Rapture of the Deep

2000 Estate of Dr. Don James

Rick Grigg is in love with the ocean. This is no crush; it's a heart-pounding, unwavering obsession that is unmistakably the Real Thing. The sea has done more than mold his dual career as an oceanographer and professional surfer. It has been, as Grigg wrote in his 1998 autobiography, "a consummate teacher. It shaped my body and mind, my personality, my philosophy. . . . To me, the ocean represents truth."

As a professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Grigg, '58, fishes knowledge from the sea. The results of his studies have extended the lives of precious coral beds and tested the limits of human endurance at the ocean floor. Grigg's most dramatic finding is that the Hawaiian Islands are slowly "drowning"--verifying Charles Darwin's 1837 theory that islands sink as they age. Where corals have died, islands have become submerged, according to the theory. Grigg pinpointed a spot, now christened the Darwin Point, where the ocean becomes too deep for coral reefs to maintain themselves at sea level. Like a conveyor belt, the movement of the Earth's tectonic plates is steadily carrying the Hawaiian chain toward that spot. (Waikiki hotel owners needn't worry, however, since the submersion is estimated to take another 24 million years.)

With the discovery of the Darwin Point, "we understand much better the natural forces that regulate the growth of coral reefs," says Grigg. "From this basic knowledge, the effects on coral reefs of pollution and other human activities can be better evaluated."

Most recently, he has been scrutinizing deep-sea corals collected on dives, looking for fluctuations in their growth rates. Grigg and his team "read" the ancient skeletons, some of which lived for as long as 1,000 years, for signs of long-ago changes in water temperature, rainfall and volcanic activity--clues that would spell out a history of the Hawaiian climate.

While many oceanographers study all seven seas, Grigg favors depth over breadth. "I kind of stay home and focus on Hawaiian problems," he says. "For me, that's plenty. I try not to spread myself too thin.

"Except," he adds, "to go surfing."

An early pioneer of big-wave surfing, Grigg has been catching waves since the 1940s, when he rode his paddleboard in front of the family home in Santa Monica, Calif. His competitive ambitions were sidelined during his senior year in high school when his mother issued an ultimatum: go to college or lose the board. At Stanford, Grigg flirted with premed (and took off for Santa Cruz with his board most weekends) before concluding that "the tides were a stronger pull than medical school rotations." He switched to biological sciences and later specialized in coral ecology, earning a master's from the University of Hawaii and a doctorate from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif.

Before grad school, however, he took a break from academics, charging out of Stanford and into the waters of Oahu's North Shore. There, a group of Californians was experimenting with surf bigger and faster than any ridden before. Grigg became a legend among them, competing successfully for almost a decade. In 1964, when Grigg was 27, Surfing Magazine ranked him second in the world; in 1967, he was rated No. 1. Buddies remember his light hearted style. "A lot of us had a barroom-brawl attitude about catching the biggest wave," says Greg Noll, a fellow North Shore pioneer. "With Ricky, it was more of a playful thing."

His surfing career peaked when he won the 1967 Duke Kahanamoku Invitational at Oahu's Sunset Beach. Grigg still speaks ecstatically of receiving the trophy from "the Duke," a native Hawaiian revered as the father of modern surfing. "He said, 'Ricky, you really understand the ocean,' " Grigg recalls. "At that moment, I felt my strategy of life--of surfing, of oceanography--all come together."

Straddling the worlds of surfing and science hasn't been easy, he says. At times, his prominence in one arena caused colleagues in the other to write him off as an outsider. While Grigg politely fields the issue with the simple observation that "surfers are more tolerant," it's not hard to imagine academics balking at the notion of the guy who starred in the '67 summer flick Surfari becoming a distinguished scientist. Grigg, however, is the real deal--in part because he approaches his passion from multiple perspectives. "He's one of the few people out there who know something about almost every aspect of the ocean and have done a great job of pulling it all together," says Robert Dunbar, a Stanford professor of geological and environmental sciences who works with Grigg on studies of deep-water corals. "The reason I love going to the sea with him is that he's just so excited all the time."

The excitement isn't waning. At 63, Grigg still paddles out whenever good surf coincides with a break in his academic schedule. The view from his clifftop home on Oahu, where he lives with his wife, Maria, and her teenage son, Mark, stretches 75 miles to the islands of Lanai, Maui and Molokai. His rapture is apparent when he describes that view: "You know how, when you look at the ocean, you drift off into a dreamy state of mind where you lose track of yourself? That's how I feel when I look out my window."

Sounds like true love.

Corinne Purtill, '02, is an English/creative writing major from Huntington Beach, Calif., and a former Stanford intern.