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The ocean has long captivated people across the globe, from its soothing sights and sounds, to its daring waves and depths filled with fascinating creatures. For native Hawaiians, the ocean holds an almost spiritual significance, tied closely to their culture, lifestyle and identity.

Small wonder then that this island paradise would give birth to one of the world’s most beloved water sports – surfing.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Surfing originated in the Hawaiian islands among Polynesian settlers many centuries ago.

In this article, we’ll dive into the rich history of surfing in Hawaii – from its origins in ancient Polynesian culture as the sport of kings and queens, to surfing’s demise and near extinction under European colonization, leading up to its exciting revival and rise to international fame as an iconic Hawaiian export.

We’ll also highlight famous Hawaiian surf spots, get to know legendary surfers from the islands, understand the spiritual connection native Hawaiians have always had with surfing, and more.

Surfing’s Sacred Roots & Place in Ancient Hawaiian Culture

Surfing as a Spiritual Hawaiian Practice

Surfing played an integral spiritual and cultural role in ancient Hawaiian society. According to Hawaiian legends, surfing originated from the god Lono’s practice of riding waves. Chiefs and commoners alike used surfing as a way to strengthen their mana, or spiritual power.

Special wooden surfboards called olo were crafted as offerings to the gods who watched over surf spots. Prayers and rituals were performed before entering the ocean to surf.

The harmonious movements of expert surfers were thought to reflect an individual’s personal alignment with nature and the underworld realm below the ocean surface. Surfers strived to develop their skill through years of dedicated practice in order to reach an enlightened state of being while riding the waves.

Surfing served as a moving meditation that connected Hawaii’s early inhabitants to their environment and the divine forces that governed it.

Surfing with Hawaiian Royalty and Ali’i

Surfing was a favorite pastime of Hawaiian royalty and ali’i (chiefs) for centuries. Respected teacher and Hawaiian historian Herb Kane notes, “Surfing was the sport of kings and queens, part of the very fabric of Hawaiian nobility.”

Ali’i often led commoners in surfing expeditions to distant surf breaks normally reserved for the upper class. Some kings were renowned throughout the islands for their surfing prowess.

According to the book Legends and Myths of Hawaii, 16th century King Umi was said to expertly ride waves over 20 feet tall. Umi passed on his love for the sport to the next generations of Hawaiian nobility.

Surfing remained an integral practice connecting Hawaii’s ruling elite to the ocean and islands they presided over into the early 19th century.

Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards and Techniques

The construction and use of surfboards in ancient Hawaii evolved over centuries of innovation by master watermen. Hawaii’s first surfboards from around 1,500 A.D. were simply wooden planks shaped with adzes and olo scrapers.

Surfers rode these 10 to 12 foot olo either prone or kneeling according to some historical accounts.

Shorter alaia boards emerged around 1700 A.D. Alaia allowed a radical new stand-up style of surfing for early Hawaiian wave riders. Surfing techniques grew increasingly advanced with many surfers incorporating hang heels and radical turns on the alaia by the 19th century.

According to the to-hawaii Hawaiian cultural website, the sandboarding Papa Nui o Hōkūle‘a is the largest surfboard recorded in ancient Hawaii, spanning over 24 feet long and weighing nearly 2,000 pounds!

Truly an incredible feat of aquatic transportation and innovation by Hawaii’s early wave riding pioneers.

Surfing Banned and Pushed to Near Extinction

Arrival of Christian Missionaries

When Christian missionaries first arrived in Hawaii in the early 19th century, they were appalled by the native culture and practices like surfing. Surfing was seen as frivolous and the revealing clothing worn by surfers was deemed indecent.

The missionaries imposed their moral values and completely banned surfing by the 1820s.

Surfing Taboos Imposed by Colonists

Later, when Hawaii became colonized by western powers, surfing continued to be suppressed. The colonists and plantation owners wanted the native Hawaiians to work more and surf less. They imposed taboos by restricting access to beaches and surf breaks.

Fines were issued for entering the ocean to surf and boards were destroyed. As a result, surfing almost died out by the early 20th century.

Revival Efforts to Save Surfing

In the early 1900s, some native Hawaiians like Duke Kahanamoku worked tirelessly to revive their ancestral sport of surfing locally and also promote it internationally through surfing exhibitions. Thanks to these efforts, surfing slowly regained popularity.

By the 1960s, surfing had transformed into an iconic Hawaiian cultural symbol as well as an international professional sport.

According to the World Surf League, the global surf industry is now valued at over $10 billion annually. Hawaii continues to be at the epicenter as the birthplace of surfing. The sport has not just survived extinction but remarkably manages to ride the waves into the 21st century!

The Exciting Modern Revival of Surfing

Duke Kahanamoku and the Spread of Surfing

The sport of surfing originated in Hawaii centuries ago, but it was Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku who introduced it to the rest of the world in the early 1900s. During his travels for swimming competitions and exhibitions, Duke brought his surfboard and demonstrated the ancient Hawaiian art wherever he could find waves.

His charismatic performances sparked global interest in surfing that endures today.

But it was back home in Hawaii that the worldwide surf craze took hold, thanks again to Duke and his local devotees who held events and competitions. By the 1950s and 60s, surfing had exploded into a full-blown culture centered in the islands.

Towns like Haleiwa became gathering points for wave riders who formed clubs and shaped their own boards.

Big Wave Riding at Legendary Hawaiian Spots

With this new generation of Hawaiian surfers came an emphasis on skill and daring, taking the sport to extremes at renowned big wave locations. Spots like Pipeline, Waimea Bay, and Sunset Beach on Oahu’s North Shore host international competitions annually.

Top surfers tackle towering waves up to 30 feet high in front of thousands of spectators.

Riding giants demands peak athletic prowess. But the quest for the ultimate ride also carries great risk, as shown in the surf documentary Riding Giants. Still, many view the challenge as an almost spiritual experience and rite of passage rooted in Hawaii’s cultural identity.

Iconic Hawaiian Surfers Through the Years

The growth of professional surfing accelerated with Hawaiian greats like Eddie Aikau, a legendary Waimea Bay lifeguard, and Fred Hemmings, a surf entrepreneur who co-founded the IPS surf tour. Others like Buttons Kaluhiokalani, Michael Ho, and Rochelle Ballard paved the way for a new breed of champions.

No list would be complete without Duke Kahanamoku, the original crossover surf star. Decades after his Olympic days, Duke was still riding waves into his 60s with an infectious joy that made him the sport’s foremost ambassador.

Thanks in large part to his influence, surfing remains a celebrated part of Hawaii’s culture with origins dating back centuries before Captain Cook arrived on the island’s pristine shores.

The Continuing Signficance of Surfing to Native Hawaiians

Cultural Identity Tied to Surfing

Surfing has been an integral part of Native Hawaiian culture for centuries. Ancient Hawaiians practiced he’e nalu, or wave sliding, on handmade wooden boards called papa he’e nalu. Surfing was more than just a sport for Native Hawaiians – it connected them spiritually with the ocean and was part of important cultural rituals and community gatherings.

Today, surfing remains a strong part of Native Hawaiian identity. Cultural practices like gathering to surf and sharing waves amicably reflect traditional values of community, respect, and harmony with nature. Many Native Hawaiians grow up surfing and pass on surf culture through generations.

Professional Hawaiian surfers like John John Florence and Carissa Moore inspire pride in their cultural heritage.

Professional Hawaiian Surfers Making Their Mark

Speaking of inspiration, Native Hawaiian surfers have made a tremendous impact professionally. John John Florence became Hawaii’s first-ever World Surf League men’s champion in 2016. Four-time women’s world champion Carissa Moore is the youngest Championship Tour winner ever.

Other standouts include Ezekiel Lau, Keanu Asing, and Malia Manuel.

Their success shines a positive light on Hawaiian culture globally. It also encourages Native Hawaiian youth to embrace their cultural roots and aquatic talents. For example, the John John Florence O’Neill School of Hawaiian Surfing provides free surf lessons to kids across Hawaii.

Efforts to Protect Surf Spots and Access

With surf tourism booming, there are concerns about overcrowding at famous Hawaiian surf breaks. Residents fear this could restrict Native Hawaiian access to ancestral surf spots. In response, organizations like Save Surfrider Beach, Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana, and Hawaii’s Thousand Waves work to preserve shoreline access and wave quality.

Additionally, a 2021 state bill established the Aloha ‘Āina O Na Kai Surfing Day. This official holiday on September 26 promotes surfing’s cultural significance. It also designates surf sites as public resources, protecting Hawaiian surfing customs for posterity.

With surfing so central to Native Hawaiian identity, such efforts to uphold surf access and culture are invaluable.


To native Hawaiians, surfing has an almost sacred spirituality intrinsically tied to their cultural identity and lifestyle ever since their Polynesian ancestors. Although surfing’s tradition was nearly wiped out after European contact, determined efforts brought this iconic water sport back from the brink.

Now famous internationally thanks to native sons like Duke Kahanamoku, surfing continues to shape Hawaii both culturally and economically. From professional athletes carrying on traditions to preserving cherished surf spots, surfing persists as a vital export that conveys the aloha spirit and brings a taste of paradise across the world.

The ocean, waves and boards may have changed over the centuries, but surfing remains Hawaii’s gift to the globe – a joyful melding of man, nature and culture unlike any other.

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