranded, dead, stinking whale” were some of the more colourful descriptions of a few of the artificial reefs. 

When the tide was out, the artificial reef on Qamea Island became exposed, and became known as the “giant dog turds”. Photo: Supplied

One of the key players behind them is Shaw Mead, a surfer-scientist based in Raglan.

In the mid-90s, Mead was doing his thesis in environmental science and marine ecology when he met Australian surfer and University of Waikato professor Dr Kerry Black.

Together they established Artificial Surf Reefs (ASR), a company that would become entangled in a number of costly, failed artificial surfing reefs across the globe.

With their combined expertise in coastal oceanography and marine ecology it seemed like a no-brainer and their big ideas were initially taken up with enthusiasm at beaches around the world.

Until they failed.

Councils and investors in the projects lost millions of dollars along the way.

Kovalam in India and Boscombe in England are now well-known failed ASR-designed reefs, as are two reefs they designed at sites in New Zealand.

A failed surf reef sits “like a stranded, dead, stinking whale” at Boscombe, England. Photo: Bournemouth Echo

Detritus washes ashore

One was in Opunake on Taranaki’s southwest coast.

The South Taranaki District Council reportedly put $1.1 million towards the project, which began construction in 2005 and involved covering an area 90m long and 20m wide using geo-containers.

ASR believed it would be finished within two months, but numerous delays meant that by 2009, and facing a budget blowout of $600,000, it was reported the project needed more money, more geo-containers and more time to ‘fine tune’ the installation.

The Mount Maunganui artificial reef under construction in 2005, regarded as a $1.5m write-off that “never delivered”. Photo: Supplied

Newsroom understands the artificial reef didn’t produce the expected waves, and the council wrote off its debt.

(The artificial reef did attract fish and sea-life, fulfilling one of the aims of a multi-purpose reef, but began to fall apart, with pieces of the reef washing ashore.)

In response to questions about the Opunake project, Mead told Newsroom: “I understand it went over budget and no more funds were available, not a rare story for construction projects.”

He also said “it was after my time at ASR” and that he “did work on the design” before he left. (Mead told online surf site Swellnet he resigned as director from ASR in 2011.)

Around the same time the Opunake project began, on the other side of the North Island another ASR-designed artificial reef was being constructed at Mount Maunganui.

Built over three years using $1.5m in public and community funding, it didn’t take long for locals in the beachside town to realise their investment was more failed experiment than surf break.

The council said at the time the reef had never functioned as intended.

“The reef’s expected positive effects have not been realised,” Eddie Grogan of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, which had hired ASR to design the artificial reef, told American magazine Surfer. “It’s also generated some unforeseen effects, including creating a large scour hole which affects waves and currents, increasing the frequency and intensity of rips which pose a serious risk to swimmers. We have to dismantle it. It’s not only not created a wave, it’s simply created a situation that’s proven to be too dangerous to beachgoers.”

Surfers said it didn’t provide the surf breaks they had been led to expect, and surf lifesaving organisations grew concerned it was creating dangerous rips for swimmers.

President of Bay Boardriders, James Jacobs, confirmed to Newsroom it didn’t deliver.

“For whatever reason, be it design or the obvious failures with construction, it certainly did not deliver what was promised. With an expectation of producing consistent quality breaking waves it was a huge disappointment.”

Material from the Mount Maunganui artificial reef was found washed up on the beach. Photo: Stuff/SunLive

A decade later the Bay of Plenty Regional Council began the process of dismantling the artificial reef.

Soon after, visitors to the beach noticed large folds of what appeared to be smelly old carpet washing ashore.

At first they thought it was detritus from Rena, the ship that foundered on the Astrolabe Reef in 2011, but before long realised they were the remnants of ASR’s bungled folly.

International failed reefs

But this knowledge arrived too late for Boscombe. The council for the seaside town in England’s Bournemouth had already commissioned their own ASR-designed surf break.

It was to be the first artificial surf reef in Europe.

In 2008, Mead told the Guardian: “A lot of towns in the UK and around the world have good swell but no natural breaks. It’s rare that mother nature creates the conditions for great surfing. But we can help create those conditions.”

A damaged geocontainer being removed from the Boscombe artificial reef in 2011. Photo: Bournemouth Echo

By the time it was completed in 2010, it was more than a year late and had cost twice the original budget, coming in at more than NZD$6m.

The BBC reported the reef had achieved only four of its 11 objectives, and the Bournemouth Borough Council said it would withhold a part of its payment until the surf break was working as intended.

International photographer Chris Skone-Roberts, who was quoted in the Taranaki Daily News at the time, didn’t mince words talking about the reef after a competition. 

“Europe’s first artificial surf reef in Bournemouth proved to be an utter disgrace today and once again made us the laughing stock of the surfing calendar. The reef just sat there like a stranded, dead, stinking whale.”

It was closed in 2011, deemed an expensive failure.

Debris believed to be from the Boscombe artificial reef washes up on Boxing Day 2017. Photo: Jane Scott/Bournemouth Echo

The situation was mirrored in Kovalam, a small coastal town in Kerala, India, where the government commissioned ASR to design an artificial reef to help slow coastal erosion.

After designing – but not constructing – the Opunake and Mt Maunganui reefs, Mead told Surfer magazine ASR realised the importance of “being involved from conception to completion”, so they decided to put together an “in-house construction arm to specialise in the construction of the multi-purpose reefs we were designing.”

Unveiled in 2010, before long Kovalam’s geo-containers were coming loose and locals reported it a washout with no discernible change to coastal erosion prevention.

The project was reported to have left the government there out of pocket to the tune of US$1.1 million with nothing to show for its investment.

Mead responds

When asked about his involvement in these four artificial reefs, Mead pointed Newsroom to his achievements, citing his “expert review of the design for surfing aspects” for the successful artificial surf reef constructed in 2019 at Palm Beach on Australia’s Gold Coast, which he says was made “on the back of the first surf reef design that I was involved in, Narrowneck on the Gold Coast”.

According to Raised Water Research, a website on human-created surf breaks, the “initial computer modelling and concept design” for the Narrowneck reef was done by Kerry Black and his University of Waikato students, before ASR was formed.

(Mead was one of Black’s students, and Mead’s CV cites a report he co-wrote for the Gold Coast City Council in 1998 on surfing aspects of Narrowneck reef.)

Narrowneck was refurbished in 2017 and 2018 after many of the original bags tore apart, and is considered to be a surfable break.

The artificial reef at Narrowneck, Gold Coast in Australia. Photo: Google/CNES/Airbus

Mead told Newsroom: “I have been involved in design aspects for coastal protection and surfing amenity for every artificial surf reef/multi-purpose reef built to date, with the exception of El Segundo in California.”

Despite his involvement in multiple artificial reefs constructed using geo-containers, he admitted most met the same fate, “except Narrowneck that has a maintenance programme”.

Others constructed using rock or limestone have been more successful, but were not ASR projects.

In an email to Newsroom, he insisted all of his designs have worked to create surfable waves.

“I trust that you are clear that … while the structures have failed (except for Cable Station (limestone), Borth (rock), Palm Beach (rock) and Narrowneck (sandbags maintained)), all have created surfing waves that have replicated the designs (numerical and physical modelling) and my role has been design/surf science.”

Mead would not speak to Newsroom directly but communicated through a series of emails.

In them, Mead pointed to problems with construction companies, materials and processes, budgets and maintenance programmes for the failures of these reefs.

In another media interview he blamed “wrangling over funds, political in-fighting and bad project management decisions” for the Boscombe failure. 

“My role is and has always been surf science, coastal oceanography and marine ecology, I am not a marine construction contractor,” Mead reiterated to Newsroom.

He then directed us to the website of his new venture, the World Wave Project, to a page titled Have artificially made surf breaks worked in the past? which says: “The majority of artificial surf reef projects have proven the concept with respect to creating new surf breaks, but their success has typically been short lived given the difficulty of building structures in the surf zone stable enough to maintain their design shape for extended periods. The majority of artificial surfing reefs were made of sand filled geotextile containers due to the perception that they are easily removed if the reef project fails, but that misconception has been disproven.”

(Indeed, Mead admitted in one email to Newsroom that “the sandbags were an evolutionary deadend, seemed to have potential to begin with…they are still useful for large volumes if the shape is not important.”)

Long time New Zealand surf photographer and editor of NZ Surfing Magazine, Cory Scott, told Newsroom he was initially excited about the prospect of new human-created reefs.

“As surf photographers we are always searching for new locations of interest and something quirky and different. So early in the turn of the millennium we were quite excited.”

His first experience was with Narrowneck reef, where he was hired to shoot some of the best surfers in the world surfing there.

“When we arrived we couldn’t find any reef, and asked a local clubby, who laughed and said ‘See that flashing light out there, that’s the reef!’ There were no waves breaking on the reef at all. Two days later we had an amazing swell and ended up doing a photo shoot about 300 metres south of the reef, and made out in the communications that it was Narrowneck reef, as directed by those paying for the shoot.”

Then came Mt Maunganui. After his Narrowneck experience, Scott said he was wary of these new artificial reefs.

“At the time I lived on the beachfront 400 m down the beach from the Mount Maunganui Reef so could see it from my kitchen window. Not once in those years did I see any quality or even average wave break.

“Sometimes as surf photographers with modern day cameras and high speeds we can make things look better than they are at 11 frames per second and 1000th of a second shutter we can make a fraction of a second look great, but I still couldn’t obtain an image to exaggerate the reef’s workability. And I am aware of a certain surf media platform that photoshopped a surfer into an empty wave shot for a story on the artificial wave’s success.”

Back in 2005, a local Mount Maunganui surfer wrote a blog post about ASR’s failed artificial reefs, and received “lengthy emails and phone calls” from ASR as a result.

In response, the blog writer interviewed eight local surfers from the Mount about the artificial reef ASR designed there – and readers are left in no doubt as to its failure.

Even modern day cameras could not enhance the appeal of the Mount Maunganui artificial reef surf break. Photo: Supplied

Cory Scott said the same fate was consistent across at Opunake, with “more excuses of construction error or being over budget”.

“It is my opinion and belief that not one artificial reef has created a wave of any quality, despite claims to the contrary that Narrowneck and the new Palm Beach reef are producing consistent quality waves. Not one top surfer I know in Australia surfs those locations.”

By 2010, Mead and Black had sold a majority shareholding in their company to California-based Sealutions. Two years later ASR was removed from the companies register.

The men went in separate directions, with Black opening an Indonesian surf resort called Heaven on the Planet in Lombok.

Mead, meanwhile, set up a marine research consultancy company, eCoast, and in March this year became one of the major shareholders in the World Wave Project (WWP), the NZ-registered company behind the proposed artificial surf break developments at two sites off Qamea island in Fiji.

Representatives from WWP said Mead is providing “surf science advice” for the project.

When asked about why so many of Mead’s now defunct ASR-company designed multi purpose reefs are considered to have failed, WWP told Newsroom those reefs had very little to do with the Qamea Wave Project “other than proving that the breaks designed can be implemented at full scale”.

“However, the structural failure of each of these sites is related to the use of geotextile containers, incomplete construction and/or a lack of maintenance. From a performance perspective, these MPRs broke waves in a manner conducive to surfing. In terms of ecological enhancement, each one performed as expected – which is to enhance local ecology.”

Déjà vu for the island

The WWP project is not the first time Mead has been involved in an attempt to construct an artificial reef in Qamea, a small northern Fijian island.

In 2007, Qamea’s Maqai Eco Resort was established by Kiwis, Dunedin-based Richard Hatherly and his son Henry, who leased the land and then built the resort.

Maqai resort in the early days. Photo: Supplied 

There are a lack of waves for learner riders in the South Pacific, and Hatherly had always dreamed of creating a surf break for learners.

He was going to achieve this by using who he thought was a “wonderful young scientist” – Shaw Mead.

By 2009 Mead had bought a quarter shareholding in the resort and they set about creating the artificial break, which was constructed in 2012.

A pump was used to extract 105 cubic metres of sand from the small beach in front of the resort to fill the geo-container bags that sat on the sea floor.

In claim and counterclaim, Hatherly believed combining surf and science was going to create learner waves and tourism in the area.

Mead, on the other hand, told Newsroom the primary purpose of the artificial reef was to provide easier boat access to the resort and to protect the reef flat, and provided papers he had written himself, as well as an Environment Impact Assessment, to back this up.

 A brochure explaining the development of the first Maqai artificial reef project, including photographs of local villagers’ involvement during stage 1 of construction (below)

But Hatherly disputes this, saying boat access and reef protection were only used in order to sell the idea, the main purpose was a “learner surfer artificial break”.

“Boat access was never the primary object, and was never anything but a significant side benefit.”

Whatever the intended purpose, the reef failed and Hatherly said he learned the hard way that the “big scientific talk” didn’t translate into a functioning surf break.

Hatherly described the resulting sausage-looking geo-containers as “giant dogs’ turds which never worked”.

He said it failed because of an incorrect assessment of the composition of the seafloor, with the result that it was impossible to create the proposed channel to sit alongside the geo-containers that were an integral part of the surf reef design.

(The wave energy had to travel down a channel in order to create the wave. Without it, it failed.) 

He said he had come to understand that without the channel, the artificial break was doomed.

A drawing from an Environmental Impact Assessment prepared by Shaw Mead for the Maqai Eco Resort, with the proposed channel to the right of the geocontainers.

“And at low tide it was horrible. You know, this pristine environment and here’s this ghastly looking thing that grew slippery green slime all over it and just looked horrible,” said Hatherly.

Mead told Newsroom the geo-containers still worked to create a breakwater for learner surfers during high tide, and sent a video of his son surfing a very small messy wave.

(All other surfers and locals Newsroom spoke to said it was barely ever surfable, and only worked when the natural break was breaking, in which case you “wouldn’t surf the turd”.)

Then the geo-containers began to come apart.

Hatherly told Newsroom the artificial reef was an unmitigated failure and had started to come apart not long after installation. 

Mead said Cyclone Winston in February 2016 caused the artificial reef to “blow apart”. 

When asked about it splitting years before that, Mead said: “The offshore ends of the two larger containers required maintenance from almost day one since they were constantly in the surf zone through the full range of the tide.”

When pressed on who was responsible for that maintenance, he replied: “It was not a maintenance issue, it was a durability issue with the containers (sound familiar?). I mostly did the maintenance myself, it was pretty simple, fold up the end of the container and put some big stitches in to hold it in place.

“It was expected that the geo-fabric containers would not last indefinitely,” Mead told Newsroom.

Not surprisingly, representatives from World Wave Project, the company Mead has a large shareholding in, reiterated Mead’s statements when Newsroom questioned them about his involvement in the Maqai artificial surf reef.

“The breakwater at Maqai was primarily developed to protect the coral reef directly in front of the resort by concentrating foot and boat traffic. The original concept of a multipurpose reef is to provide more than one benefit when undertaken such activities in the marine environment. The breakwater at Maqai was designed so that it would break waves in a manner suitable for learner surfers, which it did.”

The ownership of the resort is yet another story with more claims and counterclaims which involved a court hearing in 2014 over debt, which Hatherly lost, and disputes over the sale of the Hatherly shareholdings, which never eventuated.

Mead and his wife Angela are now listed as the resort’s directors through a holding company and together they hold the largest portion of the company’s shares.

Wind wrong for a surf break

Australian Brian Cregan says the winds are all wrong for a “world class” surf break in the WWP’s planned sites. Photo: Brian Cregan

Unlike the string of artificial reef ventures, which concentrated on areas with sandy seabeds, WWP plans to take up to six months excavating existing coral reefs to create their intended world class surf breaks – approximately 2.5 hectares (just under four rugby fields) of what they describe as areas of “mostly dead, inert material”.

This has raised the ire of both locals and concerned surfers, scientists and some business heavy hitters, including the founder of one of the world’s biggest surf brands.

Australian Brian Cregan co-founded Ocean & Earth in the late 1970s, a company described as a ‘core’ clothing and surf accessories brand for surfers.

He’s been travelling to Fiji since the early eighties when he visited on a surf trip. He loved it so much he bought a plot of land on Qamea in 1998 – the same island the World Wave Project is planning to transform into a so-called ‘world class’ surfing destination using excavators to change the depth, contours and angle of the reef.

Cloudbreak on Fiji’s Tavarua Island is one of the most famous surf breaks in the world and is located a long way and with different wind patterns from the WWP’s proposed sites. Photo: Supplied

Fiji is well-known as a premium surf destination – any surfer in the world knows about Cloudbreak, an internationally renowned wave that breaks near Tavarua, a 29-acre heart-shaped island in the Mamanucas about 30 kilometres from Nadi.

Kelly Slater, 11 times world champion, calls it the best wave on earth. It’s one of the most iconic breaks in the world and has been one of the stops in the World Surf League competitive surfing tour where the top surfers compete (like the PGA Tour of surfing). 

But Cregan said Qamea, which is 344 kilometres as the crow flies from Tavarua, will never be a world class wave as is being claimed because no matter what is tried, the winds are wrong.

Surfers are always looking for offshore winds, where the wind blows from the land towards the sea, as that creates the best conditions for surfing.

At Qamea Island, the trade wind blows from the sea to the land (onshore wind) 70 percent of the time. That creates unfavourable conditions and messy waves not conducive to good surfing.

“Most of the time the trade wind blows onshore from between the south and east (SE quadrant) and these conditions are totally unsuitable for surfing on the south coast of Qamea Island. At best an easterly wind may be cross shore but with a wind swell lump is still not desirable for surfing if an artificial reef was constructed. Qamea Island reefs do not face the more west direction like Tavarua and Cloudbreak,” said Cregan.

He usually visits for the fishing and diving, and on the odd occasion where it’s good surfing he takes advantage of the conditions.

“It’s just such a beautiful location. That’s what brings people there, that’s what brought me there 20 odd years ago. And I talked to different surfers out in the water. They just can’t believe how clear the water is, the beautiful coral reef, there’s diving when there’s no surf or there’s fishing.”

Cregan said he didn’t see another surfer on the island for about 10 years after he bought the land and was floored when he learned of WWP’s plans to dig channels through some of the reef to try to create a wave when two thirds of the time the area is un-surfable.

“I was speechless when I heard about it. I just walked around in circles for about half an hour just fuming. Why would you ever consider doing something like that?

“Seventy percent of the time you can’t surf cause it’s dead on shore everywhere. This is the crazy thing. It’s basically on shore for seven or eight months of the year and then when it is off shore there’s hardly any swell. And then you’re going to go and destroy pristine coral reefs in front of your resort. I just don’t get it.”

In non-surfer terms, the conditions for surfing suck, and digging up the seabed isn’t going to change that, according to Cregan.

But representatives from WWP dispute this, and in response to questions from Newsroom said these conditions are exactly why they’re doing it.

“Surf breaks that are usable in the trade winds are rare in Fiji. Modifying the seabed can change a wave’s characteristics so that it has a more favourable orientation to trade winds; and the swell and wind conditions have been accounted for in the designs. The proposed creation of these surf breaks would make surfing far more consistent in this region, opening up more tourism opportunities.”

Cregan is worried what the project will bring if it goes ahead. 

“You see turtles, you see everything and it sounds corny, but it is paradise. This shouldn’t happen in this day and age. And I think it’s disrespectful to the Fijian people, what [they] want to do.”

Construction is currently planned to begin in November next year, should WWP secure consent from the Traditional Fishing Rights owners and permission from the Department of Environment, which is currently carrying out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

*Made with the support of NZ on Air*

Melanie Reid is Newsroom's lead investigations editor.

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