Before the pandemic, it was hard to imagine the world’s most perfect waves breaking without a cluster of surfers vying for a chance to ride them. As someone in my late 20s, stories of surfing world-class surf breaks without a crowd seemed to be reserved to wrinkled salty surfers who scored waves like Desert Point in Indonesia, Restaurants in Fiji, Mavericks in California, and just about every natural wave featured on the World Championship Tour decades ago.
In the world of surfing, waves seem to have three phases of life:
- Birth of the wave: For thousands of years, the wave breaks day after day, night after night without human contact.
- Human discovery of the wave: Surfers stumble upon the wave through analyzing maps and swells or by chance. Typically, surfers keep information about the wave to themselves and a small group of friends, and it has yet to be shared on any major surf media outlet. If photos are shared on social media, they’re often featured without a tag or mislabeled to lead others astray.
- Common knowledge of the wave: Eventually, ease of access, media, and word-of-mouth make a wave famous. Hotels, surf camps, roads, and boats make the wave easily accessible to anyone who wants to visit.
Fiji is home to many surf paradise waves that fall firmly into category number 3, with a wave called Cloudbreak being the most iconic. On any given day, there are hundreds of surfers vying for a chance to surf Cloudbreak–even in subpar conditions. While Cloudbreak is beyond my ability, I surf at nearby friendlier waves… that are also often overrun with crowds.
After the pandemic spread throughout the world, Fiji shut its international borders. To visit the islands today, you either have to arrive on a yacht or fly in and complete a government-operated 14-day quarantine. After that, you are free to explore Fiji, one of the only countries with no cases of COVID-19 in the community. Some yachts have parked their vessels near the waves, but there are only so many hours of surfing you can clock in within one day.
While the country isn’t suffering directly from COVID-19, the collapse of the tourism industry has had a major impact on household incomes. Desperate for guests, resorts have slashed prices and offer heavy perks like meal discounts to lure domestic visitors. Some prices are so low, they do little to make a profit but help hospitality employees from going hungry.
Surfers in Fiji have spent days surfing Cloudbreak alone in conditions that would often draw a major crowd. Overnight, it seems like the wave has regressed from being one of the most visited in the world to completely abandoned. When there are other surfers in the water, it’s usually local surfers waiting out the lull in between tourism gigs. Some have just arrived on personal yachts while others crew for superyachts, working for millionaires who want to ride out the pandemic in the isolated waters of the South Pacific.
Surf paradise and travel go hand in hand, and there are few movies that depict this better than The Endless Summer, which premiered in 1966 and sent scores of surfers around the world with their surfboards in tow in search of scoring perfect waves, just as the surfers did in the film. And when it comes to books, there is none more famous than Barbarian Days, a Pulitzer Prize surf memoir by William Finnegan, a surfer who camped on the Fijian island of Tavarua in the 1970s, the closest island to Cloudbreak. He and his friends surfed a break called Restaurants that peels in front of the island for years until the crowds finally followed. Now, a week-long stay on Tavarua costs about $2,500-4,000 per person.