We’re all drawn to the beach. Upon sight of the waves, any stress and anxiety gently flows from our bodies. Most of us have spent time at the beach, mesmerised by the incoming waves either soothingly sloshing or hurtling onshore. Waves can be evocative, touching our innermost core. Yet, we remain in awe of the science behind them, deftly drawing in the powerful forces of the wind, sun and the moon. Bewitching, waves beckon us to gaze more deeply into their internal elements.
Before prodding and pulling at the meanings we glean from the waves that distinguish our shorelines, we can take a moment to better understand, what exactly is a wave.
Types of Waves
When we stand on the beach watching the waves come onshore, what we’re actually watching is not the movement of waves, but something far more simple: energy. That’s all it is. The movement of energy passing through the water. There is no forward movement of water.
There are several types of waves: wind-driven, tidal, and those tied to more severe weather. Waves formed through their dances with the wind are reliant on speed, duration and the area over which it’s blowing, also known as the fetch. As the wind blows, it transfers energy, through friction, to the water. This only occurs at the surface.
In comparison, a tidal wave is entirely bound to the gravitational pull of the Moon and Sun. Through its gravitational pull, while the moon moves, it causes the oceans on either side of the earth to bulge out (see image below). It’s pulling on the water on both sides of the earth, as well, the earth itself is being pulled. On the opposite side, through the centrifugal force resulting from the Moon and Earth orbiting around one another, the water pulls out. There are great speeds involved. Realise the speed at which the moon orbits the earth is 3,683 km/h.
Image of the oceans bulging out on either side of the earth, due to the moon’s gravitational pull.
So, as the earth rotates, tides move in and out. The water isn’t actually moving. We are. It’s the earth that moves through the higher or lower water. We’re just moving in and out of the bulges and the valleys as the planet rotates underneath the water. The sun also has a roll to play in terms of either enhancing or limiting the pull of the moon. A neap tide occurs when the force of the sun and moon cancel out one another and so, they’re on either side of the earth. This is when the moon is at first or third quarter.
A significant amount of energy is thrust into the water when tectonic plates below the ocean shift, yielding an earthquake. This may result in a tsunami which in Japanese, translates as “harbour wave.” The energy radiates outward in a circular field. Tsunamis also generate stronger waves because the energy is transmitted throughout the depth of the water from the surface undergoing seismic shifting.1 Since it’s being driven by a significant amount of energy, when it slows as a result of the shallow water near shores, the waves will bunch up. The result is a significant wave as one wave runs into the other. They’ve been known to reach heights in excess of 66 ft (20 m). Naturally, the result is too often utter devastation for seaside communities (see the story of Lituya Bay below).
The energy is moving in an orbital motion, in both an horizontal and vertical direction. As they begin to feel the bottom, the waves decrease in speed. The top of the wave then overruns it and lurching forward, begin to break.
How a wave breaks varies. There are generally three ways this tends to happen and it’s tied to the seafloor’s surface. With spilling waves, the seafloor gradually gets shallower and the top gently overruns the wave ahead of it. If it’s a plunging wave, the seafloor is more suddenly getting shallower. This results in a more sudden overrun. Finally, the surging wave, it’ll break and then surge onshore rapidly. This will happen when the beach is more steep, essentially a more sudden overrun.
Image of a breaking wave known as a plunging wave, sometimes referred to as a “tube” or a “barrel.”
Wave refraction simply refers to why waves invariably crash parallel to the shore. When a wave is approaching the shore at an angle, the part of the wave that reaches shallow water first will begin to slow down. However, the segment still in deeper water is still continuing at its original speed. As a result, it will begin to curve and eventually parallel the shore as it breaks.
Rolling With the Waves
Dangers of Waves
Fish harvesters for centuries have intimately known both the breathtaking beauty of waves, as well as their harsher and more merciless temperaments. For much of the time, the conditions with which most fish harvesters need to contend is relatively tame seas. The winds are calm, generating little more than a ripple.
The problems arise when those seas anger and waves accordingly grow much larger. Often, these waves are generated by the gale force winds accompanying the storms. On the 4th February, 2013, the highest recorded wave recorded by a buoy occurred.
Although this pales in comparison to the highest wave recorded on the Pacific ocean. Waves generated by tsunamis carry vastly greater energy and are henceforth, considerably larger. On the 9th July, 1958, a significant earthquake (7.8 pn the Richter scale) occurred on the Fairweather Fault in the heart of the Gilbert Inlet. This inlet lies in southeast Alaska.
The result was wave of significant size — between 100 and 300 ft (30 m to 90 m). Although, because tsunamis behave as they do, bunching up when they reach shallower water, the wave was gargantuan after travelling the length of Lituya Bay. When it struck the shore, its peak height was at 1,720 feet (524 metres). The result was utter and complete devastation.
Meditative and Mesmerising
As capable waves are to eradicate anything in their path, they are equally able to kindle feelings of peace and sanguinity. Anyone who’s spent a day at the beach watching the surf for even just a few minutes will attest to its meditative quality.
Part of the allure of the waves are the sounds they make. They envelope us. The sounds overwhelm our senses and it’s impossible to decipher any particular tone. They create a broadband sound yielding a multiplicity of frequencies. Some say it’s simply a more natural version of white noise.
The sound of waves are also reminiscent of how we began. In our mother’s womb, we were bathed in a safe and comforting pool of amniotic fluid. The waves touch on our fundmental tie to water. After all, up to 60% of the human adult body is composed of water. So, the fact we are so moved by the waves surging onto the shore is no surprise. In a way, the waves and their repetitive movement is like a journey home.
The waves rushing onshore or lapping placidly at the shore’s edge are a means by which our brains can reduce its input. Peace. Time to relax. And much like in meditation, waves act much like our breathing or some other image or sound, a mantra perhaps. It centres our attention. So, watching the waves is a means by which we can clear our minds of the clutter it usually accumulates. Simply watching the waves will sooth our souls.
Let’s Go Surfing
There is no other pastime bound to the waves on the ocean as surfing. Those who dedicate their time to surfing will no doubt advocate for its inherent therapeutic qualities. Surfing demands our focus. And much like the waves themselves, the process offers an opportunity to de-clutter our minds.
In surfing, one goes into a “flow state.” Other sports will refer to being ‘in the zone,’ which simply means one is totally focussed. As a consequence, there is no space left for feelings of depression, anxiety, being disheartened, or self-doubt.
Surfing therapy intentionally incorporates various therapeutic methods such as group discussions and participants expressing their feelings. For individuals dealing with mental health concerns, surf therapy also critically creates a safe place. These are places where people can feel at ease to discuss issues central to their well-being.
The focus is to improve both their mental and physical health. Surfing functions as a metaphor to help individuals deal with their personal challenges. It builds confidence in surfing that can readily translated into how we deal with the world.
Taking It All In
We are both richly engaged and energised by waves. Peacefully, we may be watching the waves quietly lapping on the shore, breaking and spilling an array of foam at its edge. At other times, we are awed by a spectacle of heavy seas releasing vast sprays of water they crash into the shore.
Whether we harness this energy, surfing the waves or by simply gazing at their beauty and odd peculiarities, we derive a sense of peace and calm. Waves give us a mere hint of the immense power of the sun, moon, and the rigorous shifting deep within our earth. And being at the shore to witness this vitality, we realise how we are also a part of this energy.
1This in comparison to wind-driven waves where the energy transfer is restricted to the surface.