Why Are Nazare Waves So Big? - Green Iguana Surf Camp

Why Are Nazare Waves So Big?

Nazare is a Portuguese town in Central Portugal, in the District of Leiria. Its iconic cliff-top area, named Promontorio do Sitio, used to be where the Portuguese army would protect the people from Nazare from pirate attacks in the 16th century. 

Now, this clifftop has become a staple lookout point, for the brave surfers that take on Nazare’s mountainous 100-foot waves.

This town is known for these powerful and monstrous waves, and they have become somewhat of a spectacle, attracting 170,000 visitors a year. While no lives have been taken at this location yet, there have been many close calls.  

Nazare is a location for what is known as big-wave surfing. This is a version of the normal sport of surfing, but instead of surfers paddling out to their waves, these waves occur miles and miles away from the shore, so surfers are transported to these waves via boat, jet ski, and sometimes helicopters. 

As exhilarating as it is for a surfer to catch a wave and ride it successfully, this sport is extremely dangerous and should only be attempted by professional and experienced surfers.

What Exactly Is A Wave, And What Causes Them?

We’ve all seen waves, we’ve played in them as children, and some of us may have surfed them. But what causes these big ripples in the ocean?  

There are many kinds of waves, and most are simply caused by wind. Wind gives energy to the ocean and when it blows against the surface of the sea, it causes little ripples. These ripples will roll over one another in circles, creating the crest form of waves. 

The size and kind of waves that form, will depend on a few factors – wind time, the speed of the wind, and the distance of the wind. If the wind is moving against the ocean for a longer period of time, then larger waves will occur. 

If the wind has a faster speed, then larger waves will occur. The amount of distance that the wind has traveled against the wave will also increase the size. 

Storm surges are also likely to cause big waves. Severe weather will create big areas of low pressure, resulting in strong winds. When this happens over deep water, large, severe, and dangerous waves will form. 

Tsunamis are also a dangerous type of wave that needs to be mentioned. These are caused by disturbances under the sea, such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. These waves are massive and can travel across the ocean at speeds of 400 mph, destructing everything in their path. 

Why Are The Waves At Nazare So Big? 

While the wind is what causes waves to form, the reason the waves are so large in Nazare is because of the underwater canyon that lies beneath the sea.

This is also known as a submarine canyon. This is a steep-sided underwater valley that is cut into the ocean floor. Imagine the Grand Canyon, but underwater. 

It is the largest submarine canyon in Europe, measuring 140 miles in length, and it reaches depths of around 16,000 feet. 

The north of the beach of Nazare has quite a smooth ocean floor, but the southern side is where this submarine canyon is located. As waves approach the shore, they split into two parts, with one traveling to the smooth area, and the other getting sucked down into the canyon. 

While waves would normally slow down as they reach the shore, and the water gets shallower,  these waves are amplified because of this canyon, increasing their power, speed, and size. 

To add to this phenomenon, once the waves pass the canyon, they can rejoin the waves they originally split from, the ones heading towards the smooth ocean floor. This creates a combination of two waves in one. 

Adding to this, these huge waves are constantly sending huge amounts of water to the shore, and this water will sometimes be sucked back into the ocean at the same time as these waves are forming, adding several feet of height to the wave. 

From A Ghost Town Fishing Village, To One Of The Hottest Surf Spots In The World

While Nazare is a hot spot for big-wave surfing, this wasn’t always the case. Locals have always known their waves were huge, and they would watch these monsters curl and crash against the ocean from the iconic lighthouse on the clifftop.

Surfers would always surf at Nazare, but they knew when to exit before things got dangerous. In 2004, some big wave surfers tried to attempt the waves at Nazare, but they left after an hour and a half.

This was before Nazare had the funding to purchase the jet skis needed to reach waves of this size. They also thought the risk of being wiped out was too great with waves of this magnitude. 

Nazare was always popular during the summer, but once winter came it became a ghost town. The local government saw an opportunity to attract visitors to this town, by making the most of their treacherous waves. 

In 2010, once funding was granted, Garrett McNamara arrived in Portugal and showed how with the right equipment, these waves could be surfed. A year later he broke the record for the biggest wave ever surfed, at 78 feet, and was featured in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Since then, the popularity of this location has just grown and grown. 

Due to the unpredictability and dangerous nature of these waves, Nazare has incorporated one of the best safety regimes in the whole world.

This includes having a jet ski driver who takes the surfer to the wave, a spotter with a radio who will keep eyes on the surfer and will inform the jet ski driver of their location, and a second rescuer who is also on a jet ski. On big days, there will be a third rescuer. 

As the surfing season at this location runs from October to March, sometimes the winters are busier than the summer.

This little fishing village has really made a name for itself, in the surfing world, and it hopes to create a project that will help students pursue careers in this field, such as photography, diving, big wave surfing itself, being a driver, and a spotter. 

The popularity of this location has also made it a safer option, due to the measures that have been put in place. The local government also hopes that as Nazare grows in popularity, the safety measures will be strengthened. 

Final Thoughts

It’s safe to say that Nazare has become one of the most popular locations for big wave surfing. It attracts professionals from all over the world, who want to prove themselves in the big wave surfing industry.

Its submarine canyon is truly the reason why the waves are so large, and despite the dangers, there are many safety precautions that are in place when it comes to surfing there.

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